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Mares v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

October 9, 2019

DAISY MARES, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse or Remand the Administrative Decision [Doc. 17] and the Memorandum in Support [Doc. 18] (collectively, “Motion”), filed on April 30, 2019. The Commissioner responded on July 26, 2019. [Doc. 23].

         Plaintiff replied on August 20, 2019. [Doc. 24]. The parties have consented to my entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 21]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to apply the correct legal standard in evaluating the treating opinion of Dr. Montoya. The Motion will be granted, and the case will be remanded for further proceedings. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2018) (sentence four).

         Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision[2] 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). Courts must meticulously review the entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute their judgment for that of the Commissioner. 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. The 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 a court may not re-weigh 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 [Commissioner]'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) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (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) (quotation marks omitted).

         Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         In order to qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (2018); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a) (2012).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2012). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; and (2) she 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) her impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the “Listings”[3]of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) she is unable to perform her “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. If she cannot show that her impairment meets or equals a Listing, but she proves that she is unable to perform her “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof then shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering her residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on October 27, 2014. Tr. 12. She alleged a disability-onset date of July 17, 2013. Id. Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. ALJ Raul C. Pardo held a hearing on August 1, 2017, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tr. 12, 34. Plaintiff appeared in person at the hearing with her attorney. Id. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Sandra Trost, who testified via telephone. Tr. 12, 34-54.

         The ALJ issued his unfavorable decision on January 29, 2018. Tr. 26. He found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2018. Tr. 14. At step one, he found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “status-post left ankle surgery; depression; anxiety; migraines; pain in hands, back, and feet.” Id. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome was not severe. Tr. 15.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. Tr. 15-17. Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC.

         Tr. 17-24. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had:

the [RFC] to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 [C.F.R §§] 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a). In addition, she is never be [sic] able to operate foot controls with her left foot. She has frequent use of bilateral hands for reaching and handling. The claimant can climb ramps and stairs occasionally and can never climb ladder[s], scaffolds, and ropes. She can stoop frequently. She is limited to performing simple, routine tasks and can have only occasional contact with the public. [Plaintiff]'s time off task can be accommodated by normal breaks.

Tr. 17.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work as a gate guard, corrections officer, or warehouse worker. Tr. 24. Accordingly, the ALJ went on to consider Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, work experience, and the testimony of the VE at step five. Tr. 25-26. He found that Plaintiff could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy and, therefore, was not disabled. Id. The ...

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