United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
FASHING, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Carol Monica
Wintersberger's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Payment
of Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing with
Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 15), which was fully briefed on
January 16, 2019. Docs. 16, 18, 19. The parties consented to
my entering final judgment in this case. Docs. 3, 5, 6.
Having meticulously reviewed the record and being fully
advised in the premises, the Court finds that the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to apply
the correct legal standards when assessing Ms.
Wintersberger's treating physician's opinion. The
Court, therefore, GRANTS Ms. Wintersberger's motion and
remands this case 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). 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
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 an administrative agency's
findings from being supported by substantial evidence. We may
not displace the agenc[y'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
Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007)
(internal quotations and citations omitted) (brackets in
Applicable Law and 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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a)
considering a disability application, the Commissioner is
required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520; 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 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);
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.
Background and Procedural History
Wintersberger is a 59-year-old woman who lives in
Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her two small dogs. AR 31,
Ms. Wintersberger earned her bachelor's degree in
Business Computer Systems from the University of New Mexico,
and worked as a program analyst and a help desk analyst for
more than 20 years. AR 31-33, 153. Ms. Wintersberger stopped
working on October 2, 2014, because her job was eliminated.
AR 33, 152.
Wintersberger filed her initial application for Disability
Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on November 12, 2014,
alleging disability beginning on October 2, 2014, due to
multiple sclerosis and herpes simplex keratitis in her left
eye. AR 134-35, 152. The Social Security Administration
(“SSA”) denied her claims initially and on
reconsideration. AR 50-70. Ms. Wintersberger requested a
hearing by an ALJ. AR 85-86. On February 8, 2017, ALJ Doug
Gabbard held a hearing, at which Ms. Wintersberger and a
vocational expert (“VE”) testified. AR 26-49. ALJ
Gabbard issued his unfavorable decision on March 23, 2017. AR
the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Wintersberger met the insured status
requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31,
2019. AR 16. At step one, the ALJ found that Ms.
Wintersberger had not engaged in substantial, gainful
activity since October 2, 2014, the alleged onset date.
Id. Because Ms. Wintersberger had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity for at least twelve months, the
ALJ proceeded to step two. At step two, the ALJ found that
Ms. Wintersberger's only severe impairment is multiple
sclerosis. AR 16. The ALJ found that Ms. Wintersberger's
obesity, left-eye interstitial keratitis from herpes simplex
virus, dural arteriovenous fistula status post embolization,
hyperlipidemia, bladder urgency and frequency, and
intermittent right arm numbness, “considered singly and
in combination, do not cause more than minimal limitation in
her ability to perform basic work activities and are
therefore nonsevere.” Id.
three, the ALJ found that none of Ms. Wintersberger's
impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically
equaled a Listing. AR 17. Because the ALJ found that none of
the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Ms.