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Austin v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 28, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Dana Grace Austin's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 17), which was fully briefed on December 20, 2017. Docs. 19, 20, 21. The parties consented to my entering final judgment in this case. Docs. 4, 7, 8. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to apply the correct legal standards in weighing the opinion of consultative psychological examiner Dr. Louis Wynne. The Court therefore GRANTS Ms. Austin's motion and remands this case to the Commissioner for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Standard of Review

          The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision [1] is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008). If substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings and the correct legal standards were applied, the Commissioner's decision stands, and the plaintiff is not entitled to relief. Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004). “The failure to apply the correct legal standard or to provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed is grounds for reversal.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). The Court must meticulously review the entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118. A decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or if there is a mere scintilla of evidence supporting it.” Id. While the Court may not reweigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its examination of the record as a whole must include “anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2005). “‘The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the] findings from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he or she 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show: (1) the claimant is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity;” (2) the claimant has a “severe medically determinable . . . impairment . . . or a combination of impairments” that has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year; and (3) the impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the Listings[2] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) the claimant is unable to perform his or her “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1260-61. If the claimant cannot show that his or her impairment meets or equals a Listing but proves that he or she is unable to perform his or her “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Id.

         III. Background and Procedural History

          Ms. Austin, currently age 54, dropped out of high school after the ninth grade, and later completed a GED and a two-year pharmacy technician program at a community college. AR 163, 167, 349.[3] She worked for over five years on a production line, and for over 14 years as a pharmacy technician. AR 168. She filed an application for disability insurance benefits on April 26, 2013, alleging disability since February 5, 2013 due to bipolar disorder, fibromyalgia, degenerative disk disease, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), anxiety, and panic attacks. AR 146, 163, 166. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her claim initially on June 24, 2013. AR 89-94. The SSA denied her claims on reconsideration on February 11, 2014. AR 96-101. Ms. Austin requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 102. On May 13, 2015, ALJ Myriam Fernandez Rice held a hearing. AR 30-55. ALJ Fernandez Rice issued her unfavorable decision on August 19, 2015. AR 11-29.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Austin was insured for disability benefits through December 31, 2017. AR 16. At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Austin had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since February 5, 2013, her alleged onset date. Id. Because Ms. Austin had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least twelve months, the ALJ proceeded to step two. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Austin had the following severe impairments: depressive disorder, PTSD, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, fibromyalgia, and degenerative disk disease. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Ms. Austin's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 16-18. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Ms. Austin's RFC. AR 18-23. The ALJ found that Ms. Austin had the RFC to perform light work

except she can lift or carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and up to 10 pounds frequently; she can stand and/or walk for approximately six hours total in an eight-hour workday; and can sit for approximately four hours total in an eight-hour workday. She can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl, and climb ramps or stairs. She is to avoid even moderate use of moving machinery and exposure to unprotected heights. She is able to maintain, understand, and remember simple work instructions with occasional changes in work setting. She is limited to only occasional interaction with the public and co-workers.

         AR 18.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Austin was unable to perform her past relevant work as a pharmacy technician. AR 23. The ALJ found Ms. Austin was not disabled at step five, concluding that she still could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy-such as ...

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