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Saranam v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 20, 2018

SANKARA SARANAM, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE AND REMAND

          KEVIN R SWEAZEA, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's determination that he is not entitled to disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. 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 Commissioner's Administrative Decision (Doc. 21) and Memorandum in Support (Doc. 22), both filed April 20, 2018, and the Commissioner's response in opposition (Doc. 24), filed May 21, 2018. Having so considered, the Court FINDS and CONCLUDES that Plaintiff's motion is GRANTED IN PART as set forth below.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On May 10, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, alleging that he had been disabled since June 01, 2009, due to limited mobility; a back injury and chronic pain; sciatica; trouble breathing; stiffness; loss of use of left arm; and pain. (AR 182, 200). On October 4, 2013, it was determined that Plaintiff was not disabled and his claim was denied. (AR 128). This determination was affirmed on March 7, 2014, (AR 134), and a subsequent hearing before administrative law judge (“ALJ”) Frederick Upshall, held on May 2, 2016, again ended in a denial. (AR 29-37).

         In making his determination, ALJ Upshall engaged in the required five-step disability analysis, [1] first finding that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of June 1, 2009.[2] (AR 31). At step two, ALJ Upshall found that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of degenerative joint disease; degenerative disc disease; fibromyalgia; and rheumatoid arthritis. (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. (AR 32).

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

perform a range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a). He can lift, carry, push, and pull 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; can stand and/or walk for approximately 2 hours in an 8-hour workday; can sit for approximately 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; can reach overhead occasionally bilaterally; and can frequently finger and handle bilaterally.

(Id.). The ALJ then proceeded to steps four and five where, with the help of a vocational expert, he determined that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as an office clerk or, in the alternative, perform the requirements of representative occupations including document scanner, call-out operator, and charge account clerk. (AR 35-37).

         The ALJ's decision became final when, on June 9, 2017, 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 Commissioner's final decision). See also 20 C.F.R. § 404.900(a)(1)-(5). Plaintiff now asks the Court to reverse the Commissioner's determination, arguing, in sum, that ALJ Upshall's RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. 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).

         B. Plaintiff's Arguments

         Plaintiff's request for reversal and remand is based on contentions that ALJ Upshall failed to properly weigh medical opinion evidence provided by Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Roset Samuel, [4] and consultative examiner, Dr. Roger Felix, and improperly evaluated Plaintiff's testimony.[5] ...


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