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Samford v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 19, 2019

ELIZABETH SAMFORD, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JERRY H. RITTER U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Elizabeth Samford's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum, [Doc. 19');">19');">19');">19], filed August 3, 2018. 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 the entry of final judgment. [Docs. 4, 7, 8]. Having studied the parties' positions, the relevant law, and the relevant portions of the Administrative Record (“AR”), [1] the Court denies Ms. Samford's Motion for the reasons set forth below.

         I) INTRODUCTION

         This Court's institutional role is specific and narrow. The Commissioner's decision to deny benefits must be upheld where it is supported by substantial evidence and free from harmful legal error. In this case, Ms. Samford argues that the Commissioner's decision to deny her claim at Step Two of the sequential evaluation process was unsupported by substantial evidence because the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who decided her claim rejected the opinion of her treating psychologist, failed to accord proper weight to the opinion of a consultative examiner, and failed to ensure the record was complete. However, the Court finds that substantial evidence, defined as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” Williamson v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1097, 1098 (10th Cir. 2003), supports the ALJ's treatment of the medical opinions and denial of Ms. Samford's claim without further development of the record. As such, the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed.

         II) BACKGROUND

         Ms. Samford filed an application with the Social Security Administration for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act on March 20, 2014. AR at 117-120. She alleged a disability onset date of June 1, 2003. AR at 117. However, Ms. Samford did not stop working until November 21, 2013. AR at 147. As grounds for disability, Ms. Samford alleged depressive disorder. AR at 147. The Administration denied Ms. Samford's claim initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a de novo hearing before an ALJ. AR at 49-87.

         ALJ T. Patrick Hannon held an evidentiary hearing on October 18, 2016. AR at 33-48. Ms. Samford appeared at the hearing pro se, and declined additional time to obtain an attorney or representative. AR at 36. She also offered no objection to the admission of the evidence that makes up the administrative record in her case. AR at 36. On November 9, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Ms. Samford has not been under a disability from the date her application was filed through the date of his decision. AR at 19');">19');">19');">19-29. In response, Ms. Samford filed a “Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order” on December 5, 2016. AR at 115-116. After reviewing her case, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Samford's request for review on December 27, 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');">22.210(a).

         A claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that she 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).[2]

         At Step One of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Samford has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her application date. AR at 21. At Step Two, he determined that Ms. Samford has the medically determinable impairments of “hypertension, uterine fibroid, osteoarthritis, affective disorder, [and] substance addiction disorder.” AR at 21. However, the ALJ determined that none of Ms. Samford's impairments, either singularly or in combination, were “severe” under the regulations. AR at 22');">22. In other words, the ALJ found that Ms. Samford does not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). As such, the ALJ ended his analysis and denied benefits, see 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) (“If we can find that you are disabled or not disabled at a step, we make our determination or decision and we do not go on to the next step.”), finding that Ms. Samford was not under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act from her alleged onset date through the date of his decision. AR at 28.

         III) LEGAL STANDARDS

         This Court “review[s] the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Vigil v. Colvin, 19');">19');">19');">199');">805 F.3d 119');">19');">19');">199, 1201 (10th Cir. 2015) (quoting Mays v. Colvin, 739 F.3d 569, 571 (10th Cir. 2014)). A deficiency in either area is grounds for remand. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161 (10th Cir. 2012). “‘Substantial evidence' means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Racette v. Berryhill, 734 Fed.Appx. 592, 595 (10th Cir. 2018) (quoting Howard v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 945, 947 (10th Cir. 2004)). “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). The Court reviews the record as a whole, does not reweigh the evidence, and cannot substitute its judgment for that of the agency. White v. Berryhill, 704 Fed.Appx. 774, 776 (10th Cir. 2017) (citing Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008)).

         IV) ANALYSIS

         Ms. Samford argues that the ALJ erred in concluding that her mental and physical impairments were not severe and concluding the Sequential Evaluation Process at Step Two. [Doc. 19');">19');">19');">19, p. 2]. In support, she argues that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinions of her treating psychologist and an examining physician. [Id.]. She also argues that the ALJ breached his duty to develop the record. [Id.]. For the reasons that follow, the Court disagrees.

         A) The ALJ reasonably concluded that Ms. Samford's medically determinable impairments are not severe under the regulations.

         At Step Two, Ms. Samford “bore the burden” to demonstrate “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” See Williamson v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1097, 1099 (10th Cir. 2003); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). While the Tenth Circuit has characterized this showing as “de minimis, ” “the mere presence of a condition is not sufficient to make a step-two showing.” Williamson, 350 F.3d at 1100 (citing Hinkle v. Apfel, 132 F.3d 1349, 1352 (10th Cir. 19');">19');">19');">1997)). “In determining whether a severe impairment exists, the Commissioner considers the ‘effect' of the impairment.” Id. Thus, the claimant's impairment must be the cause of the claimant's failure to obtain substantial gainful work. Id. “If the impairments are not severe enough to limit significantly the claimant's ability to perform most jobs, by definition the impairment does not present the claimant from engaging in any substantial gainful activity.” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 (19');">19');">19');">1987). Thus, “[t]he impairment severity requirement cannot be satisfied when medical evidence shows that the impairment(s) has a minimal effect on a person's ability(ies) to perform basic work activities, that is, when he or she has the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs.” SSR 86-8, 19');">19');">19');">1986 WL

Examples of these are walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying or handing; seeing, hearing, and speaking; understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; use of judgment, responding appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual work situations; and dealing with changes in a routine work setting.

SSR 85-28, 19');">19');">19');">1985 WL 56856, at *3.

         Ultimately, the Commissioner, as opposed to a doctor, is responsible for determining whether a claimant has a severe impairment. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d). However, a claim may be denied at Step Two “only if the evidence shows that the individual's impairments, when considered in combination are not medically severe, i.e., do not have more than a minimal effect on the person's physical or mental ability(ies) to perform basic work activities. If such a finding is not clearly established by medical evidence… adjudication must continue through the sequential evaluation process.” SSR 85-28, ...


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