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Houston v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 12, 2019

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 11), filed August 24, 2018, in support of Plaintiff Laquita Houston's Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking review of Defendant the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits. On October 19, 2018, Ms. Houston filed a Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum. (Doc. 15.) The Commissioner filed a response in opposition to the motion on December 28, 2018, (Doc. 17), and Ms. Houston filed a reply in support of the motion on January 5, 2019. (Doc. 18.)

         The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the applicable law and being otherwise fully advised, the Court finds that Ms. Houston's motion is well taken and should be GRANTED.

         I. Background and Procedural History

          Ms. Houston alleges that she became disabled on December 18, 2013, at forty-eight years of age, due to bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, arthritis, fibromyalgia, hepatitis C, and bradycardia. (AR 276, 284.[3]) She later amended her alleged onset date to July 1, 2015. (AR 47, 82.) Ms. Houston completed the eleventh grade and then earned a GED. (AR 83.) In the relevant past, she worked at a Denny's restaurant as a server, a hostess, and an “R.P.” (which Ms. Houston described as a “representative” for the restaurant's managers); she also worked as a home healthcare provider for her uncle. (AR 83-86, 96.)

         On January 6, 2014, Ms. Houston filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. (AR 119.) Her application was denied initially on July 11, 2014, and on reconsideration on September 12, 2014. (AR 127-28, 139-40.) On September 18, 2014, Ms. Houston requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (AR 155.) ALJ Eric Weiss conducted a hearing on September 8, 2016. (AR 76.) Ms. Houston appeared in person at the hearing with her attorney, Gary Martone. (Id.) The ALJ took testimony from Ms. Houston and from an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Cornelius Ford. (AR 77, 83-115.) On February 27, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (AR 47-56.) The Appeals Council denied Ms. Houston's request for review on April 19, 2018. (AR 1-3.) As a consequence, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. (Id.)

         II. Applicable Law

         A. Disability Determination Process

         A person must be “under a disability” to qualify for Title II disability insurance benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). An individual is considered to be “under a disability” if 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).

         The Commissioner has adopted a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a person satisfies the statutory criteria:

(1) At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in “substantial gainful activity.”[4] If the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled regardless of her medical condition.

(2) At step two, the ALJ must determine the severity of the claimed physical or mental impairment(s). If the claimant does not have an impairment (or combination of impairments) that is severe and meets the duration requirement, she is not disabled.
(3) At step three, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant's impairment meets or equals in severity one of the listings described in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, and meets the duration requirement. If so, a claimant is presumed disabled.
(4) If none of the claimant's impairments meet or equal one of the listings, the ALJ must determine at step four whether the claimant can perform her “past relevant work.” This step involves three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ must consider all of the relevant evidence and determine what is “the most [claimant] can still do despite [her physical and mental] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). This is called the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Id. Second, the ALJ must determine the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. Third, the ALJ must determine whether, given the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of meeting those demands. A claimant who is able to perform her past relevant work is not disabled.
(5) If the claimant is unable to perform her past relevant work, the Commissioner, at step five, must show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. If the Commissioner is unable to make that showing, the claimant is deemed disabled. If, however, the Commissioner is able to make the required showing, the claimant is deemed not disabled.

See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). The claimant bears the burden of establishing a disability in the first four steps of this analysis. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant is capable of performing other work in the national economy. Id. A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step evaluation process is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         B. Standard of Review

         This Court must affirm the Commissioner's final decision denying social security benefits unless: (1) “substantial evidence” does not support the decision; or, (2) the ALJ did not apply the correct legal standards in reaching the decision.[5] 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004). The Court must meticulously review the entire record but may “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008); Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007).

         “Substantial 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. Although the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its consideration of the record must include “anything that may undercut or detract from the [agency]'s findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1262. “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the agency's] findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007).

         The agency decision must “provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005). Thus, although an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence, “the record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence, ” and “the ALJ . . . must discuss the uncontroverted evidence he chooses not to rely upon, as well as significantly probative evidence he rejects.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996).

         III. Analysis

         The ALJ determined that Ms. Houston is not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation process. (AR 55.) At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Houston met the insured status requirements through March 30, 2019, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date of July 1, 2015. (AR 50.) At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Houston has the severe impairments of fibromyalgia, cervicalgia, chronic hepatitis C, bipolar disorder, osteoarthritic degenerative changes to the left hand, and cardiac dysrhythmias status post pacemaker implant. (AR 50.) The ALJ determined at step three that Ms. Houston 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 50.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Ms. Houston has the RFC to perform a limited range of light work as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). (AR 52.) Specifically, he found that Ms. Houston has the RFC

to occasionally lift 20 pounds and can frequently lift or carry up to 10 pounds. [She] is able to stand and walk for approximately six hours in an eight-hour work day and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. She can occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl and climb ramps or stairs but can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can frequently handle and finger but must avoid more than occasional exposure to unprotected heights. [She] can understand and carry out simple instructions and make commensurate work-related decisions in a work setting with few changes. She can occasionally interact with ...

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