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Lobato v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 15, 2018

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



         Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's determination that she is not entitled to disability benefits under Title II or Title IV of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383c. With the consent of the parties to conduct dispositive proceedings in this matter, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the Court has considered Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing (Doc.16), filed February 13, 2018, the Commissioner's response in opposition, (Doc. 18), filed March 19, 2018, and Plaintiff's reply (Doc. 20), filed March 30, 2018. Having so considered, the Court FINDS and CONCLUDES that Plaintiff's motion is GRANTED IN PART as set forth below.


         On July 26, 2010, Plaintiff filed two applications for Social Security disability benefits, alleging that she had been disabled since July 14, 2010, due to degenerative arthritis, depression, anxiety, severe foot and ankle pain, and high blood pressure. (AR 231-41). On May 10, 2011, it was determined that Plaintiff was not disabled and her claims were denied. (AR 150). This determination was affirmed on October 3, 2011 (AR 156), and a subsequent hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), held on September 5, 2012, again ended in a denial. (AR 74-90). The ALJ's decision became final when, on January 23, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1). See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000) (explaining that if the Council denies a request for a review, the ALJ's opinion becomes the final decision). See also 20 C.F.R. § 404.900(a)(1)-(5). Plaintiff challenged the ALJ's decision in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico and, on April 16, 2015, Judge Vidmar remanded the matter for further proceedings. (AR 694-704).

         Following remand, Plaintiff was granted two additional hearings before ALJ Ann Farris. In her subsequent opinion, ALJ Farris summarized the evidence of record and assigned weight to medical opinions provided by, inter alia, Plaintiff's treating physicians and state agency consultants. She then employed the required five-step disability analysis, [1] first finding that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of July 14, 2010.[2] (AR 610). At step two, ALJ Farris found that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of polysubstance abuse; major depressive disorder; panic disorder not otherwise specified; PTSD; degenerative disc disease; obesity; and osteoarthritis of the ankle. (Id.). At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, whether alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. (Id.).

         ALJ Farris next assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), [3] finding that Plaintiff has the RFC to:

lift no more than 10 pounds at a time, sit for approximately six hours in an eight-hour workday and stand or walk intermittently for no more than two hours in an eight-hour workday. She can occasionally climb, balance and stoop but never kneel, crouch or crawl. The claimant can make simple decisions with few workplace changes and have occasional, superficial interaction with co-workers and the public.

(AR 612).

         ALJ Farris then proceeded to steps four and five where, with the help of a vocational expert, she determined that Plaintiff was not able to perform her past relevant work, but that she was capable of performing the requirements of occupations such as Stuffer; Laminator; Brake-lines coater; and Circuit-board assembler. (AR 618-19).

         Plaintiff now asks the Court to reverse the ALJ's decision, arguing that the ALJ (1) improperly rejected the opinions of her treating physician, Thomas Marron, M.D., and treating psychiatrist Michael Sievert, M.D.; (2) failed to consider the opinion of non-examining state agency psychologist, Donald Gucker, Ph.D.; and (3) erred in her determination that the occupations of Stuffer, Laminator, Brake-lines coater, and Circuit-board assembler exist in significant numbers in the national economy.

         Having meticulously combed the record, the Court finds that the ALJ erred in her consideration of the opinion evidence provided by Plaintiff's treating physicians and it will reverse on this ground. The Court does not find merit in Plaintiff's second argument and it will not reach Plaintiff's final contention as it may be affected by the ALJ's reevaluation of the evidence upon remand.

         II. STANDARD

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining “whether substantial evidence supports the factual findings and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.” Allman v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 1326, 1330 (10th Cir. 2016). See also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004) (quotation omitted). “Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion.” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005) (quotation omitted). The Court must examine the record as a whole, “including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Id. at 1262. “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.” Byron v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 1232, 1235 (10th Cir. 1984) (quotation omitted). Even so, it is not the function of the Court to review Plaintiff's claims de novo, and the Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Glass v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994).

         III. ...

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