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Sigala v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

February 20, 2019

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


          Jerry H. Ritter U.S. Magistrate Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff George David Sigala's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum [Doc. 16], filed May 9, 2018');">18. 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. 6, 7, 8]. Having studied the parties' positions, the relevant law, and the relevant portions of the Administrative Record (“AR”), [1] the Court grants Mr. Sigala's Motion and remands this case for further administrative fact finding.


         Mr. Sigala claims that he cannot work for a variety of health reasons. In reaching the opposite conclusion, the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) assigned to his case found that Mr. Sigala 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 jobs that Mr. Sigala can allegedly perform despite his limitations. However, two of these jobs - telemarketer and credit authorizer - appear inconsistent with Mr. Sigala's RFC, which restricts him to only “occasional” interaction with coworkers, supervisors and the general public. While the remaining job identified by the VE arguably fits within Mr. Sigala'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.


         Mr. Sigala filed an application with the Social Security Administration for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act on October 5, 2012. AR at 191-192. As grounds, Mr. Sigala alleged the disabling conditions of “severe depression [and] [b]ack problems.” AR at 81. Mr. Sigala alleged that his conditions became severe enough to keep him from working on March 10, 2008. AR at 191. The Administration denied Mr. Sigala's claim initially and upon reconsideration, and he requested a de novo hearing before an ALJ. AR at 80-129.

         ALJ Lillian Richter held a hearing on April 28, 2016. AR at 31-79. On November 29, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Mr. Sigala has not been under a disability as defined in the Act from his alleged onset date through his last date insured. AR at 8-29. In response, Mr. Sigala filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order on December 5, 2019. AR at 18');">189-190. After reviewing his case, the Appeals Council denied Mr. Sigala's request for review on September 18');">18, 2017. AR at 1-5. 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).

         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 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. § 404.1520(a)(4).[2]

         At Step One of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Sigala had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged onset date through his date last insured. AR at 13. At Step Two, she determined that Mr. Sigala had the severe impairments of “history of compression fractures in the thoracic spine, thoracic and lumbar degenerative disc disease, obstructive sleep apnea, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, obesity, major depressive disorder, [and] anxiety disorder.” AR at 13. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Sigala's impairments, individually and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the regulatory “listings.” AR at 14-15. Mr. Sigala does not challenge these findings on appeal. [See Doc. 16].

         When a claimant does not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine his 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 37418');">184, 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 37418');">184, at *1. In this case, the ALJ determined that Mr. Sigala retained the RFC to:

lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally and 5 pounds frequently. He could stand and walk 2 hours in an 8-hour workday and sit for 6 hours in an eight-hour workday. He could occasionally climb ramps and stairs and could occasionally balance, kneel, crouch and crawl. He could not climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds, and could not stoop. The claimant should have avoided exposure to extreme heat and cold, humidity, vibrations, unprotected heights, and moving mechanical parts. He could not work with the arms overhead but could reach frequently in all other directions. The claimant was limited to work that was primarily performed at the workstation. He could have occasional contact with supervisors, coworkers, and members of the public. He required the use of a handheld assistive device for purposes of ambulation.

AR at 15-16.

         Employing this RFC at Steps Four and Five, and relying on the testimony of a VE, the ALJ determined that Mr. Sigala could not have returned to his past relevant work as a locksmith. AR at 21. 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 Mr. Sigala could have performed despite his limitations. AR at 21-22. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Mr. Sigala retained the functional capacity to work as a telemarketer (160, 000 jobs nationally), a medical biller (2, 600 jobs nationally), or credit authorizer (8, 000 jobs nationally) during the relevant time period. AR at 22. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Mr. Sigala was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act from his alleged onset date through his date last insured and denied benefits. AR at 22-23.

         III. ...

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