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Marin v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 9, 2019

ISABEL C. MARIN, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Motion to Remand or Reverse for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing (Doc. 19), filed on March 17, 2019. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the parties have consented to me serving as the presiding judge and entering final judgment. See Docs. 6; 9; 11. Having considered the record, submissions of counsel, and relevant law, the Court finds Plaintiff's motion is not well-taken and will be denied.

         I. Procedural History

         Ms. Isabel C. Marin (Plaintiff) filed an application with the Social Security Administration for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act on May 19, 2014. Administrative Record[2] (AR) at 157-58. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of May 19, 2014. See AR at 157.

         Disability Determination Services determined that Plaintiff was not disabled both initially (AR at 61-73) and on reconsideration (AR at 74-89). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on the merits of her application. AR at 102-03. Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified during the de novo hearing. See AR at 34-60. ALJ James Bentley issued an unfavorable decision on February 15, 2017. AR at 12-33. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council (AR at 155-56), which the council denied on February 20, 2018 (AR at 1-6). Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003).

         II. Applicable Law and the ALJ's Findings

          A claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that 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); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).

         The claimant has the burden at the first four steps of the process to show: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) she 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) her impairment(s) meet or equal one of the listings in Appendix 1, Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404; or (4) pursuant to the assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), she is unable to perform her past relevant work (PRW). 20 C.F.R § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); see also Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). “RFC is a multidimensional description of the work-related abilities [a claimant] retain[s] in spite of her medical impairments.” Ryan v. Colvin, Civ. 15-0740 KBM, 2016 WL 8230660, at *2 (D.N.M. Sept. 29, 2016) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(B); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)). If the claimant meets “the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability[, ] . . . the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that” the claimant retains sufficient RFC “to perform work in the national economy, given [her] age, education, and work experience.” Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261 (citing Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 & n.2 (10th Cir. 1988)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         At Step One of the process, [3] ALJ Bentley found that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since” her alleged onset date. AR at 17 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: asthma, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with stenosis, depression, and mood disorder.” AR at 18 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)). ALJ Bentley also noted the following nonsevere impairments that “do not impose more than a minimal restriction on [her] ability to perform basic work activities”: “degenerative disc disease of the cervical and thoracic spine, osteoarthritis of the left shoulder, and urinary frequency.” AR at 18.

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” AR at 19 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff

has the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §] 404.1567(b) except that [she] may occasionally climb ramps and stairs; is unable to climb ladders, ropes and scaffolding; may occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat, cold and wetness; must avoid even moderate exposure to dust, fumes and poorly ventilated areas; can remember, understand and carry out detailed, but not complex tasks; may perform no overhead work; and requires a sit or stand option, defined as a temporary change in position from sitting to standing and vice versa, for purposes of comfort, and with no more than one change in position every 20 minutes and without leaving the work station so as not to diminish pace or production.

         AR at 21. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff is capable of performing her PRW as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). AR at 28. Ultimately, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 19, 2014, through the date of [the ALJ's] decision.” AR at 29 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f)).

         III. Legal Standard

         The Court must “review the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005)). A deficiency in either area is grounds for remand. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161, 1166 (10th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172). “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004) (alteration in original)). The Court will “consider whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, but [it] will not reweigh the evidence or substitute [its] judgment for the Commissioner's.” Id. (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172 (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski, 372 F.3d at 1200). The Court “may not ‘displace the agenc[y's] choice between two fairly conflicting views, even though the [C]ourt would justifiably have made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo.'” Id. (quoting Zoltanski, 372 F.3d at 1200).

         IV. Discussion

         Plaintiff contends that the following issues require reversal: (1) the ALJ erred in evaluating her subjective complaints of pain and in determining she is capable of light work with limitations; (2) the ALJ failed to provide specific findings of fact regarding her PRW pursuant to SSR 82-62, 1982 WL 31386 (Jan. 1, 1982); and (3) the ALJ erred in finding that she could return to her PRW given her RFC. Doc. 19 at 4-12.

         A. The ALJ's evaluation of Plaintiff's subjective complaints and determination that she can perform light exertional work with limitations is supported by substantial evidence.

         Plaintiff first argues that ALJ Bentley made a number of errors at Step Four in evaluating her subjective complaints of pain and in determining that Plaintiff can perform limited light exertional work. See Doc. 19 at 4-9.

         Social Security Ruling 16-3p defines the two-step process an ALJ must use to evaluate a claimant's symptoms. SSR 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304 (Oct. 25, 2017). At the first step, the ALJ “consider[s] whether there is an underlying medically determinable physical or mental impairment[] that could reasonably be expected to produce [the] individual's symptoms, such as pain.” Id. at *3. At the second step, after the ALJ has found such an impairment, the ALJ “evaluate[s] the intensity and persistence of those symptoms to determine the extent to which the symptoms limit [the] individual's ability to perform work-related activities . . . .” Id.

         As part of the step two evaluation, the ALJ considers the record evidence, the claimant's statements, medical and non-medical source statements, and the non-exhaustive list of factors in 20 C.F.R. § [404].1529(c)(3), which include:

1. Daily activities;
2. The location, duration, frequency, and intensity of pain or other symptoms;
3. Factors that precipitate and aggravate the symptoms;
4. The type, dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of any medication an individual takes or has taken to alleviate pain or other symptoms;
5. Treatment, other than medication, an individual receives or has received for relief of ...

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