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Sanchez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 21, 2019

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Steven Sanchez' Motion to Reverse and/or Remand (the “Motion”), (Doc. 21), filed February 17, 2019; Defendant Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill's Brief in Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand the Administrative Decision (the “Response”), (Doc. 28), filed April 17, 2019; and Mr. Sanchez' Reply in Support of Motion to Reverse and/or Remand (the “Reply”), (Doc. 29), filed May 3, 2019.

         Mr. Sanchez filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on October 27, 2014. (Administrative Record “AR” 240, 247). In both of his applications, Mr. Sanchez alleged disability beginning September 15, 2010. Id. His alleged disability onset date was later amended to September 2, 2014. (AR 36-37). Mr. Sanchez claimed he was limited in his ability to work due to post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), depression, “spinal norring, ” and nerve damage. (AR 268). Mr. Sanchez' applications were denied initially on March 27, 2015, (AR 106), and upon reconsideration on September 9, 2016, (AR 112).

         Mr. Sanchez requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), (AR 116), which was held on December 14, 2017, before ALJ Cole Gerstner. (AR 34). Mr. Sanchez and impartial vocational expert (“VE”) Karen Provine testified at the hearing. (AR 34). ALJ Gerstner issued his decision on February 13, 2018 finding Mr. Sanchez not disabled at any time between his initial filing date through the date of his decision. (AR 27). Mr. Sanchez requested review by the Appeals Council, (AR 226), which was denied, (AR 1), making ALJ Gerstner's opinion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review.

         Mr. Sanchez, represented by attorney Benjamin Decker, argues in his Motion that ALJ Gerstner made three reversible errors. (Doc. 21 at 15-17). First, Mr. Sanchez alleges ALJ Gerstner failed to discuss his medical diagnosis of PTSD prescribed by physician Ross M. Clark, M.D. Id. at 15. Next, Mr. Sanchez contends ALJ Gerstner's RFC assessment erroneously omitted prescribed limitations related to his ability to persistently perform tasks. Id. at 16. Finally, Mr. Sanchez claims ALJ Gerstner failed to discuss evidence that supported a more restrictive RFC assessment and ignored evidence that contradicted his finding of nondisability. Id. at 17. The Court has reviewed the Motion, the Response, the Reply, and the relevant law. Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed the administrative record. Because ALJ Gerstner erred in not considering the medical opinion of Dr. Clark in his step two analysis, the Court finds that Mr. Sanchez' Motion should be GRANTED and this case be REMANDED for further administrative 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 is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008) (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)). 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); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). The Commissioner's “failure to apply the correct legal standards, or to show . . . that she has done so, are also grounds for reversal.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). A court should meticulously review the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. A court's review is limited to the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which is generally the ALJ's decision, rather than the Appeals Council's denial of review. O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (10th Cir. 1994).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. An ALJ's 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.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. While the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its examination of the record 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 ALJ]'s 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)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         For purposes of supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits, a claimant establishes a disability when 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), 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”). Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         At the first four steps of the SEP, the claimant bears the burden of showing: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (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 either (3) his impairment(s) meet or equal one of the “listings”[1] 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); see also Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). If the ALJ determines the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, the ALJ will proceed to step five of the evaluation process. At step five, the Commissioner bears the burden of showing 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. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         III. Background

         Mr. Sanchez claimed he was limited in his ability to work due to PTSD, depression, spinal issues, and nerve damage. (AR 268). At step one, ALJ Gerstner determined that Mr. Sanchez had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 2, 2014, the alleged disability onset date. (AR 17). At step two, ALJ Gerstner found that Mr. Sanchez has the following severe impairments: degenerative lumbar disc disease; affective disorder; and alcohol disorder. Id.

         At step three, ALJ Gerstner determined that none of Mr. Sanchez' impairments, solely or in combination, equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926. (AR 18). ALJ Gerstner then found that Mr. Sanchez has the RFC to perform a limited range of medium work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c), with the following limitations: he can lift and/or carry and push and/or pull fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently; he is able to sit and stand and/or walk six hours in an eight-hour workday; he is limited to simple, routine tasks and his judgment is limited to simple, work-related decisions; he may have occasional interaction ...

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