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Perrault v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

February 4, 2019

SONJA LYNN PERRAULT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          THE HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Sonja Lynn Perrault's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing With Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 17), filed October 8, 2018; Defendant Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill's Brief in Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand the Agency's Administrative Decision (the “Response”), (Doc. 19), filed December 10, 2018; and Ms. Perrault's Reply to Brief in Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand the Agency's Administrative Decision (the “Reply”), (Doc. 22), filed January 15, 2018.

         Ms. Perrault filed an application for disability insurance benefits on August 8, 2014, alleging disability beginning May 26, 2014. (Administrative Record “AR” 10). Ms. Perrault claimed she was limited in her ability to work due to: post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”); sleep apnea; depression; anxiety; fibromyalgia; migraines; arthritis; tinnitus; hypothyroidism; hip impingement syndrome; overactive bladder; sinusitis; adjustment disorder; pain and problems with both knees, left shoulder, and left ankle; neuropathy; lumbar strain; hypertension; gastroesophageal reflux disease (“GERD”); and allergic rhinitis. (AR 237-38). Ms. Perrault's application was denied initially on February 2, 2015, and upon reconsideration on May 21, 2015. (AR 10). A request for a hearing was filed, and a hearing was held on October 13, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Myriam C. Fernandez. (AR 28). Ms. Perrault and Pamela A. Bowman, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing, and attorney Connie Squires represented Ms. Perrault at the hearing. (AR 28-65).

         On November 12, 2015, ALJ Fernandez issued her decision, finding Ms. Perrault not disabled at any time between her alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 23). Ms. Perrault requested review by the Appeals Council, (AR 6), which was denied, (AR 2-5). Ms. Perrault then appealed the Commissioner's decision to the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico. Perrault v. Social Security Administration, No. CV 16-243 LAM. On February 6, 2017, the Court granted the Commissioner's unopposed motion to remand the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings. Perrault, No. CV 16-243 LAM, (Doc. 22).

         On remand, the Appeals Council issued an order vacating the Commissioner's prior decision and remanding the case to an ALJ for further proceedings. (AR 1454-57). A second hearing was held on October 26, 2017, before ALJ Ann Farris. Ms. Perrault, VE Nicole B. King, and Ms. Perrault's sister, Heather Freed, appeared and testified at the hearing, and attorney William Scott Rode represented Ms. Perrault at the hearing. (AR 1430-53). On January 18, 2018, ALJ Farris issued a decision finding that Ms. Perrault became disabled on November 15, 2017, because her age category changed, but she was not disabled prior to that date. (AR 1406-23). Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.984, this decision by ALJ Farris is the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of this appeal.[1]

         Ms. Perrault now raises the following arguments on appeal of ALJ Farris' decision: (1) ALJ Farris failed to properly consider the opinions of her treating physician, Henry Garcia, M.D.; (2) ALJ Farris failed to properly consider the opinions of consultative examiner John Vigil, M.D.; and (3) ALJ Farris failed to include a function-by-function assessment of Ms. Perrault's work-related abilities. (Doc. 17 at 14-26).[2] The Court has reviewed the Motion, the Response, the Reply, and the relevant law. Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed the Administrative Record. (Doc. 11). Because ALJ Farris erred in her consideration of Dr. Garcia's opinions, the Court finds that Ms. Perrault's Motion is well-taken and should be GRANTED IN PART and this case REMANDED for further proceedings.

         I. Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008) (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)). If substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings and the correct legal standards were applied, the Commissioner's decision stands and the plaintiff is not entitled to relief. Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). The Commissioner's “failure to apply the correct legal standards, or to show . . . that she has done so, are also grounds for reversal.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). A court should meticulously review the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. A court's review is limited to the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which is generally the ALJ's decision, rather than the Appeals Council's denial of review. O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (10th Cir. 1994).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. An ALJ's decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or if there is a mere scintilla of evidence supporting it.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. While the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its examination of the record must include “anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2005). “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the ALJ]'s 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)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

          For purposes of disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income claims, a claimant establishes a disability when she 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), 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A), 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”). Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         At the first four steps of the SEP, the claimant bears the burden of showing: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) she 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 either (3) her impairment(s) meet or equal one of the “Listings”[3] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) she 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). If the ALJ determines the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, the ALJ will proceed to step five of the evaluation process. At step five the Commissioner bears the burden of showing that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         III. Background

         Ms. Perrault applied for disability insurance benefits due to: PTSD; sleep apnea; depression; anxiety; fibromyalgia; migraines; arthritis; tinnitus; hypothyroidism; hip impingement syndrome; overactive bladder; sinusitis; adjustment disorder; pain and problems with both knees, left shoulder, and left ankle; neuropathy; lumbar strain; hypertension; GERD; and allergic rhinitis. (AR 237-38). At step one, ALJ Farris determined that Ms. Perrault had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 26, 2014, the alleged onset date. (AR 1409). At step two, ALJ Farris concluded that since the alleged onset date Ms. Perrault has had the following severe impairments: lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease; osteoarthritis of the left knee and hip; osteoarthritis of the right shoulder; PTSD; obstructive sleep apnea; fibromyalgia; borderline and dependent personality disorder; depression; and ...


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