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Staton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 13, 2019

RONALD NORMAN STATON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of 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 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.

         Mr. 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, 119, 122).

         Mr. 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.

         On 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 669-70).

         On 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 appeal.

         Mr. 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.

         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 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.

         At the 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”[1] 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.

         III. Background

         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). 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 ...


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