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Lucero v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 11, 2019

CELESTE LUCERO,, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration,, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER [1]

          STEVEN C. YARBROUGH UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 11)[2] filed January 2, 2018, in connection with Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing With Supporting Memorandum, filed March 19, 2018. Doc. 17. Defendant filed a Response on May 14, 2018. Doc. 19. And Plaintiff filed a Reply on June 1, 2018. Doc. 20. 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 well taken and shall be GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff Celeste Lucero (Ms. Lucero) alleges that she became disabled on June 3, 2010, at the age of twenty-nine, because of rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Tr. 171. Ms. Lucero completed the twelfth grade in 1998, and worked as a sales associate and general clerk. Tr. 172, 206-10. Ms. Lucero's date of last insured is December 31, 2014. Tr. 168.

         Ms. Lucero 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 August 23, 2013. Tr. 152-53. Ms. Lucero's application was denied at the initial level (Tr. 64-73, 74, 88-91), and at reconsideration (Tr. 75-86, 87, 96-100). Upon Ms. Lucero's request, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Deirdre Dexter held a hearing on August 17, 2016. Tr. 25-63. Attorney Johnathan Woods represented Ms. Lucero at that hearing.[3] Id. On August 31, 2016, ALJ Dexter issued a written decision concluding that Ms. Lucero was “not disabled” pursuant to the Act. 8-19. On August 9, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Lucero's request for review, rendering ALJ Dexter's August 31, 2016, decision the final decision of Defendant the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Tr. 1-5. Ms. Lucero timely filed a complaint on September 21, 2017, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. Doc. 1.

         II. APPLICABLE LAW

         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. ...


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