United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Alex G. Sanchez'
Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with
Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc.
15), filed March 7, 2019; Defendant Commissioner Nancy A.
Berryhill's Brief in Response to Plaintiff's
Motion to Reverse and Remand the Agency's Administrative
Decision (the “Response”), (Doc. 17), filed
May 7, 2019; and Mr. Sanchez' Reply in Support of
Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supportive
Memorandum, (the “Reply”), (Doc. 18), filed
May 21, 2019.
Sanchez filed applications for disability insurance benefits
and supplemental security income on September 6, 2014.
(Administrative Record “AR” 293, 299). In both of
his applications, Mr. Sanchez alleged disability beginning
July 18, 2014. (AR 293, 299). Mr. Sanchez claimed he was
limited in his ability to work due to arthritis in his knees,
diabetes, and a history of falling. (AR 316). Mr.
Sanchez' applications were denied initially on December
2, 2014 and upon reconsideration on October 5, 2015. (AR 209,
Sanchez requested a hearing before an Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on February 21,
2017 before ALJ Lillian Richter. (AR 127). At the hearing,
Mr. Sanchez appeared before ALJ Richter with a non-attorney
representative, Vick Kendahl, and a non-partial Vocational
Expert (“VE”), Kathleen Mundi. Id. ALJ
Richter issued her decision on October 17, 2017 finding Mr.
Sanchez not disabled at any time between his initial filing
date through the date of her opinion. (AR 71). After ALJ
Richter's decision, Mr. Sanchez submitted additional
medical evidence for review by the Appeals Council. (AR
11-22, 30-31, 51-53). Shortly thereafter, the Appeals Council
denied Mr. Sanchez' request for review, (AR 1-4), making
ALJ Richter's opinion the Commissioner's final
decision for purposes of judicial review.
Sanchez, now represented by attorney Michael Armstrong,
argues in his Motion that the Appeals Council committed
reversible error in not considering additional evidence
submitted for review and ALJ Richter failed to properly
evaluate his impairments under Listing 1.02(A). (Doc. 15 at
1). The Court has reviewed the Motion, the Response, the
Reply, and the relevant law. Additionally, the Court has
meticulously reviewed the administrative record. Because the
Appeals Council erred in not reviewing additional evidence
submitted after ALJ Richter's decision, the Court finds
that Mr. Sanchez' Motion should be
GRANTED and this matter be
REMANDED for further proceedings.
Standard of Review
standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the
Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial
evidence and whether the correct legal standards were
applied. Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th
Cir. 2008) (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health &
Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)).
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); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365
F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart,
331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). The Commissioner's
“failure to apply the correct legal standards, or to
show . . . that she has done so, are also grounds for
reversal.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017,
1019 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Washington v. Shalala,
37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). A court should
meticulously review the entire record but should neither
re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for the
Commissioner's. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118;
Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. A court's review is
limited to the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g), which is generally the ALJ's decision,
rather than the Appeals Council's denial of review.
O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (10th Cir.
evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d
at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. An ALJ's
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.”
Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d
at 1214. While the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try
the issues de novo, its examination of the record
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
ALJ]'s findings from being supported by substantial
evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084
(10th Cir. 2007) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372
F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
purposes of supplemental security income and disability
insurance benefits, a claimant establishes a disability when
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), 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). In order to determine
whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a
five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”).
Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
first four steps of the SEP, the claimant bears the burden of
showing: (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 either (3) his impairment(s) meet or
equal one of the “listings” of presumptively
disabling impairments; or (4) he is unable to perform his
“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). If the ALJ determines
the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, the ALJ
will proceed to step five of the evaluation process. At step
five, the Commissioner bears the burden of showing 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. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.
Sanchez claimed he was limited in his ability to work due to
arthritis in his knees, diabetes, and a history of falling.
(AR 316). At step one, ALJ Richter determined that Mr.
Sanchez had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since
July 18, 2014, the alleged disability onset date. (AR 63). At
step two, ALJ Richter found that Mr. Sanchez has the
following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, peripheral
neuropathy, degenerative disk disease in the lumbar and
thoracic spine, chronic ligament tear, osteoarthritis in the
left knee, obesity, depression, and anxiety. Id.
three, ALJ Richter determined that none of Mr. Sanchez'
impairments, solely or in combination, equaled one of the
listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d),
404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926. (AR
64). ALJ Richter then found that Mr. Sanchez has the RFC to
perform sedentary work with the following limitations: he can
occasionally stoop, climb ramps, and climb stairs; he can
never kneel, crouch, crawl, balance, or climb ladders, ropes
or scaffolds; he should avoid exposure to unprotected heights
and moving mechanical parts; he is limited to work that is
primarily performed at the workstation; he may require use of
a handheld assistive device for ambulation; he is limited to
simple, routine work, and occasional interaction with
supervisors, coworkers, and members of the public. (AR
formulating Mr. Sanchez' RFC, ALJ Richter stated that she
considered Mr. Sanchez' symptoms and the extent to which
those symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with
objective medical and other evidence, as required by 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 416.929 and Social Security
Ruling (“SSR”) 96-4p. (AR 66). In addition, ALJ
Richter stated that she considered opinion evidence
consistent with the requirements of 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527 and 416.927. Id. ALJ Richter concluded that
some of Mr. Sanchez' impairments could be expected to
cause his alleged symptoms, ...