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Figueroa v. Soul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 9, 2019

ONIBAG FIGUEROA, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1] Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JERRY H. RITTER U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Onibag Figueroa's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supportive Memorandum [Doc. 16], filed February 18, 2019. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73(b), the parties have consented to the undersigned Magistrate Judge to conduct dispositive proceedings in this matter, including entry of final judgment. [Docs. 3, 6, 7]. Having studied the parties' positions, the relevant law, and the relevant portions of the Administrative Record (“AR”), the Court grants Mr. Figueroa's Motion and remands this case for further administrative fact finding.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         “Adherence to precedent is ‘a foundation stone of the rule of law.' … ‘[I]t promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.'” Kisor v. Wilkie, 139 S.Ct. 2400, 2422 (2019) (quoting Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community, 572 U.S. 782, 798, (2014); Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 827 (1991)). The Court finds itself bound by the principles of stare decisis here, insofar as it has ruled upon one of the issues present in this case: the issue of whether a certain number of jobs is sufficient to illustrate “significant numbers” in the national economy. Unfortunately for the Commissioner, the Court is constrained by its own decisions and those of the Tenth Circuit to find that the number of jobs identified by the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) in this case (56, 000) is not significant as a matter of law. Having so concluded, the ALJ was required to perform the factoral analysis set forth in Trimiar v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1326 (10th Cir. 1992). Because he did not, the Court reverses and remands the decision of the ALJ in this case for further administrative fact finding.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Mr. Figueroa filed an application with the Social Security Administration for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act on April 14, 2014. AR at 417-423. As grounds, Mr. Figueroa alleged the disabling conditions of surgery, aneurism, anxiety and “low back pain remarks.” AR at 141. Mr. Figueroa alleged that his conditions became severe enough to keep him from working on October 3, 2007. AR at 142. The Administration denied Mr. Figueroa's claim initially and upon reconsideration, and he requested a de novo hearing before an ALJ. AR at 140-219.

         ALJ Raul Pardo (“the ALJ”) held a hearing on August 3, 2016. AR at 67-102. On December 20, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Mr. Figueroa has not been under a disability as defined in the Act from his alleged onset date through the date of the decision. AR at 180-191. In response, Mr. Figueroa filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order on January 4, 2017. AR at 326-328. After reviewing his case, the Appeals Council granted Mr. Figueroa's request for review on July 10, 2017, finding that he should have been granted a supplemental hearing. AR at 200-202.

         The ALJ held a second hearing on October 6, 2017, at which Mr. Figueroa and a Vocational Expert (“VE”) testified. See AR at 104-139. After this hearing, the ALJ issued a second unfavorable decision on November 1, 2017. AR at 41-66. In response, Mr. Figueroa filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order on November 28, 2017. AR at 414-416. After reviewing his case, the Appeals Council denied Mr. Figueroa's request for review on July 26, 2018. AR at 1-3. As such, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003). This Court now has jurisdiction to review the decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a).

         A claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that he 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).[2]

         At Step One of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Figueroa has not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his amended onset date (December 18, 2012) through the date of the decision. AR at 50. At Step Two, he determined that Mr. Figueroa has the severe impairments of “2007 aneurysm, depression, anxiety, borderline intellectual functioning, substance abuse in remission, and degenerative disc disease[.]” AR at 50. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Figueroa's impairments, individually and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the regulatory “listings.” AR at 50-51. Mr. Figueroa does not challenge these findings on appeal. [See Doc. 16].

         When a claimant does not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine his residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). “RFC is an administrative assessment of the extent to which an individual's medically determinable impairment(s), including any related symptoms, such as pain, may cause physical or mental limitations or restrictions that may affect his or her capacity to do work-related physical and mental activities.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *2. “RFC is not the least an individual can do despite his or her limitations or restrictions, but the most.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1. In this case, the ALJ determined that Mr. Figueroa retains the RFC to:

lift no more than 50 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 25 pounds. The claimant is able to stand and walk for approximately six hours in an eight-hour workday and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. He can frequently reach and handle with the bilateral upper extremities. The claimant is limited to simple, routine tasks. He can have occasional contact with co-workers and the public. I find that this is a limited range of work contained in the medium exertional level as defined by 20 CFR 404.1567, 20 CFR 416.967 and SSR 83-10.

AR at 51.

         Employing this RFC at Steps Four and Five, and relying on the testimony of the VE, the ALJ determined that Mr. Figueroa cannot return to his past relevant work as a heavy driver. AR at 57. However, the ALJ found that there were jobs that exist in “significant numbers” in the national economy that Mr. Figueroa can perform despite his limitations. AR at 57-58. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Mr. Figueroa retains the functional capacity to work as a hospital cleaner (40, 000 jobs nationally) or wall cleaner (16, 000 jobs ...


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