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Carter v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

October 17, 2018

JOHNATHAN L. CARTER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse or Remand Administrative Agency Decision (Doc. 27) filed on April 26, 2018. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the parties have consented to me serving as the presiding judge and entering final judgment. See Docs. 5, 7, 9. Having considered the record, submissions of counsel, and relevant law, the Court finds Plaintiff's motion is well-taken and will be granted in part.

         I. Procedural History

         On July 21, 2014, Mr. Johnathan Carter (Plaintiff) filed applications with the Social Security Administration for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (SSA), and for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the SSA. Administrative Record[1] (AR) at 11, 200-09. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of December 1, 2013. AR at 11, 200, 204. Disability Determination Services (DDS) determined that Plaintiff was not disabled both initially (AR at 93-94) and on reconsideration (AR at 121-22). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on the merits of his applications. AR at 142-43.

         Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified during the de novo hearing. See AR at 36-70. ALJ Ann Farris issued an unfavorable decision on July 11, 2016. AR at 8-27. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council (AR at 199), which the council denied on August 28, 2017 (AR at 1-7). Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003).

         II. Applicable Law and the ALJ's Findings

         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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Commissioner must use a sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).

         The claimant has the burden at the first four steps of the process to show: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) he 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) his impairment(s) meet or equal one of the listings in Appendix 1, Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404; or (4) pursuant to the assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), he is unable to perform his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv), 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); see also Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). “RFC is a multidimensional description of the work-related abilities [a claimant] retain[s] in spite of [his] medical impairments.” Ryan v. Colvin, Civ. 15-0740 KBM, 2016 WL 8230660, at *2 (D.N.M. Sept. 29, 2016) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(B); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)). If the claimant meets “the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability[, ] . . . the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that” Plaintiff retains sufficient RFC “to perform work in the national economy, given his age, education, and work experience.” Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261 (citing Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 & n.2 (10th Cir. 1988) (internal citation omitted)); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         At Step One of the process, [2] ALJ Farris found that while Plaintiff did perform some work after his alleged disability onset date, the “work activity did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity.” AR at 13. Consequently, Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of December 1, 2013. AR at 13 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576, 416.971-976). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: borderline intellectual functioning (BIF) and schizoaffective bipolar disorder.” AR at 13 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c)).

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 . . . .” AR at 15 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926). In making her determination, ALJ Farris considered listings 12.02 (neurocognitive disorders), 12.04 (affective disorders), 12.05 (intellectual disorders) and 12.06 (anxiety related disorders). AR at 14. The ALJ first examined whether Plaintiff's mental impairments met the “paragraph B” criteria. She found that Plaintiff has mild restrictions in his activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in the area of social functioning, and moderate difficulties in the area of concentration, persistence or pace. AR at 14. The ALJ found that Plaintiff has not experienced any episodes of decompensation of extended duration. AR at 14. The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff did not meet the “paragraph C” criteria of 12.04, 12.05, or 12.06. AR at 15.

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that while Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments might be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms[, ]” the ALJ found that Plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record . . . .” AR at 16. Ultimately, the ALJ found that Plaintiff

has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: he must avoid hazards; he is limited to simple routine tasks with reasoning level one; he can have no interaction with the public; he is limited to occasional and superficial contact with co-workers; he cannot perform work with a production pace requirement.

AR at 15-16. ALJ Farris found that Plaintiff “is unable to perform any past relevant work” (AR at 19), but he is able to perform the positions of housekeeper/cleaner, laundry laborer, or laborer in a commercial setting/maintenance cleaner (AR at 20). The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from December 1, 2013, through the date of [the ALJ's] decision.” AR at 20 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f)).

         III. Legal Standard

         The Court must “review the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal citation omitted)). A deficiency in either area is grounds for remand. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161, 1166 (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172 (internal quotation omitted)). “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation omitted) (alteration in original)). The Court will ‚Äúconsider whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be ...


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