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Vigil v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 19, 2019

CHRISTOBAL VIGIL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 16) filed on November 14, 2018. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the parties have consented to me serving as the presiding judge and entering final judgment. See Docs. 4, 7, 8. Having considered the record, submissions of counsel, and relevant law, the Court finds Plaintiff's motion is not well-taken and will be denied.

         I. Procedural History

         On May 4, 2015, Mr. Christobal Vigil (Plaintiff) filed applications with the Social Security Administration for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (SSA), and for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the SSA. Administrative Record[1] (AR) at 33, 271-88. Plaintiff originally alleged a disability onset date of January 1, 1996. AR at 33, 271. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) noted that Plaintiff “has acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to remain insured through June 30, 2008. Thus, [he was required to] establish disability on or before that date in order to be entitled to a period of disability and disability insurance benefits” pursuant to Title II. AR at 34.

         On June 12, 2017, however, Plaintiff, through his attorney, amended the disability onset date to May 4, 2015, thus dismissing his claim under Title II. AR at 33, 260. His claim for SSI, however, remained pending. “While a Title II claimant seeking disability insurance benefits must prove disability prior to her [date last insured], there is no such requirement for Title XVI claimant seeking SSI.” Gabaldon v. Barnhart, 399 F.Supp.2d 1240, 1250 (D.N.M. 2005) (citing SSR 83-20, 1983 WL 31249, at *1 (Jan. 1, 1983)).

         Disability Determination Services (DDS) determined that Plaintiff was not disabled both initially (AR at 111-13) and on reconsideration (AR at 149-51). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on the merits of his applications. AR at 210-11.

         Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified during the de novo hearing. See AR at 78-110. ALJ Cole Gerstner issued an unfavorable decision on November 6, 2017. AR at 30-54. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Reconsideration to the Appeals Council (AR at 196-97), which the council denied on May 25, 2018 (AR at 1-6). Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003).

         II. Applicable Law and the ALJ's Findings

         A claimant seeking disability benefits 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); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).

         The claimant has the burden at the first four steps of the process to show: (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 (3) his impairment(s) meet or equal one of the listings in Appendix 1, Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404; or (4) pursuant to the assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), he is unable to perform his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R § 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); see also Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). “RFC is a multidimensional description of the work-related abilities [a claimant] retain[s] in spite of [his] medical impairments.” 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(B); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). If the claimant meets “the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability[, ] . . . the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant retains sufficient . . . RFC to perform work in the national economy, given his age, education, and work experience.” Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261 (citing Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 & n.2 (10th Cir. 1988) (internal citation omitted)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         At Step One of the process, ALJ Gerstner found that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 4, 2015 . . . .” AR at 36 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576, 416.971-976). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD]; and bipolar disorder.” AR at 36 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c)). The ALJ noted the following non-severe impairments: “lumbago, hepatitis C, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), agoraphobia with panic disorder, panic disorder without agoraphobia[, ] and drug dependency in remission.” AR at 36.

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” AR at 38 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926). In making his determination, ALJ Gerstner considered listings 12.04 (affective disorders) and 12.15 (trauma- and stressor-related disorders). AR at 38. Regarding Plaintiff's mental impairments, ALJ Gerstner first examined whether they met the “paragraph B” criteria. He found that Plaintiff has moderate limitations in the areas of understanding, remembering, or applying information; interacting with others; and concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and mild limitations in the area of adapting or managing oneself. AR at 38-39. Because Plaintiff's “mental impairments do not cause at least two ‘marked' limitations or one ‘extreme' limitation, the ‘paragraph B' criteria [were] not satisfied.” AR at 39. The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff did not meet the “paragraph C” criteria. AR at 39.

         At Step Four, the ALJ explained that while Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms[, ]” his “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record . . . .” AR at 41. Ultimately, the ALJ found that Plaintiff

has the [RFC] to perform a full range or work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: he is limited to work involving the performance of simple, routine tasks. He is limited to making simple work-related decisions. He can occasionally interact with supervisors and coworkers, but he can have only incidental contact with the general public.

AR at 39. ALJ Gerstner found that Plaintiff “has no past relevant work” (AR at 46), but he is able to perform the positions of dishwasher, warehouse worker, auto detailer, advertising material distributor, marker, photo copy machine operator, and router (AR at 47). The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 4, 2015, through the date of [the ALJ's] decision.” AR at 47 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g)).

         III. Legal Standard

         The Court must “review the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal citation omitted)). A deficiency in either area is grounds for remand. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161, 1166 (10th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172 (internal quotation omitted)). “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation omitted) (alteration in original)). The Court will “consider whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, but [it] will not reweigh the evidence or substitute [its] judgment for the Commissioner's.” Id. (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172 (internal quotation marks and quotations omitted)).

         “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski, 372 F.3d at 1200 (internal quotation omitted)). The Court “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 novo.'” Id. (quoting Zoltanski, 372 F.3d at 1200 (internal quotation omitted)).

         IV. ...


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