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Duran v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 6, 2019

LEO RICK DURAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Stephan M. Vidmar United States Magistrate Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum [Doc. 15], filed on January 15, 2019. The Commissioner responded on March 5, 2019. [Doc. 17]. Plaintiff replied on March 27, 2019. [Doc. 18]. The parties have consented to my entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 8]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) did not apply the correct legal standards in evaluating Dr. Owen's, Dr. Parmley's, and Dr. Manole's opinions. Accordingly, the Motion will be granted, and the case will be remanded for further proceedings. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2018) (sentence four).

         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). Courts must meticulously review the entire record but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute their 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. The 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 a court may not re-weigh 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 [Commissioner]'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) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (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) (quoting Byron v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 1232, 1235 (10th Cir. 1984)).

         Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         In order to qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (2018); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a) (2012).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2012). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; and (2) he 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) his impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the “Listings”[2]of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) he is unable to perform his “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv), 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. If he cannot show that he impairment meets or equals a Listing, but he proves that he is unable to perform his “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof then shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering his residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on July 5, 2016. Tr. 15. He alleged a disability-onset date of June 30, 2016. Id. His claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. ALJ Stephen Gontis held a hearing on March 7, 2018, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tr. 15. Plaintiff appeared in person at the hearing with his attorney. Tr. 38. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Sandra Trost, who testified via telephone. Id.

         The ALJ issued his unfavorable decision on April 23, 2018. Tr. 30. He found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2021. Tr. 17. At step one, he found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “hernias, diabetes mellitus, and affective disorders.” Tr. 18. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's mild obstructive sleep apnea was not severe. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. Tr. 18-21. Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 21-28. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had:

the [RFC] to lift and/or carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently. [Plaintiff] can stand and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. [Plaintiff] can sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. [Plaintiff] can push and/or pull fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently. [Plaintiff] can frequently climb ramps and stairs, and occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can never work at unprotected heights. He is limited to simple, routine tasks. He can have frequent interactions with supervisors, and occasional ...

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