United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
FASHING UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Jesus
Quezada's Motion to Reverse or Remand for a Rehearing
with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 17), which was fully briefed
on August 10, 2018. Docs. 20, 21, 22. The parties consented
to my entering final judgment in this case. Docs. 6, 7, 8.
Having meticulously reviewed the record and being fully
advised in the premises, the Court finds that the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to
properly resolve the conflict between the Dictionary of
Occupational Titles (“DOT”) and the vocational
expert's (“VE”) testimony. The Court
therefore GRANTS Mr. Quezada's motion and remands this
case for an immediate award of benefits.
Standard of Review
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). 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
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 an administrative agency's
findings from being supported by substantial evidence. We may
not displace the agenc[y's] choice between two fairly
conflicting views, even though the court would justifiably
have made a different choice had the matter been before it de
Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007)
(internal quotations and citations omitted) (brackets in
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
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. §§
considering a disability application, the Commissioner is
required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20
C.F.R. § 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) 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 of presumptively disabling impairments; or
(4) the claimant is unable to perform his or her “past
relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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.
Background and Procedural History
Quezada is a 52-year-old man who lives with his long-term
girlfriend. AR 159, 174, 185, 202, 480, 482,
Mr. Quezada completed the sixth grade in Mexico and is able
to read, speak, and write fluently in the Spanish language,
although not in English. AR 34, 480, 482, 749. Mr. Quezada
has a history of working as a roofer, but stopped working in
2008 due to a knee injury. AR 34, 165, 482, 545.
Quezada filed his initial application for Disability
Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on October 29, 2008,
alleging disability beginning on March 10, 2008 due to a
right knee injury, diabetes, and high blood pressure (hbp).
AR 137-43, 164. The Social Security Administration
(“SSA”) denied his claims initially and on
reconsideration. AR 65-72, 79-81. On April 26, 2010, Mr.
Quezada requested a hearing. AR 82-83. On May 19, 2011, ALJ
Ann Farris held a hearing, at which Mr. Quezada testified
with the assistance of an interpreter. AR 28-53. ALJ Ferris
issued an unfavorable decision on July 7, 2011. AR 9-27. Mr.
Quezada requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied
the request on September 20, 2012. AR 1-8, 134-35.
November 20, 2012, Mr. Quezada appealed the
Commissioner's decision to this Court. See Quezada v.
Social Security Administration, 1:12-cv-01204-MCA-WPL
(D.N.M. 2012). On September 9, 2013, the Commissioner agreed
to remand the case “pursuant to sentence four (4) of
§ 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89
(1991).” AR 561-62. During the pendency of the appeal,
on April 12, 2013, Mr. Quezada applied for supplemental
security income (“SSI”). AR 567. The state
agency issued a favorable determination on
September 20, 2013, finding Mr. Quezada disabled beginning
April 1, 2013. Id. Subsequently, on October 21,
2013, the Appeals Council issued an order remanding the DIB
case to an ALJ for further proceedings in accordance with the
order of the District Court. AR 567-69. In its October 2013
order, the Appeals Council affirmed the state agency
determination that Mr. Quezada was disabled beginning April
1, 2013, but ordered that “the period prior to April 1,
2013 requires further administrative proceedings.” AR
to the October 2013 order of the Appeals Council, ALJ Farris
held another hearing on November 5, 2014. AR 523, 540-59. Mr.
Quezada testified at the November 2014 hearing with the
assistance of an interpreter. AR 540, 542. ALJ Farris issued
a second unfavorable decision on December 19, 2014. AR
517-39. Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.984(a), (c), and
(d), the 2014 ALJ decision became the final decision of the
Commissioner on February 17, 2015 because no exceptions were
filed, and the Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction.
On April 7, 2015, Mr. Quezada once again appealed the
Commissioner's final decision to this Court. See
Quezada v. Social Security Administration,
1:15-cv-00282-LAM (D.N.M. 2015). This Court remanded the case
“for consideration of the sole issue of the date of
onset of Plaintiff's disability . . .
.” AR 820-21.
remand, ALJ Raul C. Pardo held a brief hearing on February
15, 2017. AR 762-69. Mr. Quezada appeared at the hearing and
was assisted by an interpreter. AR 762, 764, 768. A VE, Tom
Griner, was also present. AR 762, 764. The February 2017
hearing was continued because a medical expert was not
present. AR 766-68. The hearing was rescheduled for June 15,
2017. AR 770-99. Mr. Quezada was not present during the June
2017 hearing, but he was represented by counsel. AR 772.
Testimony was taken from two medical experts and a VE, Phunda
Yarbrough. AR 738, 770-95. The hearing specifically focused
on the period from March 10, 2008 to March 31, 2013. AR 772.
ALJ Pardo issued his unfavorable decision on July 27, 2017.
AR 732-61. Once again, Mr. Quezada did not file exceptions to
the ALJ's decision, and the Appeals Council did not
assume jurisdiction. Instead, Mr. Quezada opted to file a
complaint in this Court. Doc. 1. It is this third decision by
ALJ Pardo-based on Mr. Quezada's October 2008
application-that forms the basis for this appeal.
Mr. Quezada already had been found to be disabled, the issue
before ALJ Pardo was limited to when Mr. Quezada's
disability began. AR 738. The ALJ concluded that
the claimant has been under a disability within the meaning
of the Social Security Act beginning May 28, 2011, but not
before. Since the claimant was not under a disability within
the meaning of the Social Security Act from March 10, 2008,
though the date last insured of December 31, 2009, he is not
entitled to benefits under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the
Social Security Act.
AR 739. The ALJ found that Mr. Quezada was disabled as of May
28, 2011-the date he attained the age 45-because a finding
of “disabled” was directed by Medical-Vocational
Rule 201.17. AR 752.
the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ
determined that Mr. Quezada met the insured status
requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31,
2009. AR 741. At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Quezada had
not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since March 10,
2008, the alleged onset date. Id. Because Mr.
Quezada had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for
at least twelve months, the ALJ proceeded to step two. At
step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Quezada had the following
severe impairments: “right medial meniscal tear status
post subtotal meniscectomy, patella-femoral syndrome, type II
diabetes, anxiety, and depression.” Id.
(citation omitted). The ALJ found that Mr. Quezada's
hypertension was non-severe. Id.
three, the ALJ found that prior to May 28, 2011, none of Mr.
Quezada's impairments, alone or in combination, met or
medically equaled a Listing. AR 741-43. Because the ALJ found
that none of the impairments met a Listing, ...