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Estrada v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 25, 2019

RONNIE S. ESTRADA, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1] Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Laura Fashing, United States Magistrate Judge.

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Ronnie S. Estrada’s Brief in Support of Motion to Remand or Reverse (Doc. 15), which was fully briefed on March 3, 2019. See Docs. 19, 20. The parties consented to my entering final judgment in this case. Docs. 3, 5, 6. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, I find that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) applied the correct legal standards and his decision is supported by substantial evidence. I therefore DENY Mr. Estrada’s motion and AFFIRM the Commissioner’s decision.

         I. Standard of Review

         The 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 brackets omitted).

         “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. 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 [the] findings from being supported by substantial evidence.’” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

          To 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).

         When 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[2] 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. Id.

         III. Background and Procedural History

         Mr. Estrada was born in 1960, has a diploma in construction drafting, and lives with his mother in Albuquerque, New Mexico. AR 33, 61, 170.[3] Mr. Estrada has worked delivering auto parts (sales route driver), as a vault puller (coin box collector), an airport maintenance laborer and a construction worker. AR 33–36, 53–54, 170, 176, 180–86. Mr. Estrada filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on October 15, 2014, [4] alleging disability since September 1, 2014, due to bulging discs in his back and spinal arthritis. AR 146–47, 169. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied his claim initially and on reconsideration. AR 60–82. Mr. Estrada requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 90. On March 1, 2017, ALJ James Linehan held a hearing. AR 29–59. ALJ Linehan issued his unfavorable decision on May 18, 2017. AR 12–28.

         The ALJ found that Mr. Estrada met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2020. AR 17. At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Estrada had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since September 1, 2014, his alleged onset date.[5] Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Estrada’s degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with scoliosis, stenosis, and spondylosis was a severe impairment. AR 18. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Mr. Estrada’s impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 18. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Mr. Estrada’s RFC. AR 18–21. The ALJ found Mr. Estrada had the RFC to

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b), except the claimant can lift twenty pounds occasionally and lift and carry ten pounds frequently. The claimant can stand and walk alternatively for a total of six hours out of eight hours per day with sitting occurring intermittently throughout the day. The claimant can reach, push and pull with upper extremities up to six hours per eight-hour day. The claimant can use hands for grasping, holding and turning objects up to six hours per eight-hour day. The claimant can climb, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and balance up to six hours per eight-hour day.

AR 18.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Estrada was capable of performing his past relevant work as a sales route driver, as it was actually performed, and as a coin box collector, as it was actually and generally performed. AR 21–22. Alternatively, the ALJ fund that Mr. Estrada had “acquired work skills from past relevant work that are transferable to other occupations with jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, ” including office helper, booth cashier, and ticket taker. AR 22–23. The ALJ thus found Mr. Estrada not disabled at step four and alternatively at step five. AR 23–24.

         Mr. Estrada requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s unfavorable decision. AR 143–45. On April 24, 2018, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. AR 1–5. Mr. Estrada timely filed his appeal to this Court on June 22, 2018. Doc. 1.[6]

         IV. Mr. Estrada’s Claims

         Mr. Estrada raises two main arguments and several sub-arguments for reversing and remanding this case. First, Mr. Estrada claims that the ALJ failed to comply with Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 82-62 in finding that Mr. Estrada has the capacity to perform his past relevant work at step four. Doc. 15 at 1, 4. In arguing this claim, Mr. Estrada further claims that the ALJ made the following errors: (a) failed to comply with SSR 16-3p when determining Mr. Estrada’s RFC, id. at 4–9; (b) failed to include non-exertional impairments in the RFC, id. at 9; (c) failed to develop the record regarding his shoulder pain, id. at 9–10; (d) failed to obtain a detailed description of the physical and mental demands of Mr. Estrada’s past relevant work, id. at 10–11; (e) failed to provide specific findings that the RFC would permit a return to his past relevant work, id.; and (f) the alternative finding at step five that Mr. Estrada was not disabled pursuant to the Medical-Vocational Rules was in error once he turned 55, id. at 12–13. Second, Mr. Estrada claims that the ALJ failed to comply with the treating physician rule in SSR 96-2p when giving great weight to Mr. Estrada’s treating physician’s medical opinion. Doc. 15 at 1, 13–15. Mr. Estrada’s claims are without merit.

         V. Analysis

         A. The ALJ Properly Evaluated Mr. Estrada’s Claim at Step Four.

         Step four of the sequential evaluation process is comprised of three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996).

In the first phase, the ALJ must evaluate a claimant’s physical and mental [RFC], and in the second phase, he [or she] must determine the physical and mental demands of the claimant’s past relevant work. In the final phase, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has the ability to meet the job demands found in phase two despite the mental and/or physical limitations found in phase one. At each of these phases, the ALJ must make specific findings.

Id. (citations omitted). Mr. Estrada contends that the ALJ committed reversible error at each phase of step four.[7]

         1. The ALJ Properly Evaluated Mr. Estrada’s RFC in the First Phase.

         a. Evaluation of Symptoms Under SSR 16-3p

         In the first phase of the step four analysis, the ALJ must evaluate a claimant’s physical and mental RFC. Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1023. Mr. Estrada contends that the ALJ erred in the first phase by failing to comply with SSR 16-3p. Doc. 15 at 8. Mr. Estrada argues that the ALJ failed to consider the duration, frequency and intensity of his back pain, and the effect his radicular symptoms have on his ability to perform work-related activities. Id.

         A disability determination must include consideration of all of the individual’s symptoms, including pain. SSR 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304, at *2. The Commissioner will not find an individual is disabled based on alleged symptoms alone. Id. at *4. When evaluating a disability claimant’s complaints of disabling pain, an ALJ must consider and determine:

(1) whether the claimant established a pain-producing impairment by objective medical evidence; (2) if so, whether the impairment is reasonably expected to produce some pain of the sort alleged (what we term a “loose nexus”); and (3) if so, whether, considering all the evidence, both objective and subjective, the claimant’s pain was in fact disabling.

Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1166-67 (10th Cir. 2012) (citing Luna v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 161, 163–64 (10th Cir. 1987)).[8] The ALJ found that Mr. Estrada had a medically determinable impairment and that that impairment could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms. AR 19. Mr. Estrada does not challenge these findings. The ALJ further found that Mr. Estrada’s “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record for the reasons explained in this decision.” Id. Mr. Estrada contests this finding, arguing that the ALJ failed to consider certain factors, that the medical evidence supports his complaints of back and leg pain, and that “the ALJ’s cursory statement regarding the Plaintiff’s credibility does not provide specific reasons as required by SSR 16-3p.” Doc. 15 at 8.

         In considering the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of a claimant’s symptoms, the ALJ must examine the entire case record and determine whether the claimant’s statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms are consistent with the medical signs and laboratory findings in the record. SSR 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304, at *4, *5. In examining ...


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