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Duran v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 11, 2019

BERONICA STARR DURAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO REVERSE OR REMAND

          KEVIN R. SWEAZEA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's determination that she is not entitled to disability benefits under Title II or Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383c. With the consent of the parties to conduct dispositive proceedings in this matter, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the Court has considered Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse or Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum, filed September 10, 2018 (Doc. 19), the Commissioner's response in opposition, filed October 29, 2018 (Doc. 22), and Plaintiff's reply, filed January 4, 2019 (Doc. 25). Having so considered, the Court FINDS and CONCLUDES that Plaintiff's motion should be DENIED.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On March 14, 2013, Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging that she had been disabled since March 1, 2006, due to depression, high blood pressure, and chronic alcoholism. (AR 318, 321). Plaintiff's claims were denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels of review, and a subsequent hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Eric Weiss, held on May 26, 2016, again ended in a denial. (AR 53-67).

         In making his decision, ALJ Weiss engaged in the required five-step disability analysis, [1]first finding that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of March 1, 2006. (AR 56).[2] At step two, ALJ Weiss found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of bipolar disorder, not otherwise specified; posttraumatic stress disorder; major depressive disorder; anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified; obesity; and degenerative changes to the thoracic and lumbar spine. (AR 56). At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, whether alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. (AR 57).

         ALJ Weiss next assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), [3] finding that Plaintiff had the RFC to:

lift 20 pounds occasionally and to lift and/or carry 10 pounds frequently. Her ability to push and/or pull is limited by her ability to lift and/or carry. She is able to walk and stand for 6 hours per 8-hour workday with normal breaks. She is able to sit for 6 hours per 8-hour workday with normal breaks. She is able to occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but she can never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds. She can occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel and crawl. She must avoid more than occasional exposure to unprotected heights and to hazardous moving machinery. She is able to understand, remember and carryout simple, repetitive instructions and to make commensurate work-related decisions, in a workplace with few changes. She can have occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers and the public. She is able to maintain concentration, persistence and pace for 2 hours at a time during the 8-hour workday with normal breaks. I find that this is a limited range of work contained in the light exertional level as defined by 20 CFR 404.1567, 20 CFR 416.967 and SSR 83-10.

(AR 59). The ALJ then proceeded to steps four and five where, with the help of a vocational expert, he determined that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as a housekeeper (at the medium work level), but that she could perform the requirements of representative occupations such as housekeeper (at the light work level); garment sorter; and assembly worker. (AR 65-66). Accordingly, ALJ Weiss concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 67).

         The ALJ's decision became final when, on February 14, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1-3). See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000) (explaining that if the Council denies a request for a review, the ALJ's opinion becomes the final decision). See also 20 C.F.R. § 404.900(a)(1)-(5). Plaintiff now asks the Court to reverse the Commissioner's decision arguing, in sum, that the ALJ's RFC determination does not adequately reflect her mental health limitations.

         II. STANDARD

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining “whether substantial evidence supports the factual findings and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.” Allman v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 1326, 1330 (10th Cir. 2016). See also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004) (quotation omitted). “Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion.” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005) (quotation omitted). The Court must examine the record as a whole, “including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Id. at 1262. “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.” Byron v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 1232, 1235 (10th Cir. 1984) (quotation omitted). Even so, it is not the function of the Court to review Plaintiff's claims de novo, and the Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Glass v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994).

         Cognizant of these analytical confines, the Court has meticulously reviewed the record and determined that Plaintiff's arguments are without merit.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Prior to articulating his RFC determination, ALJ Weiss considered the evidence of record, including opinion evidence provided by a variety of health care professionals. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ mistreated opinion evidence submitted by three of these professionals-state agency non-examining psychological consultants Brad Williams, Ph.D. and Dan Cox, Ph.D., and social worker Michelle DiCubellis, LISW-resulting in a flawed RFC determination. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that ALJ Weiss failed to ...


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