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Morris v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 8, 2019

NORMA MORRIS, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL[1], Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and/or Remand (Doc. 25), filed November 27, 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. 9, 18, 19. Having considered the record, submissions of counsel, and relevant law, the Court finds Plaintiff's motion is well-taken and will be granted.

         I. Procedural History

         On June 25, 2014, Ms. Norma Morris (“Plaintiff”) filed an application with the Social Security Administration for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (SSA). Administrative Record[2] (AR) at 62, 132-38. Plaintiff initially alleged a disability onset date of April 1, 2010, but later amended that date to November 6, 2014. AR at 33, 132. Plaintiff's date last insured was December 31, 2014. AR at 17. Thus, the relevant period for purposes of her disability determination was November 6, 2014, to December 31, 2014. Disability Determination Services (“DDS”) determined that Plaintiff was not disabled both initially (AR at 70) and on reconsideration (AR at 82). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on the merits of her applications. AR at 128.

         Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified during the de novo hearing before the ALJ. See AR at 28-60. ALJ Doug Gabbard, II issued an unfavorable decision on April 13, 2017. AR at 15-23. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council (AR at 7-8), which the Council denied on January 17, 2018 (AR at 1-3). 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 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); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) she 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) her 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”), she is unable to perform her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R § 404.1520(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 her 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 [her] 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).

         At Step One of the process, ALJ Gabbard found that Plaintiff “last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2014.” AR at 17. He also determined that she “did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her [initial] alleged onset date of April 1, 2010 through her date last insured of December 31, 2014.” AR at 17 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1571-1576). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity, degenerative disc disease of lumbar spine, carpal tunnel syndrome of right hand, and degenerative joint disease of bilateral knee. AR at 17 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)). The ALJ indicated that Plaintiff had the following non-severe impairments: foot callous, left hand carpal tunnel syndrome, migraines, and hypertension. AR at 18. Finally, the ALJ noted Plaintiff's allegations of sinusitis, joint dysfunction, chronic pain, lump in neck, and dizziness but determined that there was “insufficient evidence to establish medically determinable impairments” as to those allegations. AR at 17-18.

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” AR at 18 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). At Step Four, the ALJ found that while Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, ” Plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms [were] not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record . . . .” AR at 21. The ALJ considered the evidence of record and found as follows:

[T]hrough the date last insured, [Plaintiff] had the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R.] 404.1567(b) except with occasional climbing of ramps/stairs; no climbing of ladders/ropes/scaffolds; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling; no walking on uneven surfaces; occasional grasping, fingering and feeling with her right dominant hand; and she must be allowed to alternately sit and stand every 10 minutes throughout the workday for the purpose of changing positions, but without leaving the workstation.

AR at 19. The ALJ went on to find that Plaintiff “was unable to perform any past relevant work.” AR at 21 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1565). But at Step Five, he found that “[c]onsidering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and [RFC], [she] had acquired work skills from past relevant work that were transferable to other occupations with jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.” AR at 22 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 404.1568(d)). More particularly, the ALJ found Plaintiff able to perform the positions of Conveyor line baker worker (DOT #524.687.022) and Counter clerk (DOT #249.366.010). Consequently, he determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability from April 1, 2010, Plaintiff's initial alleged onset date, through December 31, 2014, her date last insured. AR at 23 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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 (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) (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).

         “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 different choice had the matter been before it de novo.'” Id. (quoting Zoltanski, 372 F.3d at 1200).

         IV. ...

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