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Aragon v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 29, 2019

MARCELO ARAGON,, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration,, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER [1]

          STEVEN C. YARBROUGH UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 19) filed May 1, 2018, in support of Plaintiff Marcelo Aragon's (“Plaintiff”) Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking review of the decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's claims for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income. On August 7, 2018, Plaintiff filed his Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing With Supporting Memorandum (“Motion”). Doc. 24. The Commissioner filed a Response in opposition on October 10, 2018 (Doc. 26), and Plaintiff filed a Reply on October 22, 2018 (Doc. 27). The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the applicable law and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds the Motion is well taken and is GRANTED.

         I. Background and Procedural Record

          Claimant Marcelo Aragon (“Mr. Aragon”) alleges that he became disabled on February 27, 2014, at the age of forty-one because of arthritis, depression, diabetes, severe hearing loss, vertigo, obesity, high blood pressure, brittle teeth, difficulty reading and writing, and skin problems (shingles). Tr. 210, 224.[2] Mr. Aragon completed the twelfth grade in 2001, and has worked as a custodian, customer service representative, and as a director of audio visual in hospitality. Tr. 225-26.

         On February 27, 2014, Mr. Aragon protectively filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. Tr. 197-98. He concurrently filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. Mr. Aragon's applications were initially denied on August 22, 2014. Tr. 71, 72, 73-84, 85-98, 129-32. They were denied again at reconsideration on February 6, 2015. Tr. 97, 98, 99-113, 114-28, 140-42. Mr. Aragon requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and ALJ James Bentley conducted a hearing on October 13, 2016. Tr. 40-70. Mr. Aragon appeared in person at the hearing with attorney representative Michele Baca. Id. The ALJ took testimony from Mr. Aragon, and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Bonnie Ward. Id. On November 18, 2016, ALJ Bentley issued an unfavorable decision. Tr. 17-35.

         On September 27, 2017, the Appeals Council issued its decision denying Mr. Aragon's request for review and upholding the ALJ's final decision. Tr. 1-6. On November 22, 2017, Mr. Aragon timely filed a Complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. Doc. 1.

         II. Applicable Law

         A. Disability Determination Process

         An individual is considered disabled if 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) (pertaining to disability insurance benefits); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(A) (pertaining to supplemental security income disability benefits for adult individuals). The Social Security Commissioner has adopted the familiar five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a person satisfies the statutory criteria as follows:

(1) At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.”[3] If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled regardless of his medical condition.
(2) At step two, the ALJ must determine the severity of the claimed physical or mental impairment(s). If the claimant does not have an impairment(s) or combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, he is not disabled.
(3) At step three, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant's impairment(s) meets or equals in severity one of the listings described in Appendix 1 of the regulations and meets the duration requirement. If so, a claimant is presumed disabled.
(4) If, however, the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal in severity one of the listing described in Appendix 1 of the regulations, the ALJ must determine at step four whether the claimant can perform his “past relevant work.” Answering this question involves three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ considers all of the relevant medical and other evidence and determines what is “the most [claimant] can still do despite [his physical and mental] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). This is called the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Id. §§ 404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a)(3). Second, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands of claimant's past work. Third, the ALJ determines whether, given claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of meeting those demands. A claimant who is capable of returning to past relevant work is not disabled.
(5) If the claimant does not have the RFC to perform his past relevant work, the Commissioner, at step five, must show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. If the Commissioner is unable to make that showing, the claimant is deemed disabled. If, however, the Commissioner is able to make the required showing, the claimant is deemed not disabled.

See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (disability insurance benefits); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) (supplemental security income disability benefits); Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a disability in the first four steps of this analysis. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146, n.5, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2294, n. 5, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy. Id. A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

         B. Standard of Review

         This Court must affirm the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits unless (1) the decision is not supported by “substantial evidence” or (2) the ALJ did not apply the proper legal standards in reaching the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); Casias, 933 F.2d at 800-01. In making these determinations, the Court “neither reweigh[s] the evidence nor substitute[s] [its] judgment for that of the agency.'” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008). A decision is based on substantial evidence where it is supported by “relevant evidence . . . 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[, ]” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118, or “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). The agency decision must “provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005). Therefore, although an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence, “the record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence, ” and “the [ALJ's] reasons for finding a claimant not disabled” must be “articulated with sufficient particularity.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996).

         III. Analysis

         The ALJ determined that Mr. Aragon was not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation. Tr. 33-35. In making this determination, the ALJ found at step one that Mr. Aragon met the insured status requirements through September 30, 2017, and that he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. Tr. 22. At step two, the ALJ found that since his alleged onset date, Mr. Aragon had severe impairments of morbid obesity, osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees, intermittent vertigo, and major depressive disorder, recurrent, severe. Id. He also found nonsevere impairments of bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, GERD, sleep apnea, hypertension, asthma, and seasonal allergies. Tr. 23. The ALJ further stated that he had carefully considered Mr. Aragon's statements of chronic pain. Tr. 22-23. The ALJ, however, determined that Mr. Aragon's impairments did not meet or equal in ...


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