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Lucero v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 5, 2019

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



         THIS 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 Motion.


         Plaintiff 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.[2] 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.[3] She claimed that her disability resulted from five conditions: carpal tunnel syndrome, scoliosis, bone disorder, knee surgery, and chronic pain. AR 202.

         In 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. AR 85-88.[4]

         Plaintiff 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.[5]

         Plaintiff 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.


         Plaintiff's 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.


         A. Standard of Review

         When the Appeals Council denies a claimant's request for review, the ALJ's decision becomes the final decision of the agency.[6] 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))).

         In 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 Cir. 1996)).

         The 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).

         Under 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) (brackets omitted).

         Ultimately, 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 1214.

         B. 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) (emphasis added).

         The SSA 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[7] 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.

         If the 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, n.5.


         In his August 2017 written decision, the ALJ affirmed that he carefully considered “all of the evidence” and the “entire record” before him. AR 11-12.

         A. Steps One through Three

         At step 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 13.[8] 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.[9] At step three, the ALJ found that no impairment or combination thereof satisfied the criteria of a listed impairment. AR 15.

         B. Residual Functional Capacity

         Before 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.[10] 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).[11] 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 finding.

         1. ...

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