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Carinci v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 26, 2019

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


          Laura Fashing United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Carmen D. Carinci's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 17), which was fully briefed on May 2, 2018. See Docs. 21, 22, 23. The parties consented to my entering final judgment in this case. Docs. 3, 7, 8. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, I find that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by failing to incorporate all the limitations found by examining psychologist Dr. Teresa Makowski in the RFC. I therefore GRANT Ms. Carinci's motion and remand this case to the Commissioner for further 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[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). “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) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). The Court must meticulously review the entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its 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. A 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 the Court may not reweigh 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 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] findings from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he or she 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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show: (1) the claimant is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) the claimant 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) the impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the Listings[2] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) the claimant is unable to perform his or her “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1260-61. If the claimant cannot show that his or her impairment meets or equals a Listing but proves that he or she is unable to perform his or her “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show 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. Id.

         III. Background and Procedural History

         Ms. Carinci was born in 1969, completed one year of college, and worked for approximately 15 years as a dental assistant, and for much shorter periods as a pharmacy technician and a counter assistant in a donut shop. AR 182, 237.[3] Ms. Carinci filed an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) on October 18, 2013, alleging disability since May 8, 2012 due to bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, hand tremors caused by the use of lithium, and myofascial pain throughout her body. AR 182-85, 236. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her DIB claim initially on January 21, 2014. AR 114-17. The SSA denied her DIB claim on reconsideration on July 8, 2014. AR 121-25. Ms. Carinci requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 127-28. On February 10, 2016, ALJ Kim Fields held a hearing. AR 29-53. ALJ Fields issued his unfavorable decision on March 25, 2016. AR 12-28.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Carinci met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017. AR 17. At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Carinci had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since May 8, 2012, her alleged onset date. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Carinci's bipolar disorder, depression, and fibromyalgia were severe impairments. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Ms. Carinci's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 17-19. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Ms. Carinci's RFC. AR 19-21.

         The ALJ found Ms. Carinci had the RFC to

perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except can sit for thirty minutes at a time; stand for fifteen minutes at a time; can perform unlimited walking; can perform low end complex tasks; cannot perform ...

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