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Gonzales v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

October 25, 2019

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



         THIS 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.

         Mr. 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).

         Mr. 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.

         Mr. 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.

         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) (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. 1994).

         “Substantial 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)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         For 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.

         At the 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”[1] 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.

         III. Background

         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). 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 16).

         At step 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 18).

         In 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).

         After 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. Id.

         Further, 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 the ...

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