United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA JUDGE
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Henry
Christopher Gonzales' Motion to Reverse and Remand to
Agency for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (the
“Motion”), (Doc. 17), filed June 18, 2019;
Defendant Commissioner Andrew Saul's Brief in
Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand the
Agency's Administrative Decision (the
“Response”), (Doc. 21), filed September 18, 2019;
and Mr. Gonzales' Reply in Suport of Motion to
Remand (the “Reply”), (Doc. 22), filed
October 2, 2019.
Gonzales filed an application for disability insurance
benefits on October 21, 2015, and for supplemental security
income on June 19, 2017. (Administrative Record
“AR” 156, 170). Mr. Gonzales' claim for
supplemental security income was subsequently approved and,
as a result, the only issue presently before the Court is his
application for disability insurance benefits. (AR 29-30). In
his application for disability insurance benefits, Mr.
Gonzales alleged disability beginning August 3, 2013. (AR
156). Mr. Gonzales claimed he was limited in his ability to
work due to a hernia, torn tissue in his right knee, and high
blood pressure. (AR 195).
Gonzales' application was denied initially on March 2,
2016, and upon reconsideration on August 9, 2016. (AR 87,
94). At Mr. Gonzales' request, (AR 100), a hearing was
held on August 11, 2017, before Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) Cole Gerstner, (AR 27). Mr. Gonzales and
Nicole B. King, an impartial vocational expert
(“VE”), testified at the hearing and Mr. Gonzales
was represented by his attorney, Gary Martone. (AR 27). On
February 12, 2018, the ALJ issued his decision, finding Mr.
Gonzales not disabled at any time between his alleged onset
date, August 3, 2013, through December 31, 2015, the date he
was last insured. (AR 22). Mr. Gonzales requested review by
the Appeals Council, (AR 152), which was denied, (AR 1-3),
making the ALJ's opinion the Commissioner's final
decision for purposes of this appeal.
Gonzales, represented by attorney Feliz M. Martone, argues in
his Motion that his residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) was incorrectly assessed because the ALJ:
(1) did not properly evaluate Mr. Gonzales' subjective
complaints and testimony, (Doc. 17 at 7-8); (2) erroneously
concluded that Mr. Gonzales' statements were not
supported by evidence in the record and failed to adequately
explain his conclusions, id. at 8-11; and (3) did
not properly evaluate Mr. Gonzales' severe impairment of
obesity, id. at 11-14. The Court has reviewed the
Motion, the Response, the Reply, and the relevant law.
Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed the
administrative record. Because the ALJ erred in not properly
considering Mr. Gonzales' severe impairment of obesity,
the Court finds that Mr. Gonzales' Motion should be
GRANTED IN PART and this case
REMANDED to the Commissioner for further
proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Standard of Review
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) (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health &
Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)).
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); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365
F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart,
331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). The Commissioner's
“failure to apply the correct legal standards, or to
show . . . that she has done so, are also grounds for
reversal.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017,
1019 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Washington v. Shalala,
37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). A court should
meticulously review the entire record but should neither
re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for the
Commissioner's. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118;
Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. A court's review is
limited to the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g), which is generally the ALJ's decision,
rather than the Appeals Council's denial of review.
O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (10th Cir.
evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d
at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. An ALJ's
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.”
Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d
at 1214. While the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try
the issues de novo, its examination of the record
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
ALJ]'s 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)).
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
purposes of supplemental security income and disability
insurance benefits, a claimant establishes a disability when
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) (2015), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). In order to determine
whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a
five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”).
Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
first four steps of the SEP, the claimant bears the burden of
showing: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful
activity;” (2) he 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 either (3) his impairment(s) meet or
equal one of the “listings” of presumptively
disabling impairments; or (4) he is unable to perform his
“past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv), 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); see also
Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir.
2005). If the ALJ determines the claimant cannot engage in
his past relevant work, the ALJ will proceed to step five of
the evaluation process. At step five, the Commissioner bears
the burden of showing that the claimant is able to perform
other work in the national economy, considering the
claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.
Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.
Gonzales claimed he was limited in his ability to work due to
a hernia, torn tissue in his right knee, and high blood
pressure. (AR 195). At step one, the ALJ determined that Mr.
Gonzales has not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since August 3, 2013, the alleged disability onset date. (AR
15). At step two, the ALJ found Mr. Gonzales has the
following severe impairments: dysfunction of the right knee
and obesity. (AR 15-16). At step three, the ALJ determined
that none of Mr. Gonzales' impairments, solely or in
combination, equaled one of the listed impairments in 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526. (AR
four, the ALJ found that Mr. Gonzales has the RFC to perform
light work except that he can: lift, carry, push, and pull 20
pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; sit, stand,
and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday;
occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and
scaffolds; and occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch,
and crawl. (AR 17). In formulating Mr. Gonzales' RFC, the
ALJ stated that he considered Mr. Gonzales' symptoms and
the extent to which those symptoms can reasonably be accepted
as consistent with objective medical and other evidence, as
required by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529 and Social
Security Ruling (“SSR”) 16-3p. (AR 17).
The ALJ also stated that he considered opinion evidence
consistent with the requirements of 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527. Id. The ALJ concluded that some of Mr.
Gonzales' impairments could be expected to cause his
alleged symptoms, but he found that the intensity,
persistence, and limiting effects Mr. Gonzales described were
not entirely consistent with the evidence in the record. (AR
evaluating the medical evidence in the record, the ALJ stated
that he gave “some weight” to the opinions of
non-examining state agency experts Teresa Fox, M.D. and
Robert Weisberg, M.D. (AR 20). The ALJ explained that the
opinions proffered by the non-examining state agency
physicians were generally supported by the record except for
their conclusion that Mr. Gonzales could perform
“frequent postural maneuvers.” Id. In
addition, the ALJ assigned “little weight” to the
opinion of James H. Lubowitz, M.D., a private physician that
repeatedly treated Mr. Gonzales at the Taos Orthopedic
Institute, PC. (AR 261-71).
examining Mr. Gonzales' medical reports and his testimony
at the hearing, the ALJ found that Mr. Gonzales is unable to
perform any of his past relevant work and proceeded to step
five of the SEP. (AR 20). At this step, the ALJ noted that
Mr. Gonzales was 52 years old on the alleged disability onset
date and was therefore classified as an individual
“closely approaching advanced age.” (AR 21). The
ALJ also determined that Mr. Gonzales has at least a high
school education and is able to communicate in English.
the ALJ explained that if Mr. Gonzales had the RFC to perform
the full range of light work, a finding of not disabled would
be directed by Medical-Vocational Rule 202.15. (AR 21-22).
However, the ALJ found that Mr. Gonzales' limitations
impeded his ability to perform the full range of light work.
Id. The ALJ therefore relied on the testimony of the
VE to determine applicable jobs Mr. Gonzales could perform in
the national economy. (AR 21). The ALJ noted that the VE
testified at the hearing that an individual with Mr.
Gonzales' same age, education, work experience, and RFC
could perform the jobs of pantry cook, short order cook, meal
cook, assembler, finish inspector, and electronics assembler.
Id. After finding the VE's testimony consistent
with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, the ALJ adopted