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Barboa v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 2, 2018

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



         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Remand the Social Security Agency (“SSA”) decision to deny Plaintiff Supplemental Security Income benefits (“SSI”) and disability insurance benefits (“SSDI”). Doc. 17. For the reasons discussed below, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's motion and REMANDS this action to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an initial application for SSI and SSDI on September 4, 2014. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 20, 70. Plaintiff alleged that he became disabled on March 1, 2014 due to sleep apnea and knee, back, wrist, and feet impairments. AR at 211. His applications were denied on initial review on December 31, 2014 and again on reconsideration on February 21, 2015. AR at 70-107. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on March 5, 2015. AR at 135-36. An ALJ held a hearing on October 12, 2016, and subsequently issued a decision on November 21, 2016, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR at 43, 20-35. Plaintiff appealed the denial of his applications to the Appeals Council, which declined review on October 18, 2017. AR at 1-5. Plaintiff filed suit in this Court on December 12, 2017, seeking review of the ALJ's decision. Doc. 1.

         II. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a court may review a final decision of the Commissioner only to determine whether it (1) is supported by “substantial evidence” and (2) comports with the proper legal standards. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800-01 (10th Cir. 1991). “In reviewing the ALJ's decision, we neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute our judgment for that of the agency.” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008) (internal quotations omitted).

         Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Casias, 933 F.3d at 800 (internal quotations omitted). “The record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996). “[I]n addition to discussing the evidence supporting his decision, the ALJ also must discuss the uncontroverted evidence he chooses not to rely upon, as well as significantly probative evidence he rejects.” Id. at 1010. “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) (internal quotations omitted).

         III. Parties' Positions

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred by (1) failing to incorporate Plaintiff's mental limitations into his RFC, (2) neglecting to properly consider the impact of obesity on Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments, (3) making a finding about Plaintiff's compliance with doctor's orders related to weight loss that is not supported by substantial evidence, (4) affording no weight to Dr. Guerrero's opinion, and (5) failing to support his finding that Plaintiff does not meet Listing 1.02. See doc. 17 at 16-21. Defendant, in response, argues that: (1) the ALJ's RFC finding is supported by substantial evidence, (2) the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's obesity in conjunction with his other impairments, (3) the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence, (4) the ALJ properly considered the medical source opinions, and (5) the ALJ reasonably found that none of Plaintiff's impairments met or equaled a listed impairment. See doc. 19 at 4-15. Ultimately, the Court concludes that the ALJ's opinion must be remanded for failure to support his finding that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or medically equal Listing 1.02. The Court does not reach the other issues.

         IV. ALJ Evaluation

         A. Legal Standard

         For purposes of determining entitlement to SSI and SSDI benefits, an individual is disabled when 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); id. § 423(d)(1)(A). To determine whether a person satisfies these criteria, the SSA has developed a five-step test. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.[1] If the Commissioner finds an individual disabled at any step, the next step is not taken. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         At the first four steps of the analysis, the claimant has the burden to show: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity;” (2) she 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 that either (3) her impairments meet or equal one of the “Listings” of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) she is unable to perform her “past relevant work.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); see Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005).

         Step four of this analysis consists of three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) in light of “all of the relevant medical and other evidence.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). A claimant's RFC is “the most [she] can still do despite [physical and mental] limitations.” Id. § 404.1545(a)(1). Second, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past work. “To make the necessary findings, the ALJ must obtain adequate ‘factual information about those work demands which have a bearing on the medically established ...

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