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Maestas v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 15, 2019

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


          STEPHAN M. VIDMAR United States Magistrate Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse or Remand Administrative Agency Decision [Doc. 22], filed on November 5, 2018, and his Memorandum Brief in Support [Doc. 21], filed on November 2, 2018 (collectively, “Motion”). The Commissioner responded on December 19, 2018. [Doc. 24]. Plaintiff replied on January 28, 2019. [Doc. 25]. The parties have consented to my entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 14]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that Plaintiff fails to meet his burden as the movant to show that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) did not apply the correct legal standards or that his decision was not supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Motion will be denied and the Commissioner's final decision, affirmed.

         Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision[1] is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008). 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). Courts must meticulously review the entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute their judgment for that of the Commissioner. Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118. The 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.” Id. While a court may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its examination of the record as a whole must include “anything that may undercut or detract from the [Commissioner]'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] 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)).

         “The failure to apply the correct legal standard or to provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed is grounds for reversal.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005) (quotation marks omitted).

         Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         In order to qualify for disability benefits, a claimant 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (2018); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a) (2012).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; and (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 (3) his impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the “Listings”[2] 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), 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. If he cannot show that his impairment meets or equals a Listing, but he proves that he is unable to perform his “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof then shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering his residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         Procedural Background

         On January 7, 2013, Plaintiff applied for disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. Tr. 15. Plaintiff alleged a disability-onset date of January 1, 2012. Id. His claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. ALJ Frederick E. Upshall, Jr., held a hearing on June 2, 2015, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tr. 15, 38. Plaintiff appeared in person at the hearing with his attorney. Tr. 15, 40. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Patricia McLaughlin. Tr. 38-89.

         The ALJ issued his unfavorable decision on April 25, 2016. See Tr. 4. As an initial matter, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2016. Tr. 17. At step one, he found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “chronic pain disorder; arthropathies; fibromyalgia; depression; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[;] and mild neurocognitive disorder.” Id. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's seizure disorder was not severe. Tr. 17-18.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. Tr. 18-19. Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 19-25. The ALJ found that Plaintiff:

has the [RFC] to perform a range [of] medium work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. ยงยง] 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c). He is able to lift up to 50 pounds occasionally, and lift or carry up to 25 pounds frequently. Pushing and pulling is limited only by the exertional limitation. He can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, but can occasionally climb ramps or stairs and can occasional stoop, crouch, crawl and kneel. Bilateral reaching in all directions, handling and fingering are limited to occasionally. He must avoid all use of moving machinery and all exposure to unprotected heights. He is limited to simple, routine, repetitive unskilled tasks (reasoning level 2); performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements; ...

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