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Coriz v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 25, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner’s determination that he is not entitled to Social Security disability benefits. With the consent of the parties to conduct dispositive proceedings in this matter, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the Court reverses and remands for further proceedings.


         In February 2010, Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging that he had been disabled since February 10, 2009, due to pemphigus vulgaris.[1] (AR 420). Following a hearing held on March 1, 2012, administrative law judge (“ALJ”) Ben Willner assessed Plaintiff with the severe impairments of pemphigus vulgaris and poly-arthralgias affecting the shoulder, knee, elbow, hand, and back. (AR 137). ALJ Willner then determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of medium work and thus was not disabled. (AR 138). Plaintiff successfully petitioned the Appeals Council for review and the case was remanded for further development. (AR 147-49).

         In 2014, per the order of remand, Plaintiff received a hearing before ALJ Michelle Lindsay. ALJ Lindsay found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of chondromalacia of the left knee; mild arthritis of the hands; history of carpal tunnel syndrome; left ulnar neuropathy, status post ulnar nerve release and transposition; early arthritis of the left elbow; pemphigus vulgaris; depression; and anxiety. (AR 157). Ultimately, though, she issued an unfavorable decision, concluding that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform a limited range of light work. (AR 169). Plaintiff appealed this decision, too, and the Appeals Council granted review. (176-183).

         On May 12, 2016, the Appeals Council issued a partially favorable decision, wherein it determined that Plaintiff was under a disability as of December 9, 2014. Somewhat confusingly, the Council then explained that it adopted the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to December 9, 2014, (AR 180, 182), but it then remanded the case for further consideration of Plaintiff’s RFC from February 10, 2009 through December 9, 2014. (AR 188). Here, the Council directed the ALJ to further evaluate “treating physician”[2] Dr. Robert Krueger’s opinion, provide specific evidence to support Plaintiff’s assessed limitations, and obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert (“VE”) to “clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on the claimant’s occupational base.” (AR 189).

         Although not a model of clarity, it appears that the Appeals Council was concerned that Dr. Krueger’s opinion might have an effect on the ALJ’s mental RFC findings pre-December 9, 2014. Accordingly, on March 20, 2017, Plaintiff received a supplemental hearing before ALJ Lindsay. The ALJ was clearly frustrated with the order of remand, stating that the Appeals Council “just made a stinking mess out of [the case].” (AR 49). She went on to note that the Council “thoroughly screwed it up, ” (AR 50), that she would be “making the same findings, it’s not going to change anything, ” (AR 49), and directed Plaintiff’s attorney to “get [Plaintiff’s] age, education, blah-blah, on the record.” (AR 54).

         Following these unique opening remarks, Plaintiff testified as to his mental state between February 2009 and December 2014. He attested that he suffered from depression, anxiety, loss of interest, fatigue, and sleep disturbances; that he had difficulties with concentration and public interaction; and that he stopped taking mental health medications because of the side effects. (AR 58-66). Plaintiff further explained that depression, anxiety, and fatigue were also side effects of his autoimmune medication, and that the anxiety and fatigue negatively impacted his ability to drive and do housework. (Id.).

         On August 14, 2017, ALJ Lindsay determined, once again, that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to December 9, 2014. (AR 35). In making her decision, the ALJ employed the required five-step disability analysis, [3] first finding that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of February 10, 2009.[4] (AR 24). At step two, she assessed Plaintiff with the same severe impairments that she listed in her 2014 decision, but included the additional severe impairment of borderline intellectual functioning. (AR 25). At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff’s impairments, whether alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. (Id.).

         ALJ Lindsay next considered Plaintiff’s RFC and, true to her word, made findings identical to those she reached in 2014. See AR 159.

I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) in that he can lift, carry, push, and pull 20 pounds occasionally, and ten pounds frequently. He can sit for six of eight hours, and stand and/or walk for six of eight hours. He is further limited in that he can occasionally kneel and crawl, but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can occasionally handle and finger, and he must avoid unprotected heights. In addition, he is limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions, and is able to maintain attention and concentration to perform only simple tasks for two hours at a time without requiring redirection to task. He can have only occasional contact with the general public. Finally, he requires work involving no more than occasional change in a routine work setting.

(AR 27).

         ALJ Lindsay then proceeded to steps four and five where, in reliance on VE testimony offered at Plaintiff’s 2014 hearing, she determined that Plaintiff did not have any past relevant work but that he was capable of performing the requirements of representative occupations such as cotton classer aide, blending tank tender helper, and scaling machine operator. (AR 34-35). Accordingly, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision and, subsequently, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s third request for review. (AR 1, 35). Now that the Commissioner’s decision is final, see Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106–07 (2000), Plaintiff’s request for review is properly before the Court. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. STANDARD

         Judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited to determining “whether substantial evidence supports the factual findings and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.” Allman v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 1326, 1330 (10th Cir. 2016). See also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004) (quotation omitted). “Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion.” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005) (quotation omitted). The Court must examine the record as a whole, “including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Id. at 1262. “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.” Byron v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 1232, 1235 (10th Cir. 1984) (quotation omitted). Even so, it is not the function of the Court to review Plaintiff’s claims de novo, and the Court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Glass v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Plaintiff’s Arguments

         Plaintiff raises multiple challenges to the Commissioner’s decision. Broadly speaking, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ (1) failed to consider his autoimmune disorder under the appropriate listing; (2) improperly evaluated the medical and opinion evidence of record; and (3) failed to elicit VE testimony during Plaintiff’s most recent hearing. Having meticulously combed the record, the Court assigns error to the ALJ’s consideration of opinion evidence offered by Plaintiff’s ...

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