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Lopez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 18, 2019

NORMA J. LOPEZ, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration,, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 15)[2] filed December 22, 2017, in connection with Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand Administrative Agency Decision, With Supporting Memorandum, filed February 26, 2018. Docs. 19, 20. Defendant filed a Response on April 12, 2018. Doc. 21. Plaintiff did not file a Reply. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the applicable law and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that Plaintiff's motion is not well taken and shall be DENIED.


         Plaintiff Norma J. Lopez (Ms. Lopez) alleges that she became disabled on August 23, 2012, at the age of fifty-seven, because of arthritis in both hips and knees, knee surgeries, and diabetes. Tr. 69, 185. Ms. Lopez completed her GED in 1990, and worked as a scale, equipment and control house operator, and as a microchip inspector. Tr. 187, 200-11. Ms. Lopez's date of last insured was December 31, 2016. Tr. 13.

         Ms. Lopez protectively filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., on October 22, 2012. Tr. 141-42, 182. Ms. Lopez's application was denied at the initial level. Tr. 68, 69-78, 79-81.[3] Upon Ms. Lopez's request, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Donna Montano held a hearing on March 18, 2015. Tr. 28-63. Attorney Justin S. Raines represented Ms. Lopez.[4] Id. On April 22, 2015, ALJ Montano issued a written decision concluding that Ms. Lopez was “not disabled” pursuant to the Act. Tr. 8-21. On July 31, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Lopez's request for review, rendering ALJ Montano's April 22, 2015, decision the final decision of Defendant the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Tr. 1-3. Ms. Lopez timely filed a complaint on September 29, 2016, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. Doc. 1.


         A. Disability Determination Process

         A claimant is considered disabled for purposes of Social Security disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income if that individual 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 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Social Security Commissioner has adopted a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a person satisfies these statutory criteria. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The steps of the analysis are as follows:

(1) Claimant must establish that she is not currently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” If Claimant is so engaged, she is not disabled and the analysis stops.
(2) Claimant must establish that she has “a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . or combination of impairments” that has lasted for at least one year. If Claimant is not so impaired, she is not disabled and the analysis stops.
(3) If Claimant can establish that her impairment(s) are equivalent to a listed impairment that has already been determined to preclude substantial gainful activity, Claimant is presumed disabled and the analysis stops.
(4) If, however, Claimant's impairment(s) are not equivalent to a listed impairment, Claimant must establish that the impairment(s) prevent her from doing her “past relevant work.” Answering this question involves three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ considers all of the relevant medical and other evidence and determines what is “the most [Claimant] can still do despite [her physical and mental] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). This is called the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Id. § 404.1545(a)(3). Second, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands of Claimant's past work. Third, the ALJ determines whether, given Claimant's RFC, Claimant is capable of meeting those demands. A claimant who is capable of returning to past relevant work is not disabled and the analysis stops.
(5) At this point, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that Claimant is able to “make an adjustment to other work.” If the Commissioner is unable to make that showing, Claimant is deemed disabled. If, however, the Commissioner is able to make the required showing, the claimant is deemed not disabled.

See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005).

         B. Standard of Review

         A court must affirm the denial of social security benefits unless (1) the decision is not supported by “substantial evidence” or (2) the ALJ did not apply the proper legal standards in reaching the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 933 F.2d 799, 800-01 (10th Cir. 1991). In making these determinations, the reviewing court “neither reweigh[s] the evidence nor substitute[s] [its] judgment for that of the agency.'” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008). For example, a court's disagreement with a decision is immaterial to the substantial evidence analysis. A decision is supported by substantial evidence as long as it is supported by “relevant evidence . . . a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support [the] conclusion.” Casias, 933 F.3d at 800. While this requires more than a mere scintilla of evidence, Casias, 933 F.3d at 800, “[t]he 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) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         Similarly, even if a court agrees with a decision to deny benefits, if the ALJ's reasons for the decision are improper or are not articulated with sufficient particularity to allow for judicial review, the court cannot affirm the decision as legally correct. Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009 (10th Cir. 1996). As a baseline, the ALJ must support his or her findings with specific weighing of the evidence and “the record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence.” Id. at 1009-10. This does not mean that an ALJ must discuss every piece of evidence in the record. But, it does require that the ALJ identify the evidence supporting the decision and discuss any probative and contradictory evidence that the ALJ is rejecting. Id. at 1010.

         III. ANALYSIS

         The ALJ made her decision that Ms. Lopez was not disabled at step four of the sequential evaluation. Tr. 20-21. The ALJ determined that Ms. Lopez met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016, and that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 23, 2012, the alleged onset date. Tr. 13. She found that Ms. Lopez had severe impairments of degenerative joint disease, degenerative disc disease, status-post reconstructive surgery of a weight bearing joint, and obesity. Id. The ALJ determined, however, that Ms. Lopez's impairments did not meet or equal in severity one of the listings described in the governing regulations, 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 13-14. Accordingly, the ALJ proceeded to step four and found that Ms. Lopez had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except

she can stand and walk for four hours out of an eight-hour workday. The claimant can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; however, she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. Additionally, she should avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights and machinery.

Tr. 14-15. The ALJ concluded at step four that Ms. Lopez was able to perform her past relevant work as an inspector semiconductor wafer and that she was, therefore, not disabled. Tr. 20-21.

         Plaintiff argues that (1) the ALJ's RFC is not supported by substantial evidence because the record demonstrates she was only capable of, at most, sedentary work during the relevant period of time; (2) the ALJ erred by failing to consider a closed period of disability; and (3) the ALJ's hypothetical to the VE was erroneous because it included the ability to stand and walk for four hours out of an eight-hour workday when light work requires the ability to stand or walk for a total of six to eight hours in an eight-hour workday. Doc. 20 at 4-11. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds no reversible error.

         A. Relevant Medical Evidence

         1. Joseph K. Ford, M.D.

         Joseph K. Ford, M.D. treated Ms. Lopez in September 2009 and from December 5, 2011, through August 23, 2012, for issues related to her left knee. Tr. 254-56, 257-64. On September 2, 2009, Dr. Ford performed a repair of the quadriceps mechanism of Ms. Lopez's left knee based on Ms. Lopez's history of patellectomy and quadricep insufficiency with pain. Tr. 254-55. Post-operative care included pain management and the use of a walker. Tr. 256. On December 5, 2011, Ms. Lopez returned to Dr. Ford with complaints of pain in the quadriceps musculature. Tr. 264. On physical exam, she was able to extend her left knee fully to 180 degrees and flex to 120 degrees. Id. Radiographic studies of both knees indicated no sign of arthritis. Id. Dr. Ford prescribed a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (Mobic) and narcotic pain medication (Tramadol). Id. On February 21, 2012, based on subsequent MRI studies, Dr. Ford assessed that Ms. Lopez was developing degenerative changes in the articular cartilage and joint related to her left knee injury. Tr. 262. He determined that she was a candidate for SUPARTZ injections and administered five injections over the course of five weeks. Tr. 258-61. On August 23, 2012, Ms. Lopez complained of some left knee pain. Tr. 257. Dr. Ford noted that her left knee was doing satisfactorily, but that radiographic studies had revealed she was developing some chondrocalcinosis and would require continued conservative management with medication. Id.

         2. Michael Sisk, M.D.

         On October 18, 2012, Ms. Lopez presented to Michael Sisk, M.D., with complaints of left hip pain that radiated down toward her knee and into her back. Tr. 288. Dr. Sisk noted on physical exam that Ms. Lopez “[c]learly has restrictions of motion in that left hip.” Id. Radiographic studies demonstrated arthritis of the left hip. Id. Dr. Sisk administered a steroid injection. Id. On October 24, 2012, Ms. Lopez returned for a second injection. Tr. 287. On November 7, 2012, Ms. Lopez reported that although she had considerable relief right after the injection, her pain had returned quickly. Tr. 286. Dr. Sisk discussed Ms. Lopez's options, and noted that she wished to proceed with arthroplasty. Id.

         On January 9, 2013, Ms. Lopez underwent a total left hip arthroplasty. Tr. 266-82. On January 16, 2013, Dr. Sisk noted that Ms. Lopez was “doing great” postoperatively. Tr. 285. On February 20, 2013, ...

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