United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
E. GARZA, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Elaine Herrera's
Motion to Reverse or Remand the Administrative
Record, (Doc. 16), filed July 3, 2019; Ms. Herrera's
Memorandum Brief in Support of Plaintiff's Motion to
Reverse or Remand the Administrative Agency Decision
(the “Motion”), (Doc. 17), filed July 3, 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. 22), filed October 30, 2019;
and Ms. Herrera's Reply to Defendant's Response
to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse/Remand (the
“Reply”), (Doc. 23), filed November 21, 2019.
Herrera filed applications for disability insurance benefits
and supplemental security income on January 29, 2016.
(Administrative Record “AR” 175). In her
applications, Ms. Herrera alleged disability beginning April
30, 2015. (AR 192). Ms. Herrera claimed she was limited in
her ability to work due to a back impairment, sciatica, and a
hip impairment. (AR 195). Ms. Herrera's applications were
denied initially on May 27, 2016, and upon reconsideration on
August 29, 2016. (AR 100, 105).
Herrera's request, (AR 108), a hearing was held on August
10, 2017, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
Michael Leppala, (AR 27). Ms. Herrera and Thomas Garner, an
impartial vocational expert (“VE”), testified at
the hearing and Ms. Herrera was represented by her attorney,
Barbara Jarvis. (AR 27). On March 12, 2018, the ALJ issued
his decision, finding Ms. Herrera not disabled at any time
between her alleged onset date, April 30, 2015, through the
date of his decision. (AR 17). Ms. Herrera requested review
by the Appeals Council, (AR 22), which was denied, (AR 1-3),
making the ALJ's opinion the Commissioner's final
decision for purposes of this appeal.
Herrera, represented by her attorney Barbara Jarvis, argues
in her Motion that the ALJ: (1) erred in evaluating the
opinions of Ms. Herrera's treating physician, Gerhard
Nyase, M.D., (Doc. 17 at 8-9); and (2) erroneously determined
that Ms. Herrera could perform her past relevant work as a
contract clerk, id. at 12-18. Ms. Herrera further
argues she is entitled to an immediate award of benefits
because remanding this matter for additional fact finding
would serve no useful purpose. Id. at 19. 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
analyzing the opinion of Ms. Herrera's treating
physician, the Court finds that Ms. Herrera's Motion
should be GRANTED, and this matter shall be
REMANDED to the Commissioner for additional
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 residual functional capacity
(“RFC”), age, education, and work experience.
Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.
Herrera claimed she was limited in her ability to work due to
a back impairment, sciatica, and a hip impairment. (AR 195).
At step one, the ALJ determined that Ms. Herrera has not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 30, 2015,
the alleged disability onset date. (AR 12). At step two, the
ALJ found Ms. Herrera has the severe impairment of lumbar
degenerative disc disease. (AR 12-13). At step three, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Herrera's impairment did not equal
one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526. (AR 13).
four, the ALJ found that Ms. Herrera has the RFC to perform
light work and is capable of: occasionally lifting and/or
carrying 20 pounds; frequently lifting and/or carrying ten
pounds; sitting, and standing and/or walking for about six
hours in an eight-hour workday, all with normal breaks;
occasionally kneeling, crouching, and climbing ramps or
stairs; never crawling, and never climbing ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds; and she must avoid concentrated exposure to
hazards. (AR 13).
formulating Ms. Herrera's RFC, the ALJ stated that he
considered Ms. Herrera's 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 14). 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 Ms. Herrera's impairments
could be expected to cause her alleged symptoms, but he ...