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Torres Knowlton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 21, 2019

ELLENA MARIA TORRES KNOWLTON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 18) filed on August 6, 2018. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the parties have consented to me serving as the presiding judge and entering final judgment. See Docs. 6, 7, 8. Having considered the record, submissions of counsel, and relevant law, the Court finds Plaintiff's motion is well-taken and will be granted in part.

         I. Procedural History

         On January 28, 2015, Ms. Ellena Maria Torres Knowlton (“Plaintiff”) filed an application with the Social Security Administration for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. Administrative Record[1] (“AR”) at 137, 277-78. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of June 27, 2014. AR at 139. Disability Determination Services determined that Plaintiff was not disabled both initially (AR at 193, 137-58) and on reconsideration (AR at 198, 160-91). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on the merits of her application. AR at 204-05.

         Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified during the de novo hearing. See AR at 67-136. ALJ Stephen Gontis issued an unfavorable decision on June 22, 2017. AR at 11-28. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council (AR at 275), which the Council denied on December 27, 2017 (AR at 1-4). Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003).

         II. Applicable Law and the ALJ's Findings

         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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).

         The claimant has the burden at the first four steps of the process to show: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) she 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) her impairment(s) meet or equal one of the listings in Appendix 1, Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404; or (4) pursuant to the assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), she is unable to perform her 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) (citations omitted). “RFC is a multidimensional description of the work-related abilities [a claimant] retain[s] in spite of her medical impairments.” 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(B); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). If the claimant meets “the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability[, ] . . . the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant retains sufficient . . . RFC to perform work in the national economy, given [her] age, education, and work experience.” Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261 (citing Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 & n.2 (10th Cir. 1988) (internal citation omitted)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         At Step One of the process, [2] ALJ Gontis found that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 27, 2014, the alleged onset date.” AR at 13 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: disease of circulatory system; affective disorders; posttraumatic stress disorder; and anxiety.” AR at 14 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)). The ALJ found that the following impairments are non-severe: diabetes mellitus, a fracture of a bone, adhesive capsulitis of the left shoulder, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, hearing loss, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. AR at 14.

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” AR at 15 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). The ALJ considered Listings 4.06 (symptomatic congenital heart disease) and 4.00 (cardiovascular system). AR at 15. With respect to Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ further concluded that “[t]he severity of [Plaintiff's] mental impairments, considered singly and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the criteria of listings 12.04, 12.06 and 12.15.” AR at 15. In making this determination, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has moderate limitations in all the broad areas of functioning: understanding, remembering, or applying information; interacting with others; concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; or adapting or managing oneself. AR at 15-16. Because Plaintiff's “mental impairments do not cause at least two ‘marked' limitations or one ‘extreme' limitation” the ALJ found that the paragraph B criteria are not satisfied. AR at 16; see also 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P, App. 1 § 12.06(B). The ALJ also found that the evidence of record “fails to establish the presence of the ‘paragraph C' criteria.” AR at 16.

         In determining Plaintiff's RFCs, the ALJ found that while Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms[, ] . . . [Plaintiff's] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record . . . .” AR at 18. The ALJ considered the evidence of record and Plaintiff's administrative hearing testimony, as well as the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians and treating counselors, the consultative physicians, and Plaintiff's friends. AR at 17-26. Ultimately, the ALJ found that, between June 27, 2014 and August 9, 2016, Plaintiff had the RFC to

lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She could sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks. She could stand and/or walk for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks. Her ability to push and/or pull was only limited by her ability to lift and/or carry. She could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. She could never work at unprotected heights. She was limited to work involving the performance of simple, routine tasks and simple work-related decisions. She could have frequent interaction with supervisors and occasional interactions with coworkers and the general public. Her time off task was accommodated by normal breaks. [The ALJ found] that this was a limited range of work contained in the light exertional level as defined by 20 C.F.R. [§] 404.1567 and SSR 83-10.

AR at 17 (emphasis added). He further found that, as of August 9, 2016, Plaintiff has the RFC to

lift and/or carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently. She can sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks. She can stand and/or walk for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks. Her ability to push and/or pull is only limited by her ability to lift and/or carry. She can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. She can never work at unprotected heights. She is limited to work involving the performance of simple, routine tasks and simple work-related decisions. She can have frequent interaction with supervisors and occasional interaction with coworkers and the general public. Her time off task can be accommodated by normal breaks. [The ALJ found] that this is a limited range of work contained in the medium exertional level as defined by 20 C.F.R. [§] 404.1156 and SSR 83-10.

AR at 23-34 (emphasis added).

         At Step Four, ALJ Gontis found Plaintiff's past relevant work to include sales person, furniture manager, head cashier, cashier/prep person, loan clerk, film machine operator, material handler, and retail store manager. AR at 26. Based on testimony from the VE, the ALJ concluded that “[f]rom the alleged onset date to the present, [Plaintiff] has been capable of performing past relevant work as a film machine operator.” AR at 26 (citing DOT 976.685-014).

         Even though he determined Plaintiff could perform past relevant work, the ALJ made alternate Step Five findings. The VE testified that a person with Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and initial RFC (for light work) could perform the duties of marker, photo copy machine operator, and bottle packager. AR at 27.The VE further testified that, in addition to those jobs, a person with Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and second RFC (for medium work) could perform the duties of cleaner II and laundry worker II. AR at 28. Based on this testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” AR at 28.

         The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, [since] June 27, 2014 . . . .” AR at 28 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f)).

         III. Legal Standard

         The Court must “review the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal citation omitted)). A deficiency in either area is grounds for remand. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161, 1166 (10th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172 (internal quotation omitted)). “It ...


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