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Smith v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 11, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record filed August 24, 2018, Doc. 12, in support of Plaintiff Jennifer Ruth Smith's Complaint, Doc. 1, seeking review of the decision of Defendant Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying Plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. On December 28, 2018, Plaintiff filed her Motion To Reverse And Remand For Payment Of Benefits, Or In The Alternative, For A Rehearing, With Supporting Memorandum. Doc. 21. The Commissioner filed a Brief in Response on February 28, 2019, Doc. 25, and Plaintiff filed a Reply on March 30, 2019, Doc. 26. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the applicable law and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds the Motion is well taken and is GRANTED.

         I. Background and Procedural Record

         Claimant Jennifer Ruth Smith suffers from the following severe impairments: multiple ventricular shunt revisions for hydrocephalus[3] and scoliosis. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 4500. She alleges that she became disabled as of July 21, 2010. AR 131, 4498. She has a high school degree and is working on a college degree, having attended three years of college as of the time of her application. AR 165. She has past work as a credit authorizer and a cashier/ checker. AR 4546.

         On May 10, 2011, Ms. Smith filed a claim of disability under Title XVI. AR 4498. Her applications were initially denied on December 22, 2011 (AR 61), and upon reconsideration on March 15, 2012 (AR 62). Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Ann Farris conducted a hearing on July 31, 2013. AR 29. Ms. Smith appeared in person at the hearing with attorney representative Gary Martone. AR 29. The ALJ took testimony from Ms. Smith and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Pamela Bowman. AR 27, 118.

         On December 2, 2013, ALJ Farris issued an unfavorable decision. AR 9-28. After the Appeals Council denied review on March 10, 2015, AR 1, Ms. Smith appealed to federal court. On November 12, 2015, the Commissioner stipulated to a remand. AR 4551-52. The Court entered its remand order on November 13, 2015. AR 4553. On remand, on March 25, 2016, the Appeals Council instructed the ALJ to reconsider her evaluation of the opinion of consultative examiner Dr. Karl Moedl. AR 4561-62.

         On September 20, 2016, Ms. Smith appeared and testified at a second hearing before ALJ Farris. AR 4657. She appeared with her attorney, Felix Martone. Id. The ALJ took testimony from Ms. Smith and VE Karen Provine. Id. ALJ Farris issued an unfavorable decision on November 3, 2016. AR 4495-4517. On March 30, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review. AR 4486. It found no basis for changing the ALJ's decision and found that the ALJ complied with the orders of this Court and the Appeals Council. AR 4487. The ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. Id. Because the parties are familiar with Ms. Smith's medical history, the Court reserves discussion of the medical records relevant to this appeal for its analysis.

         II. Applicable Law

         A. Disability Determination Process

         An individual is considered disabled 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) (pertaining to disability insurance benefits); see also Id. § 1382(a)(3)(A) (pertaining to supplemental security income disability benefits for adult individuals). The Social Security Commissioner has adopted the familiar five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”) to determine whether a person satisfies the statutory criteria as follows:

(1) At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.”[4] If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled regardless of her 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(s) or combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, she is not disabled.
(3) At step three, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant's impairment(s) meets or equals in severity one of the listings described in Appendix 1 of the regulations and meets the duration requirement. If so, a claimant is presumed disabled.
(4) If, however, the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal in severity one of the listings described in Appendix 1 of the regulations, the ALJ must determine at step four whether the claimant can perform her “past relevant work.” Answering this question involves three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ considers all of the relevant medical and other evidence and determines what is “the most [claimant] can still do despite [her 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 determines the physical and mental demands of claimant's past work. Third, the ALJ determines whether, given claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of meeting those demands. A claimant who is capable of returning to past relevant work is not disabled.
(5) If the claimant does not have the RFC to perform her 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) (disability insurance benefits); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) (supplemental security income disability benefits); Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005).

         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 review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

         B. Stand ...

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