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Yalch v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 22, 2019

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


          STEPHAN M. VIDMAR United States Magistrate Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse or Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum [Doc. 17] (“Motion”), filed on May 31, 2019. The Commissioner responded on August 28, 2019. [Doc. 21]. Plaintiff replied on September 29, 2019. [Doc. 24]. The parties have consented to my entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 10]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that Plaintiff fails to show reversible error in the Administrative Law Judge's evaluation of certain source opinions. The Motion will be denied, and the Commissioner's final decision, affirmed.

         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 September 11, 2012. Tr. 12. She alleged a disability-onset date of February 15, 2012. Tr. 686. Her claims were denied by an ALJ but remanded once by this Court. Tr. 12-25, 826-40; Yalch v. Berryhill, No. 16-cv-1167 LF (D.N.M. May 9, 2018). ALJ Ann Farris consolidated the claims with a new set of claims Plaintiff had filed when she appealed to federal court the first time. The ALJ held a second administrative hearing on September 27, 2018, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tr. 686. Plaintiff appeared in person at the hearing with her attorney. Tr. 686, 709-43. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Karen N. Provine. Tr. 686, 712, 738-42.

         The ALJ issued her most recent unfavorable decision on November 21, 2018. Tr. 700. She found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 13, 2016. Tr. 688. At step one, she 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: “degenerative joint disease of the knees, fibromyalgia, obesity, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.” Tr. 689. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's chronic low back pain, plantar fasciitis, history of kidney stones, endometriosis, fatty liver, and migraine headaches were not severe. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. Tr. 690-92. Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 692-98. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had:

the [RFC] to perform less than a full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §§] 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a). She must be allowed to between alternate sitting and standing for brief periods approximately hourly; can frequently (but not constantly) handle and finger; must avoid hazards, such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery; can occasionally climb stairs but never ladders or scaffolds; can occasionally balance and stoop; cannot kneel, crouch, or crawl; and cannot interact with the public.

Tr. 692.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work as a nursery school attendant or cashier checker. Tr. 698. Accordingly, the ALJ went on to consider Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, work experience, and the testimony of the VE at step five. Tr. 699-700. She found that Plaintiff could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national ...

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