United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Ronald
Norman Staton's Motion to Reverse and Remand
Plaintiff's Claim to the Social Security Administration
with Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”),
(Doc. 22), filed December 20, 2018 and 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. 23), filed January 31, 2019. Mr. Staton did not file a
Reply and the time for doing so has passed.
Staton filed an application for disability insurance benefits
and supplemental security income on May 23, 2011.
(Administrative Record “AR” 173, 183). In both of
his applications, Mr. Staton alleged disability beginning
January 8, 2011. (AR 173, 183). Mr. Staton claimed he was
limited in his ability to work due to arthritis that caused
bulging in his back and a herniated disc. (AR 215). Mr.
Staton's applications were denied initially on August 19,
2011 and upon reconsideration on July 23, 2012. (AR 102, 106,
Staton requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”), which was held on February 14, 2013,
before ALJ Myriam C. Fernandez Rice. (AR 24). ALJ Rice issued
her decision on April 26, 2013, finding Mr. Staton not
disabled at any time between his initial filing date through
the date of her opinion. (AR 22). Mr. Staton requested review
by the Appeals Council, (AR 6), which was denied, (AR 1-4),
making ALJ Rice's opinion the Commissioner's final
decision for purposes of judicial review.
January 19, 2015, Mr. Staton filed a complaint in the United
States District Court for the District of New Mexico
requesting review of ALJ Rice's decision. (AR 676-78). On
stipulation from the parties, the Court reversed the
Commissioner's decision pursuant to Sentence Four of 42
U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006) and remanded the case for further
administrative proceedings. (AR 673). On remand, the ALJ was
instructed to give further consideration to the medical
opinions of Mr. Staton's treating physicians. (AR
August 4, 2016, Mr. Staton appeared before ALJ Michelle K.
Lindsay with attorney Sofia McDermott and non-partial
Vocational Expert (“VE”) Nicole King. (AR 639).
ALJ Lindsay issued her decision December 8, 2016, finding Mr.
Staton not disabled at any time between his initial filing
date through the date of her decision. (AR 626). Mr. Staton
then requested review by the Appeals Council, (AR 634), which
was denied, (AR 634-37), making ALJ Lindsay's opinion the
Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this
Staton, represented by Ms. McDermott, argues in his Motion
that ALJ Lindsay erroneously rejected the medical opinions of
his treating physicians Albert Colburn, M.D., Atta Rehman,
M.D., and Michael Frederich, M.D. (Doc. 22 at 5-6). The Court
has reviewed the Motion, the Response, and the relevant law.
Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed the
administrative record. Because ALJ Lindsay erred in rejecting
the medical opinions of Dr. Colburn, Dr. Rehman, and Dr.
Frederich, the Court finds that Mr. Staton's Motion
should be GRANTED and the case be
REMANDED for further proceedings consistent
with this opinion.
Standard of Review
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.
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)).
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
purposes of supplemental security income and disability
insurance benefits, a claimant establishes a disability when
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 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.
first four steps of the SEP, the claimant bears the burden of
showing: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful
activity”; (2) he 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) his impairment(s) meet or
equal one of the “listings” of presumptively
disabling impairments; or (4) he is unable to perform his
“past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(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.
Staton claimed he was limited in his ability to work due to
arthritis that caused bulging in his back and a herniated
disc. (AR 215). At step one, ALJ Lindsay determined that Mr.
Staton had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since
January 8, 2011, the alleged disability onset date. (AR 618).
At step two, ALJ Lindsay found that Mr. Staton has the
following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and
joint disease of the lumbar ...