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Copelin v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 27, 2019

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 18), filed October 9, 2018, in support of Plaintiff Kenneth Copelin’s Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking review of Defendant the Commissioner of Social Security’s decision denying Mr. Copelin’s claim for supplemental security income. On December 7, 2018, Mr. Copelin filed a Motion to Reverse the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Unfavorable Decision Dated June 23, 2017 As Well As the Appeals Council Ruling Dated June 19, 2018: Alternatively Motion to Remand Case Back to the Administrative Law Judge. (Doc. 21.) Mr. Copelin filed a memorandum in support of his motion on the same date. (Doc. 22.) The Commissioner filed a response in opposition to the motion on February 13, 2019, and Mr. Copelin filed a reply in support of it on February 27, 2019. (Docs. 24, 25.)

         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 relevant law and being otherwise fully advised, the Court finds that Mr. Copelin’s motion is well taken and should be GRANTED.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         Mr. Copelin alleges that he became disabled on May 9, 2011, at thirty-seven years of age, due to hypertensive urgency, chronic headaches, shoulder, knee, and elbow joint pain, upper and lower back pain, stars/lightning in visual range, inability to handle heat, numbness of legs and feet, chest pain, depression, and lack of concentration and memory. (AR 240-41.) Mr. Copelin completed four or more years of college in 2005 and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. (AR 44-45, 241, 359.) In the relevant past, he worked as a warehouse worker and a stock clerk. (AR 47-48, 140.)

         On July 8, 2014, Mr. Copelin applied for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq.[3] (AR 219.) Mr. Copelin’s application was denied initially on January 23, 2015, and on reconsideration on July 13, 2015. (AR 113, 127-28.) On September 7, 2015, Mr. Copelin requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (AR 162-64.) ALJ Michael Leppala conducted a hearing in Albuquerque on March 16, 2017. (AR 40-96.) Mr. Copelin appeared from Las Cruces by videoconference with his attorney, Jaime Rubin. (AR 40-41.) The ALJ took testimony from Mr. Copelin and from an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Phunda Yarbrough. (AR 40, 44-96, 301.) On June 23, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (AR 133-42.) On June 19, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Mr. Copelin’s request for review, rendering the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final decision from which Mr. Copelin now appeals. (AR 1-4.)

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Disability Determination Process

         If a person is “disabled, ” he may qualify for SSI benefits under Title XVI. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(1). An individual is considered to be “disabled” if 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 12 months.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(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, he is not disabled regardless of his 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, he 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 his “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 [the claimant] can still do despite [his physical and mental] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(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 his past relevant work is not disabled.
(5) If the claimant is unable to perform his 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. § 416.920(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. § 416.920(a)(4).

         B. Standard of Review

         This Court will affirm the Commissioner’s final decision denying social security benefits unless: (1) “substantial evidence” does not support the decision; or, (2) the Commissioner did not apply the correct legal standards in reaching the decision. 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 the 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 found Mr. Copelin not disabled at step four of the sequential evaluation process. (AR 140.) At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Copelin has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his application date. (AR 135.) At step two, he found that Mr. Copelin has the severe mental impairments of affective disorder and borderline personality disorder. (Id.) However, he found that Mr. Copelin’s physical impairments of obesity, hypertensive vascular disease, headaches, chronic kidney disease, hypertension, visual deficits, and breathing difficulties are non-severe or not medically determinable. (AR 135-36.) The ALJ determined at step three that Mr. Copelin does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AR 136.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Mr. Copelin has the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels subject to the following non-exertional limitations:

[Mr. Copelin] can understand, remember, and carry out two-step commands involving simple instructions, can concentrate and maintain persistence on simple tasks, and can complete tasks consisting of one to three step instructions. He is able to maintain extended periods of concentration and attention greater than 2hour segments and maintain attendance and complete a normal workweek and maintain pace. [Mr. Copelin] can relate on a superficial basis to coworkers and supervisors, but is limited to occasional contact with the general public.

(AR 138.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined that Mr. Copelin can perform his past relevant work as a stock clerk or warehouse worker and is therefore not disabled. (AR 140.) Alternatively, the ALJ proceeded to step five, finding that Mr. Copelin can perform other work in the national economy and is not disabled for this reason as well. (AR 141.)

         In support of his motion to reverse or remand, Mr. Copelin claims that the ALJ erred by finding that his hypertension, kidney disease, and headaches are not severe or medically determinable. (Doc. 22 at 2-4.) He also claims that the Appeals Council erred by declining to consider additional evidence he submitted after the administrative hearing. (Id. at 4-6.)

         A. Summary of Record Evidence

         1. Function Reports

         In September 2014, Mr. Copelin’s mother, Diana Copelin, completed a third-party adult function report. (AR 248-55.) Ms. Copelin indicated that, as daily activities, Mr. Copelin cares for pets, checks the weather on television, does some yard work, home repair, or paperwork for his great aunt as needed and depending on how he feels, prepares dinner for Ms. Copelin and her mother, and retires to his home, which is an RV on Ms. Copelin’s property. (AR 45-46, 248-49.) Ms. Copelin reported that Mr. Copelin used to but can no longer camp, jog, hike, sculpt, work for longer periods of time, and be more physically active. (AR 249.) According to Ms. Copelin, Mr. Copelin walks, drives a car, shops for groceries and parts once a month, can pay bills and handle money, plays video games, cooks, has a girlfriend, and visits his great aunt twice a month. (AR 251-52.) Ms. Copelin also indicated that: (1) sometimes Mr. Copelin’s hands and legs “go numb so he can’t use them [and] he must stop[] [until] feeling comes back”; (2) he wakes with headaches and has them all day; and, (3) he has high blood pressure that his treatment providers have been unable to lower for any length of time. (AR 255.)

         Mr. Copelin also completed an adult function report in September 2014. (AR 276-83.) According to Mr. Copelin, on many mornings he is “stuck in bed” for a few hours before he gets up, but if “lucky” he can “get a few things done” before noon. (AR 276.) Mr. Copelin reported that he then rests and cools down until 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., when he makes dinner for his mother and grandmother. (Id.) Afterward, he watches television or “mess[es] on the computer” until he gets to sleep, between 9:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. depending “on conditions.” (Id.) According to Mr. Copelin, he either wakes every hour or two to go to the bathroom or sleeps through the night but wakes with a “major headache.” (Id.) Mr. Copelin explained that on most days he wakes with a headache that worsens if he moves and usually takes a few hours to become “manageable.” (AR 277.) Mr. Copelin confirmed that he cares for his pet, plans and cooks dinner for his mother and grandmother, does household chores, repairs, and yard work for short periods of time, walks, drives a car, shops for groceries and parts once a month or every other month, visits his girlfriend, and can pay bills and handle money. (AR 277-80.) Mr. Copelin also indicated that: (1) walking is “more of an issue with the heat”; (2) he cannot sit for extended periods because his legs go numb; (3) he cannot climb a flight of steps without gasping for air; and, (4) his hands, legs, arms, and feet sometimes go numb. (AR 283.)

         2. Mr. Copelin’s Testimony

         At the March 2017 administrative hearing, Mr. Copelin testified that, most mornings, he gets up, goes outside, goes back inside, and lays down until about noon, makes lunch, and then is up “for a little bit.” (AR 52.) According to Mr. Copelin, he then lays back down until about 6:00 p.m., when he gets back up to cook dinner and then lays back down. (Id.) Mr. Copelin ...

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