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Staff v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 27, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration


          Jerry H. Ritter U.S. Magistrate Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Joshua Conrad Staff's Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency for Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum, [Doc. 21], filed February 28, 2018. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73(b), the parties have consented to the undersigned to conduct dispositive proceedings in this matter, including the entry of final judgment. [Docs. 5, 8, 12]. Having studied the parties' positions, the relevant law, and the relevant portions of the Administrative Record (“AR”), the Court grants Mr. Staff's Motion for the reasons set forth below.


         This Court's institutional role is to ensure that the Commissioner's decision to deny Social Security benefits is supported by the law and substantial evidence. In this case, the Commissioner failed to meet both standards when she discounted the medical opinion of consultative examiner Roger Felix, M.D., because she elevated non-examining source opinions over his and gave illegitimate reasons for rejecting his functional limitations. As such, the Court has no choice but to remand Mr. Staff's case for additional proceedings.


         Mr. Staff filed an application with the Social Security Administration for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act on September 20, 2013. AR at 185-190. He alleged a disability onset date of August 6, 2013 due to “PTSD, Degenerative Disc Disease, Carpal Tunnel, High Blood Pressure, Anxiety, Insomnia, Acid Reflux [and] lypomas.” AR at 185, 211. The Administration denied Mr. Staff's claim initially and upon reconsideration, and he requested a de novo hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). AR at 85-112.

         ALJ Lillian Richter held an evidentiary hearing on February 4, 2016. AR at 33-84. On August 10, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Mr. Staff has not been under a disability from his alleged onset date through the date of her decision. AR at 8-32. In response, Mr. Staff filed a “Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order” on September 16, 2016. AR at 174-177. After reviewing his case, the Appeals Council denied Mr. Staff's request for review on June 7, 2017. AR at 1-5. As such, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003). This Court now has jurisdiction to review the decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a).

         A claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that he is unable to engage in “any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).[1]

         At Step One of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Staff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. AR at 13. At Step Two, she determined that Mr. Staff has the severe impairments of “large right knee joint effusion and bipartite patella; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; carpal tunnel syndrome post surgery right hand; posttraumatic stress disorder; and depressive disorder[.]” AR at 13. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Staff's impairments, individually and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the regulatory “listings.” AR at 14-16. Mr. Staff does not challenge these findings on appeal.

         When a claimant does not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine his residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). “RFC is not the least an individual can do despite his or her limitations or restrictions, but the most.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1.

         In this case, the ALJ determined that Mr. Staff retains the RFC to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except: he can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. He can stand and/or walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday, with normal breaks. He can sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday, with normal breaks. He is unlimited with respect to pushing and/or pulling, other than as indicated for lifting and/or carrying. He can frequently stoop and climb ramps and stairs. He can occasionally kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ladders ropes and scaffolds. He can frequently handle and finger with the right nondominant upper extremity. He is limited to performing simple routine work and should not work in close proximity to others to avoid distractions. He can have occasional contact with supervisors, coworkers and members of the public. He is limited to a workplace with few changes in the routine work setting and is able to make simple work related decisions.

AR at 16.

         Employing this RFC at Steps Four and Five, and relying on the testimony of a Vocational Expert, the ALJ determined that Mr. Staff is unable to perform his past relevant work as a grocery store cashier, retail cashier, short-order cook, fast food worker, or stocker. AR at 24. However, the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Staff can perform despite his limitations. AR at 25. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Mr. Staff retains the functional capacity to work as a hand cleaner or laundry folder, despite his ...

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