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Barnes v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 5, 2019

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



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Vanita Jean Barnes's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 22), which was fully briefed on November 23, 2018. See Docs. 23, 24, 25. The parties consented to my entering final judgment in this case. Docs. 4, 10, 11. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, I find that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by failing to either include or explain why he rejected Ms. Barnes's need for redirection in the RFC. I therefore GRANT Ms. Barnes's motion and remand this case to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Standard of Review

         The 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). 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). “The failure to apply the correct legal standard or to provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed is grounds for reversal.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). The Court must meticulously review the entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. 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. While the Court may not reweigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its examination of the record as a whole 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] findings from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

          To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he or 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); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show: (1) the claimant is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) the claimant 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) the impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the Listings[2] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) the claimant is unable to perform his or her “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv), 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1260-61. If the claimant cannot show that his or her impairment meets or equals a Listing but proves that he or she is unable to perform his or her “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show 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. Id.

         III. Background and Procedural History

          Ms. Barnes was born in 1968, completed the ninth grade, [3] and worked for approximately nine years as a manufacturing machine operator, three years as a van driver, and for short time as a waitress. AR 68, 97, 287, 334.[4] Ms. Barnes filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on December 18, 2012 and an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) on October 16, 2013, alleging disability since February 1, 2010 due to bipolar disorder, depression, arthritis, memory loss, chronic pain, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). AR 287-302, 332. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her claims initially on April 26, 2013. AR 163-69. The SSA denied her claims on reconsideration on October 3, 2013. AR 173-75. Ms. Barnes requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 176-77. On December 4, 2014, ALJ Frederick Upshall, Jr. held a hearing. AR 40-72. ALJ Upshall issued his unfavorable decision on May 26, 2015. AR 138-57. Ms. Barnes requested review by the Appeals Council. AR 227-28. On September 6, 2016, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ to resolve conflicts between the RFC and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) requirements for the jobs the ALJ found Ms. Barnes capable of performing, and for the ALJ to explain how he found Ms. Barnes capable of lifting more than the weight opined by the consultative examiner. AR 158-61. On January 24, 2017, ALJ Upshall held a second hearing. AR 73-108. He issued a second unfavorable decision on August 15, 2017. AR 7-34.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Barnes met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2012. AR 13. At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Barnes had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since her alleged onset date of February 1, 2010.[5] Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Barnes had the following severe impairments: degenerative joint disease of the spine, knees, hips, and hands, depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Ms. Barnes's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 13-15. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Ms. Barnes's RFC. AR 15-26. The ALJ found Ms. Barnes had the RFC to

lift, carry, push, and pull fifteen pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, stand and/or walk for a total of six hours in and eight-hour workday and sit for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl. The claimant can frequently handle and finger (perform gross and fine manipulation) with the bilateral upper extremities. The claimant retains the ability to perform work that is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, consistent with a reasoning level of two, performed in a work environment free of fast paced production requirements, involving simple, work-related decisions, and with few, if any, workplace changes. The claimant can tolerate occasional interaction with the public. I find this RFC is consistent with a limited range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b).

AR 14-15.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Barnes could not perform her past relevant work as a waitress, a van driver, or as a machine operator. AR 26-27. The ALJ found Ms. Barnes not disabled at step five because she could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy-such as routing clerk, cutter/paster, and envelope addresser. AR 27- 28. Ms. Barnes requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's unfavorable decision. AR 283-86. On December 12, 2017, the ...

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