United States District Court, D. New Mexico
JENNIFER A. LUCERO, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
HONORABLE GREGORY J. FOURATT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE
MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff Jennifer A.
Lucero's (“Plaintiff's”) “Motion to
Reverse and Remand for Rehearing, with Supporting
Memorandum” [ECF 17] (“Motion”). The Motion
is fully briefed. See ECFs 18 (Commissioner's
Response), 20 (Reply). Having meticulously reviewed the
entire record and the parties' briefing, the Court
concludes that the Administrative Law Judge's
(“ALJ's”) ruling should be
AFFIRMED. Therefore, and for the reasons
articulated below, the Court will DENY the
was born in 1976. Administrative Record (“AR”)
157. She completed the eleventh grade, and as of July 2017,
she lived with her husband and two children, then ages
thirteen and six. AR 40, 60. In October 2011, she was laid off
from her full-time job as an accounts receivable clerk. AR
36, 204. Although she managed to find part-time work in 2013
and 2014, including for a temporary employment agency and a
daycare, she did not obtain another full-time job. AR 37-39,
175. In March 2015, she applied for social security
disability benefits, claiming that she suffered from a
disability that began in November 2012. AR 157. She claimed that
her disability resulted from five conditions: carpal tunnel
syndrome, scoliosis, bone disorder, knee surgery, and chronic
pain. AR 202.
August 2015, the Social Security Administration (SSA) denied
Plaintiff's claim, concluding that she had no severe
limitations. AR 74. In March 2016, upon Plaintiff's
request for reconsideration, the SSA again denied her claims
and again concluded that Plaintiff had no severe impairments.
requested a hearing, which was held in July 2017 before ALJ
Raul Pardo. AR 33. Assisted by counsel, Plaintiff testified
at the hearing, as did Cornelius Ford, a vocational expert.
AR 33-34. In August 2017, “after careful consideration
of all the evidence, ” the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff
had not been under a disability within the meaning of the
Social Security Act. AR 11.
sought relief with the SSA's Appeals Council. AR 151-54.
In May 2018, the Appeals Council found, among other things,
no abuse of discretion by the ALJ, no error of law, and no
lack of substantial evidence. AR 1. It therefore denied
Plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision and
affirmed that decision as the Commissioner's final
decision. Id. Plaintiff timely petitioned this Court
for relief in July 2018, alleging that the ALJ's decision
was “erroneous as a matter of law and
regulation.” Compl. 2, ECF 1.
fundamental claim is that the ALJ erroneously concluded that
she still had the “residual functional capacity”
(“RFC”) to perform a limited range of light work.
Mot. 8-12; AR 15. Specifically, she argues that the ALJ
failed to provide “a narrative discussion describing
how the evidence support[ed] [this] conclusion.” Mot.
8-10 (quoting SSR 96-8p, 61 Fed. Reg. 34474, 34478 (1996)).
She also argues that the ALJ did not properly consider or
discuss her testimony about her inability to afford surgery
or her symptoms and limitations. Mot. 11-12.
Standard of Review
the Appeals Council denies a claimant's request for
review, the ALJ's decision becomes the final decision of
the agency. The Court's review of that final
agency decision is both legal and factual. See Maes v.
Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008) (“The
standard of review in a social security appeal is whether the
correct legal standards were applied and whether the decision
is supported by substantial evidence.” (citing
Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.,
961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992))).
determining whether the correct legal standards were applied,
the Court reviews “whether the ALJ followed the
specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing
particular types of evidence in disability cases.”
Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007)
(quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172
(10th Cir. 2005)). The Court may reverse and remand if the
ALJ failed to “apply correct legal standards” or
“show . . . [he or she] has done so.” Hamlin
v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004)
(citing Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th
Commissioner's findings “as to any fact, if
supported by substantial evidence, shall be
conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (emphasis added).
“Under the substantial-evidence standard, a court looks
to an existing administrative record and asks whether it
contains ‘sufficien[t] evidence' to support the
agency's factual determinations.” Biestek v.
Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (brackets in
original) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB,
305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). “And . . . the threshold for
such evidentiary sufficiency is not high. Substantial
evidence, [the Supreme] Court has said, is more than a mere
scintilla.” Id. (internal quotation marks and
citation omitted). “It means-and means only-such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Id.
(internal quotation marks omitted).
this standard, a court should still meticulously review the
entire record, but it may not “reweigh the evidence nor
substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.”
Newbold v. Colvin, 718 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir.
2013) (quoting Branum v. Barnhart, 385 F.3d 1268,
1270 (10th Cir. 2004)); Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214.
Indeed, a court is to “review only the
sufficiency of the evidence, not its weight.”
Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1257 (10th Cir.
2007) (emphasis in original). Therefore, “[t]he
possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the
evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's
findings from being supported by substantial evidence.”
Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Zoltanski v.
F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).
Consequently, a court “may not displace the
agency'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)
if the correct legal standards were applied and substantial
evidence supports the ALJ's findings, the
Commissioner's decision stands and Plaintiff is not
entitled to relief. Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d
1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); Hamlin, 365 F.3d at
Sequential Evaluation Process
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) (emphasis
has devised a five-step sequential evaluation process to
determine disability. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4); Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20,
24-25 (2003). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps
one through four. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S.
137, 146 & n.5 (1987); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399
F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005); Williams v. Bowen,
844 F.2d 748, 750-51, 751 n.2 (10th Cir. 1988). In the first
four steps, the claimant must show (1) that “[she] is
not presently engaged in substantial gainful activity,
” (2) that “[she] has a medically severe
impairment or combination of impairments, ” and either
(3) that the impairment is equivalent to a listed
impairment or (4) that “the impairment or
combination of impairments prevents [her] from performing
[her] past work.” Williams, 844 F.2d at
750-51; Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.
claimant has advanced through step four, the burden of proof
then shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant
retains sufficient RFC “to perform other work in the
national economy in view of [her] age, education, and work
experience.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 142, 146,
ALJ'S FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
August 2017 written decision, the ALJ affirmed that he
carefully considered “all of the evidence” and
the “entire record” before him. AR 11-12.
Steps One through Three
one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in
“substantial gainful activity” since August 26,
2014, the amended alleged onset date of her disability. AR
At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following
“severe” impairments: right knee surgery, carpal
tunnel surgery on the left hand, and carpal tunnel syndrome
in the right hand. Id. The ALJ classified these
impairments as “severe” because they were both
“medically determinable” and had more than a
minimal effect on Plaintiff's “ability to perform
basic work activities.” Id. (citations
omitted). The ALJ also considered Plaintiff's other
alleged impairments, i.e., “scoliosis, a bone disorder
and chronic pain, ” but found them to be non-severe
because there were “no medical records in evidence
regarding these [conditions].” AR
14. At step three, the ALJ found that no
impairment or combination thereof satisfied the criteria of a
listed impairment. AR 15.
Residual Functional Capacity
performing the step four analysis, in which the ALJ considers
whether a claimant can perform past work, the ALJ must first
determine the claimant's RFC. Here, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff had the RFC to perform “a limited range of
work contained in the light exertional level.” AR 15
(citations omitted). In making this finding, the ALJ affirmed
that, in addition to considering the opinion evidence, he
considered “all symptoms and the extent to which
[Plaintiff's] symptoms can reasonably be accepted as
consistent with the objective medical evidence and other
evidence.” AR 15-16. As described below, the ALJ also
discussed the evidence and reasoning that led to this RFC