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Flores v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 30, 2018

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


         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 20) filed on April 30, 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. 4, 7, 8. 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 March 8, 2013, Mr. Enrique Flores (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 10, 196-208. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of August 16, 2011. AR at 10, 196, 202. Disability Determination Services (DDS) determined that Plaintiff was not disabled both initially (AR at 72-91) and on reconsideration (AR at 92-119). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on the merits of his applications. AR at 135-37.

         Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified during the de novo hearing. See AR at 38-71. ALJ Michelle Lindsay issued an unfavorable decision on August 3, 2016. AR at 7-30. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council (AR at 190-95), which the Council denied on August 11, 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 Lindsay found that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 16, 2011 . . . .” AR at 12 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576, 416.971-976). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; left rotator cuff tear, status post-surgical repair; minimal osteoarthrosis of the cervical spine; degenerative joint disease of the knees; obesity; migraine headaches; anxiety; depression; and learning 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 13 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926). In making her determination, ALJ Lindsay considered listings 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint(s) (due to any cause)), 1.04 (disorders of the spine), 11.03 (epilepsy - non-convulsive epilepsy (petit mal, psychomotor, or focal)), 12.02 (organic mental disorders), 12.04 (affective disorders), 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders), and the listings found under 1.00 (musculoskeletal system), 3.00 (respiratory system), 4.00 (cardiovascular system), 11.00 (neurological), and 12.00 (mental disorders). AR at 13. Regarding Plaintiff's mental impairments, ALJ Lindsay 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, mild difficulties in the area of social functioning, and moderate difficulties in the area of concentration, persistence or pace. AR at 14-15. The ALJ found that Plaintiff has not experienced any episodes of decompensation of extended duration. AR at 15. The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff did not meet the “paragraph C” criteria of 12.02, 12.04, or 12.06. AR at 15.

         At Step Four, the ALJ explained that while Plaintiff's “severe impairments merit some limitations, the evidence of record does not support the extent of the limitations that [he] alleges.” AR at 22. Ultimately, the ALJ found that Plaintiff

has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §§] 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except: he can lift, carry, push and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. He can stand and/or walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday, with normal breaks. He can sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday, with normal breaks. He can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crawl and climb ramps and stairs. He can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. He is limited to only occasional overhead reaching with the non-dominant upper extremity. He must avoid more than occasional exposure to extreme cold. He must avoid unprotected heights. He is able to understand, remember and carry out simple instructions. He can maintain attention and concentration to perform simple tasks.

AR at 15-16. ALJ Lindsay found that Plaintiff “is unable to perform any past relevant work” (AR at 23), but he is able to perform the positions of cashier II, nut and bolt assembler, and cleaner/housekeeper (AR at 24). The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from August 16, 2011, through the date of [the ALJ's] decision.” AR at 25 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g)).

         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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