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Anaya v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 25, 2019

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


          Laura Fashing United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Antoinette Anaya's Motion to Reverse or Remand (Doc. 17), which was fully briefed on June 27, 2018. See Docs. 19, 24, 25. The parties consented to my entering final judgment in this case. Docs. 4, 8, 9. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, I find that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to do a proper function-by-function analysis. I therefore GRANT Ms. Anaya's motion and remand this case to the Commissioner 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[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). “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) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). The Court must meticulously review the entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its 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. A 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 the Court may not reweigh 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 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] findings from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he or 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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show: (1) the claimant is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) the claimant 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) the impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the Listings[2] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) the claimant is unable to perform his or her “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1260-61. If the claimant cannot show that his or her impairment meets or equals a Listing but proves that he or she is unable to perform his or her “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show 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. Id.

         III. Background and Procedural History

         Ms. Anaya was born in 1964, went to school through the 12th grade and then earned a GED, and worked as a convenience store cashier, a restaurant cook/manager, a security guard, and a caregiver/“home attendant.” AR 40, 167, 195.[3] She filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on July 5, 2013, alleging disability since April 13, 2013 due to blood clots. AR 167-73, 194. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her claim initially on February 13, 2014. AR 112-15. The SSA denied her claims on reconsideration on September 12, 2014. AR 121-26. Ms. Anaya requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 164. On June 30, 2016, ALJ Lillian Richter held a hearing. AR 36-83. ALJ Richter issued an unfavorable decision on August 4, 2016. AR 14-35.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Anaya had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity from her alleged onset date of April 13, 2013, through her date last insured of March 31, 2015.[4] AR 19. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Anaya suffered from the following severe impairments: acute deep venous thrombosis and pulmonary embolism; uterine fibroids; menorrhagia; myalgia with fatigue; and depressive disorder. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Ms. Anaya's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 20-23. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Ms. Anaya's RFC. AR 23-29. The ALJ found Ms. Anaya had the RFC to

perform light work as defined in 20 C.FR 404.1567(b) except that she can frequently handle, finger, and feel bilaterally. The claimant cannot balance and should not be exposed to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts. Additionally, the claimant is limited to simple, routine, repetitive work. She cannot work at an assembly-line production pace but can meet end-of-day goals. Finally, the claimant can have occasional interaction with co-workers and the public and can have frequent interaction with supervisors.

AR 23.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Anaya was unable to perform her past relevant work as a “home attendant, ” or as a manager at a fast food restaurant. AR 28-29. The ALJ found Ms. Anaya not disabled at step five because she could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy-such as a photocopy machine operator, a merchandise marker, and a housekeeping cleaner. AR 29-30.

         On September 19, 2016, Ms. Anaya requested review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision by the Appeals Council. AR 5, 164. On July 20, 2017, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. AR 1-6. Ms. Anaya timely filed her appeal to this Court on August 11, 2017.[5]Doc. 1.

         IV. Ms. Anaya's Claims

         Ms. Anaya raises two arguments for reversing and remanding this case: (1) the ALJ failed to do a proper function-by-function analysis, and (2) the ALJ improperly relied on the opinions of the non-examining state agency medical consultants. See Doc. 17. For the reasons discussed below, I find that the ALJ failed to do a proper function-by-function analysis, and I remand on this basis. I do not address the other alleged error, which “may be affected by the ALJ's treatment of this case on remand.” Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1299 (10th Cir. 2003).

         V. The ALJ failed to do a proper function-by-function analysis in formulating Ms. Anaya's RFC.

         Ms. Anaya argues that the ALJ failed to do a proper function-by-function analysis. Doc. 17 at 7-8. Specifically, she argues that the ALJ failed to adequately consider limitations in her abilities to stand, walk, and sit. Id. The Commissioner argues that a “hyper-technical function-by-function analysis is [not] required, ” and that Ms. Anaya fails “to point to any evidence showing that the ALJ overlooked any limitations or restrictions.” Doc. 19 at 7. For the reasons discussed below, I agree with Ms. Anaya.

         Step Four of the sequential evaluation process is comprised of three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 ...

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