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Begay v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 5, 2019

ROYCE A. BEGAY, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1]Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse or Remand Administrative Agency Decision (Doc. 24) and Memorandum Brief in Support (Doc. 25) filed on December 7, 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. 10, 17, 20. 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 21, 2014, Mr. Royce A. Begay (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 under Title XVI of the SSA. Administrative Record[2] (AR) at 247, 255. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of March 15, 2012. AR at 16, 247, 255. Disability Determination Services (DDS) determined that Plaintiff was not disabled both initially (AR at 61-62) and on reconsideration (AR at 97-98). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on the merits of his applications. AR at 163-64.

         Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified during the de novo hearing. See AR at 35-60. ALJ Frederick E. Upshall, Jr. issued an unfavorable decision on March 24, 2017. AR at 13-32. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council (AR at 224-25), which the council denied on April 26, 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. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 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 §§ 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) (citations omitted). “RFC is a multidimensional description of the work-related abilities [a claimant] retain[s] in spite of [his] medical impairments.” Ryan v. Colvin, Civ. 15-0740 KBM, 2016 WL 8230660, at *2 (D.N.M. Sept. 29, 2016) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(B); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(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” Plaintiff 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)); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         At Step One of the process, [3] ALJ Upshall found that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 15, 2012, the alleged onset date.” AR at 18 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576, 416.971-976). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: above the knee amputation (AKA) of the left leg, osteoarthritis, obesity, depressive disorder and cognitive disorder.” AR at 18 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c)). The ALJ noted that Plaintiff has the following non-severe impairments: high blood pressure, numbness in the hands, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). AR at 19.

         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 19 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926). At Step Four, the ALJ considered the evidence of record and found that Plaintiff

has the [RFC] to lift 10 pounds occasionally; stand and/or walk for 2 hours in an 8-hour workday and sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, with normal breaks; pushing and/or pulling is limited only by the ability to lift and/or carry; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; can occasionally stoop; cannot crouch, kneel or crawl; must avoid all use of moving machinery and avoid all exposure [to] unprotected heights; requires the use of a cane during periods of walking or standing; is limited to simple, routine and repetitive reasoning level 2 tasks performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements and involving only simple, work-related decisions and with few, if any, workplace changes; and can have only occasional contact with co-workers and the public and occasional supervision.

         AR at 21. ALJ Upshall found that Plaintiff “is unable to perform any past relevant work.” AR at 24 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565, 416.965). The ALJ found that Plaintiff can perform the jobs of addresser and toy stuffer. ALJ at 25. The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from March 15, 2012, through the date of [the ALJ's] decision.” AR at 26 (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)). 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). “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) (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 citations 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). The Court “may not ‘displace the agenc[y's] choice between two fairly conflicting views, even though the court would justifiably have made a ...


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