United States District Court, D. New Mexico
NORMA J. LOPEZ, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration,, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER 
C. YARBROUGH, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security
Administrative Record (Doc. 15) 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
BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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.
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. 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. 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.
Disability Determination Process
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
(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).
Standard of Review
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)).
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.
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.
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.
Relevant Medical Evidence
Joseph K. Ford, M.D.
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.
Michael Sisk, M.D.
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.
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, ...