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Newton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 29, 2018

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


         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Teri Lynn Newton's Motion to Reverse and Remand the Social Security Commissioner's final decision denying Plaintiff's applications for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. Doc. 23. The Court concludes that the ALJ erred in his consideration of the medical source opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician Dr. Douglas David, M.D. Therefore, the Court will grant Plaintiff's motion and remand this action for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on September 28, 2012 and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on September 26, 2012. Administrative Record (“AR”) 21. She alleged a disability onset date of August 21, 2012. Id. After her claim was denied on initial review and upon reconsideration, her case was set for a hearing in front of an ALJ on July 17, 2014. Id.

         On February 27, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. AR 21-32. In arriving at his decision, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 21, 2012, her alleged onset date. AR 23. The ALJ then found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: (1) osteoarthritis, (2) degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, (3) degenerative joint disease of the thumbs, (4) degenerative joint disease of the knees, status post left knee replacement, (5) bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, and (6) bilateral valgus deformities. AR 23. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's remaining impairments were non-severe. AR 24-25. Further, with regard to the severe impairments, the ALJ found that these impairments, individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 25.

         Because he found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet a Listing, the ALJ then went on to assess Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). AR 25-30. The ALJ stated that

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) with some additional limitations. More specifically, she is able to lift and/or carry 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk for a total of about two hours in an eight-hour workday, and sit for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday. She can occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, and climb ramps and stairs; she can frequently handle and finger bilaterally; and she cannot kneel, crawl, or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She is limited to work that can be performed on even terrain and nonslippery surfaces, and she can tolerate no more than occasional exposure to vibration, wetness, humidity, or extreme heat or cold.

         AR 25-26. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. AR 30. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ then determined at step five that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and her RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. AR 31.

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Social Security Appeals Council. AR 1. The Appeals Council ultimately denied Plaintiff's request for review. AR 1. This appeal followed. Doc. 23. Because the parties are familiar with the record in this case, the Court will reserve discussion of Plaintiff's relevant medical history, namely Dr. David's February 2014 assessment and the vocational expert's testimony at issue for its analysis.


         A. Disability Determination Process

         A claimant is considered disabled for purposes of Social Security disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income if that individual 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); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Social Security Commissioner has adopted a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a person satisfies these statutory criteria. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The steps of the analysis are as follows:

(1) Claimant must establish that she is not currently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” If Claimant is so engaged, she is not disabled and the analysis stops.
(2) Claimant must establish that she has “a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . or combination of impairments” that has lasted for at least one year. If Claimant is not so impaired, she is not disabled and the analysis stops.
(3) If Claimant can establish that her impairment(s) are equivalent to a listed impairment that has already been determined to preclude substantial gainful activity, Claimant ...

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