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Davis v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 27, 2019

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


          KIRTAN KHALSA, United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 19), filed June 21, 2018, in support of Plaintiff Lorraine Chavez Davis' Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking review of the decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denying Ms. Davis' claim for Title II disability insurance benefits. On September 28, 2018, Ms. Davis filed her Motion to Reverse and Remand for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum. (Doc. 26.) The Commissioner filed a Response in opposition on November 8, 2018 (Doc. 27), and Ms. Davis filed a Reply on November 23, 2018 (Doc. 28). Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the applicable law and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that the Motion is well taken and shall be GRANTED.

         I. Legal Standards

         A. Standard of Review

          This Court must affirm the Commissioner's final decision denying social security benefits unless: (1) “substantial evidence” does not support the decision; or, (2) the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) did not apply the correct legal standards in reaching the decision.[2] 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c); Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004). The Court must meticulously review the entire record but may “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.'” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008); 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. Although the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its consideration of the record must include “anything that may undercut or detract from the [agency]'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).

         The agency decision must “provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005). Thus, although an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence, “the record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence, ” and “the [ALJ's] reasons for finding a claimant not disabled” must be “articulated with sufficient particularity.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996).

         B. Disability Determination Process

         A person must, inter alia, be “under a disability” to qualify for disability insurance benefits under Title II. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(E), 423(d)(1)(A). An individual is considered to be “under a disability” if 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).

         The Commissioner has adopted a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a person satisfies the statutory criteria:

(1) At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in “substantial gainful activity.”[3] If the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled regardless of his medical condition.
(2) At step two, the ALJ must determine the severity of the claimed physical or mental impairment(s). If the claimant does not have an impairment (or combination of impairments) that is severe and meets the duration requirement, he is not disabled.
(3) At step three, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant's impairment meets or equals in severity one of the listings described in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, and meets the duration requirement. If so, a claimant is presumed disabled.
(4) If none of the claimant's impairments meet or equal one of the listings, the ALJ must determine at step four whether the claimant can perform his “past relevant work.” This step involves three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ must consider all of the relevant evidence and determine what is “the most [claimant] can still do despite [his physical and mental] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). This is called the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Id. §§ 404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a)(3). Second, the ALJ must determine the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past work.
Third, the ALJ must determine whether, given the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of meeting those demands. A claimant who is able to perform his past relevant work is not disabled.
(5) If the claimant is unable to perform his past relevant work, the Commissioner, at step five, must show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. If the Commissioner is unable to make that showing, the claimant is deemed disabled. If, however, the Commissioner is able to make the required showing, the claimant is deemed not disabled.

See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a disability in the first four steps of this analysis. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146, n.5 (1987). The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy. Id. A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step evaluation process is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

         II. Background and Procedural History

         A. Factual Background

          Ms. Davis alleges that she became disabled at age forty-nine[4] because of psoriatic arthritis, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, hypothyroidism, and high blood pressure. (AR. 39, 108, 196, 239.)[5] Ms. Davis earned a bachelor's degree in English, and, in 2001, she entered a master's program in secondary education, which she did not complete because of her psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. (AR. 24.) She worked as a teacher, as a scorer and reader of standardized exams, as a group facilitator, as a case manager, and as an exam proctor. (AR. 24-32.) Ms. Davis reported that she stopped working on October 24, 2013, because of her conditions. (AR. 239.)

         1. Medical History and Relevant Medical Evidence[6]

         a. Medicine Downtown Dr. Unverzagt 2008-2015

          The record reflects that Ms. Davis received primary care treatment with physician Dr. Mark Unverzagt at Medicine Downtown from January 2008 through August of 2014. (AR. 349, 1344.) Treatment notes from 2008 reflect that Dr. Unverzagt saw Ms. Davis at least eight times for her bipolar disorder with depression and for arthritis. (AR. 349-63.) Dr. Unverzagt's notes reflect that in 2008 Ms. Davis was at times depressed and angry, experienced suicidal ideation but without an active suicide plan, had loss of motivation, feelings of agoraphobia and obsessive compulsive behaviors, and experienced adverse side effects of lithium. (AR 356-61.) Dr. Unverzagt saw Ms. Davis at least three times in 2009 and she was reportedly stable and doing well on lithium without side effects. (AR. 366-370.)

         By January 2010, however, Ms. Davis reported that she had been depressed for a month, and had symptoms of sadness, anhedonia, disturbed sleep, extreme nervousness and/or worry, was quick to express or feel anger, and was socially isolating; Dr. Unverzagt referred her to counseling. (AR. 371.) She was feeling “the same” in February 2010, and she had disturbed sleep, and difficulty concentrating and/or completing tasks though she was taking medication as prescribed. (AR. 372.) Ms. Davis treated with Dr. Unverzagt three additional times in 2010 and three times in 2011 and she was by and large compliant with her lithium and doing well overall. (AR. 374-79, 381, 389, 444.) After reportedly being stable on lithium in January and June 2012 (AR 390, 392), by September 2012, Ms. Davis was lacking in motivation and Dr. Unverzagt noted that she was positive for depression and mania. (AR. 394.) And in ...

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