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McGehee v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 21, 2019

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 12) filed February 25, 2019 in support of Plaintiff Robert McGehee's (“Mr. McGehee”) Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking review of the decision of Defendant Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), denying Mr. McGehee's claims for Title II child disability benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income benefits. On May 9, 2019, Mr. McGehee filed his Motion to Reverse or Remand Administrative Agency Decision and Memorandum Brief in Support. (Doc. 18.) The Commissioner filed a Brief in Response on July 22, 2019 (Doc. 22), and Mr. McGehee filed a Reply on September 16, 2019. (Doc. 26.) 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 being fully advised in the premises, the Court FINDS that the Motion to Reverse or Remand is well taken and should be GRANTED.

         I. Background

         Mr. McGehee was born on January 4, 1990 and lives with his parents in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 050-51, 079.) He grew up in Tucson, Arizona and began receiving special education services in elementary school due to a specific learning disability and a speech/language impairment. (AR 407, 433.) Mr. McGehee, who testified at his administrative hearing that he completed either his junior or senior year in high school, never obtained his GED and has never had a driver's license because, according to his mother, he was unable to pass the test “because of his reading level.” (AR 051, 061, 328.)

         When he was sixteen years old, Mr. McGehee suffered an alcohol overdose-including a possible anoxic brain injury[2]-during which he lost consciousness and had to be resuscitated by paramedics. (AR 432, 440.) He was in a coma for one day following the overdose. (AR 432.) His mother reported that following that incident, he became “very argumentative and very moody[, ]” has had problems with memory, judgment, and insight, can only perform one-step instructions, and is impulsive and impatient. (AR 432.) For two years around age twenty, he was living on the streets in Tucson and doing “a lot of methamphetamine as a way of self-medicating.” (AR 433.) During that time, he was “shot at, stabbed, and jumped, ” experiences to which he attributes his development of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (AR 057.) In addition to PTSD, he has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), mood disorder not otherwise specified (“nos”), impulse control disorder nos, personality disorder nos with borderline and antisocial traits, polysubstance dependence, unspecified episodic mood disorder (later changed to bipolar I disorder), and unspecified psychosis (later changed to unspecified schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorder).[3] (AR 023, 440, 485, 681, 696, 952.) Consulting examiner Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D., who completed a neuropsychological evaluation of Mr. McGehee in May-September 2014, additionally identified “[h]istory of anoxic brain trauma” as a general medical condition potentially bearing upon Mr. McGehee's diagnosed mental disorders. (AR 440.) Since April 2014, Mr. McGehee has been under the care of psychiatrist Edwin Hall, M.D., who has treated Mr. McGehee's mental conditions with prescription medications as well as monthly counseling.[4] (AR 446-87, 639-709, 832-974.)

         Mr. McGehee's work history consists of a number of jobs in the fast-food industry, each of which he has held for less than one year and some of which he has held for as little as two months. (AR 051-54, 293-96, 433.) He was fired from one job for taking too many cigarette breaks. (AR 433.) He was either fired from or quit each of the other jobs. (AR 054-55, 070, 433.) In 2014, he was fired from his most recent job at Little Caesar's for yelling at a coworker for telling him what to do. (AR 053, 294-95.)

         II. Procedural History and the ALJ's Decision

         Mr. McGehee protectively filed applications for disability insurance benefits, child disability insurance benefits (based on an onset date before age twenty-two), and supplemental security income on September 5, 2014. (AR 079-81, 082, 096.) He alleged a disability-onset date of January 1, 2010, three days before his twentieth birthday. His claims were initially denied on January 30, 2015 and again upon reconsideration on September 2, 2015. (AR 082-123, 124-65.) Mr. McGehee requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) (AR 197-201), and ALJ Cole Gerstner held an administrative hearing on June 2, 2017. (AR 046-78.) Mr. McGehee and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Nicole King, testified. (AR 050-72, 072-77.)

         In his decision, the ALJ found that prior to attaining the age of twenty-two and since the alleged onset date, Mr. McGehee has suffered from the following severe mental impairments: PTSD, ADHD, bipolar affective disorder, organic mental disorder, conduct disorder, personality disorder, and impulse control disorder. (AR 023.) Because the ALJ found that none of those impairments, alone or in combination, were presumptively disabling under any of the Listings (AR 023-25), see 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, pt. A, he proceeded to assess Mr. McGehee's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). (AR 025-35.) In relevant part, the ALJ found that Mr. McGehee “is limited to work involving performance of simple, routine and repetitive tasks and to simple work-related decisions. He can have only incidental contact with supervisors, coworkers and the public. In addition to normal work breaks, he will be off task 5% percent [sic] of [the] time in an 8-hour workday.” (AR 025-26.)

         The ALJ found that Mr. McGehee has no past relevant work (AR 035-36) but that given his age, education, work experience, and RFC, he would be able to perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (AR 036-37.) The ALJ therefore found that Mr. McGehee was “not disabled.” (AR 037.) Mr. McGehee sought review by the Appeals Council, which denied his request. (AR 001-4, 254.) Mr. McGehee then appealed to this Court. (Doc. 1.)

         III. Applicable Law

         A. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits is limited to whether the final decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards to evaluate the evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004). In making these determinations, the Court must meticulously examine the entire record but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007). In other words, the Court does not reexamine the issues de novo. Sisco v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 10 F.3d 739, 741 (10th Cir. 1993). The Court will not disturb the Commissioner's final decision if it correctly applies legal standards and is based on substantial evidence in the record.

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks omitted). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). A decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record[, ]” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118 (internal quotation marks omitted), or “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). The Court's 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).

         B. Disability Benefits and the Sequential Evaluation Process

         Disability under the Social Security Act is defined as the “inability 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). A claimant is disabled under the Act if his “physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work in the national economy[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). “To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish a severe physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of twelve months which prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity.” Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1486 (10th Cir. 1993).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show that: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; and (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 (3) his impairment(s) meet or equal one of the Listings[5] 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). If the claimant can show that his impairment meets or equals a Listing at step three, the claimant is presumed disabled and the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If at step three the claimant's impairment is not equivalent to a listed impairment, the ALJ must next consider all of the relevant medical and other evidence and determine what is the “most [the claimant] can still do” in a work setting despite his physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1)-(3), 416.945(a)(1)-(3). This is called the claimant's residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1) & (a)(3), 416.945(a)(1) & (a)(3). The claimant's RFC is used at step four of the process to determine if he can perform the physical and mental demands of his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(e), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(e). If the claimant establishes that he is incapable of meeting those demands, 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 his RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         C. Consideration of Evidence and Weighing of Medical Opinions

         The ALJ must consider “all relevant evidence in the case record” in making a disability determination. SSR 06-03P, 2006 WL 2329939, at *4 (Aug. 9, 2006).[6] Under the regulations, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) considers “evidence” to include “anything that [the claimant] or anyone else submits to us or that we obtain that relates to the [claimant's] claim.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1513(a), 416.913(a). The five categories of evidence comprise (1) objective medical evidence, (2) medical opinions, (3) other medical evidence, (4) evidence from nonmedical sources, and (5) prior administrative medical findings. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1513(a)(1)-(5), 416.913(a)(1)-(5). Although an ALJ is not required to ...

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