United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
H. RITTER, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Nanette Sue
Laney's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Payment of
Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing, with
Supporting Memorandum [Doc. 15], filed April 6, 2018.
Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 73(b), the parties have consented to the
undersigned Magistrate Judge to conduct dispositive
proceedings in this matter, including entry of final
judgment. [Docs. 3, 5, 7]. Having studied the parties'
positions, the relevant law, and the relevant portions of the
Administrative Record (“AR”), the Court
grants Ms. Laney's Motion and remands this case for
further administrative fact finding.
Laney claims that she cannot work for a variety of health
reasons. In reaching the opposite conclusion, the
administrative law judge (“ALJ”) assigned to her
case found that Ms. Laney retains the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform work that exists in
significant numbers in the national economy. In reaching this
finding, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), who described three jobs that Ms.
Laney can allegedly perform despite her limitations. However,
the ALJ failed to confirm that the VE's testimony was
consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles
(“DOT”). This is important in this case because,
where an inconsistency exists, the VE must explain how a
person with the claimant's RFC can perform the described
job. However, no such explanation was elicited by the ALJ in
this case, and case law confirms that two of the three jobs
the VE identified conflict with the ALJ's RFC finding.
While the remaining job arguably fits within Ms. Laney's
RFC, the Court cannot confidently say that it exists in
“significant numbers in the national economy”
under the facts of this case. As such, the Court has no
choice but to reverse the ALJ's finding of nondisability,
and remand this case for further administrative fact finding.
Laney filed an application with the Social Security
Administration for disability insurance benefits under Title
II of the Social Security Act on August 26, 2013. AR
at 170-176. As grounds, Ms. Laney alleged the disabling
conditions of “severe chemical sensitivities (allergies
to petroleum-based products), PTSD, back and neck injury,
head injuries, chronically fatigued, Lyme disease,
babesiosis, reactive airway disorder, [and] liver
insufficiency.” AR at 171. Ms. Laney alleged
that her conditions became severe enough to keep her from
working on August 19, 2011. AR at 175. The
Administration denied Ms. Laney's claim initially and
upon reconsideration, and she requested a de novo
hearing before an ALJ. AR at 69-117.
Michelle Lindsay held a hearing on May 19, 2016. AR
at 34-68. On September 29, 2016, the ALJ issued an
unfavorable decision, finding that Ms. Laney has not been
under a disability as defined in the Act from her alleged
onset date through her last date insured. AR at
8-33. In response, Ms. Laney filed a Request for Review of
Hearing Decision/Order on November 30, 2016. AR at
167-168. After reviewing her case, the Appeals Council denied
Ms. Laney's request for review on September 7, 2017.
AR at 1-3. As such, the ALJ's decision became
the final decision of the Commissioner. Doyal v.
Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003). This Court
now has jurisdiction to review the decision pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g) and 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a).
claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C.
§ 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The
Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation
process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R.
One of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that
Ms. Laney had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
from her alleged onset date through her date last insured.
AR at 13. At Step Two, she determined that Ms. Laney
had the severe impairments of “Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder (PTSD); depressive disorder; generalized anxiety
disorder; history of tick borne illness; and chemical
sensitivities.” AR at 13. At Step Three, the
ALJ concluded that Ms. Laney's impairments, individually
and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the
regulatory “listings.” AR at 14-17. Ms.
Laney does not challenge these findings on appeal.
[See Doc. 15].
claimant does not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must
determine her RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). “RFC
is an administrative assessment of the extent to which an
individual's medically determinable impairment(s),
including any related symptoms, such as pain, may cause
physical or mental limitations or restrictions that may
affect his or her capacity to do work-related physical and
mental activities.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *2.
“RFC is not the least an individual can do
despite his or her limitations or restrictions, but the
most.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1. In
this case, the ALJ determined that Ms. Laney retained the RFC
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but
with the following nonexertional limitations: she should have
avoided more than occasional exposure to extreme heat, cold,
wetness, and humidity. She should have avoided all exposure
to fumes, odors, heavy concentration of dust or gases, or
poor ventilation. She was able to understand, remember, and
carry out simple instructions, and maintain attention and
concentration to perform simple tasks for two hours without
requiring redirection to the task. After a standard break she
would have been able to attend and concentrate for two more
hours, etc. throughout the workday. She should have had no
more than occasional contact with the general public and only
superficial interactions with supervisors and co-workers. She
required work involving no more than occasional change in the
routine work setting and no more than occasional independent
goal setting or planning.
AR at 17.
this RFC at Steps Four and Five, and relying on the testimony
of a VE, the ALJ determined that Ms. Laney could not have
returned to her past relevant work as a tutor, work study
coordinator, census worker, or public health educator.
AR at 27. However, the ALJ, relying on the testimony
of the VE, found that there were jobs that exist in
“significant numbers” in the national economy
that Ms. Laney could have performed despite her limitations.
AR at 27-28. Specifically, the ALJ determined that
Ms. Laney retained the functional capacity to work as an
office helper (43, 000 jobs nationally), shipping and
receiving weight clerk (32, 000 jobs nationally), or mail
clerk (58, 000 jobs nationally) during the relevant time
period. AR at 28. Accordingly, the ALJ determined
that Ms. Laney was not disabled as defined in the Social
Security Act from her alleged onset date through her date
last insured and denied benefits. AR at 28.