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Atwood v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 3, 2020

TWYLA Y. ATWOOD, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1]Defendant.

          MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION [2]

          KIRTAN KHALSA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 12), filed July 8, 2019, in support of Plaintiff Twyla Atwood's Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking review of Defendant the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying Ms. Atwood's claim for disability insurance benefits. On September 16, 2019, Ms. Atwood filed a Motion to Reverse or Remand Administrative Agency Decision with supporting memorandum. (Doc. 18.) Ms. Atwood filed amendments to her motion and memorandum the following day to correct two errors. (Doc. 19.) The Commissioner filed a response in opposition to Ms. Atwood's motions and memoranda on October 7, 2019; and, Ms. Atwood filed a reply in support of them on December 4, 2019. (Docs. 20, 27.) Ms. Atwood also filed a Motion to Supplement Administrative Record on October 8, 2019, to which the Commissioner responded on October 21, 2019. (Docs. 21, 22.) Finally, Ms. Atwood filed a Request for Telephonic Hearing on November 15, 2019, to which the Commissioner responded on November 29, 2019. (Docs. 23, 25.)

         The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the relevant law and being otherwise fully advised, the undersigned proposes to find that Ms. Atwood's motions to remand are well taken and recommends that they be GRANTED, and that this matter be REMANDED to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The undersigned further recommends that Ms. Atwood's motion to supplement and request for telephonic hearing be DENIED AS MOOT.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         On June 19, 2013, Ms. Atwood applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. (AR 315-21.) In her application, Ms. Atwood alleged that she became disabled on March 31, 2011 at fifty-six years of age due to depression, diabetes, and celiac sprue. (AR 87.) Ms. Atwood completed the tenth grade and has not obtained a GED. (AR 44.) From 2003 to 2011, she worked as a secretary at her husband's automotive repair business. (AR 45.)

         Ms. Atwood's application for benefits was denied initially on October 7, 2013, and on reconsideration on February 14, 2014. (AR 87-108.) On April 2, 2014, Ms. Atwood requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (AR 150-51.) ALJ Myriam Rice held a video hearing on July 28, 2015. (AR 70-86.) Ms. Atwood and her counsel appeared in Roswell, and ALJ Rice presided in Albuquerque. (AR 72.) ALJ Rice took testimony from Ms. Atwood and from an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Sandra Trost.[3] (AR 72-84, 418.) On November 16, 2015, ALJ Rice issued an unfavorable decision. (AR 110-22.) Ms. Atwood asked the Appeals Council to review the decision, and, on November 9, 2016, the Appeals Council remanded the matter to the ALJ for further consideration, particularly with respect to Ms. Atwood's celiac sprue and residual functional capacity. (AR 128-31.)

         Pursuant to the Appeals Council's remand, ALJ Eric Weiss held a video hearing on June 11, 2018. (AR 39-69.) Ms. Atwood and her counsel appeared in Roswell, New Mexico, and the ALJ presided in Albuquerque. (AR 41.) ALJ Weiss took testimony from Ms. Atwood and from impartial VE Mary D. Weber.[4] (AR 44-68, 294-95, 451-53.) The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on June 22, 2018; and, on February 19, 2019, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Atwood's request for review, rendering ALJ Weiss' decision the Commissioner's final decision from which Ms. Atwood now appeals. (AR 1-4, 14-30.)

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Disability Determination Process

         A person must be “under a disability” to qualify for Title II disability insurance benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). A person is considered to be “under a disability” if 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).

         The Commissioner has adopted a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a person satisfies the statutory criteria:

(1) At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in “substantial gainful activity.”[5] If the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled regardless of her medical condition.
(2) At step two, the ALJ must determine the severity of the claimed physical or mental impairment(s). If the claimant does not have an impairment (or combination of impairments) that is severe and meets the duration requirement, she is not disabled.
(3) At step three, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant's impairment meets or equals in severity one of the listings described in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, and meets the duration requirement. If so, a claimant is presumed disabled.
(4) If none of the claimant's impairments meet or equal one of the listings, the ALJ must determine at step four whether the claimant can perform her “past relevant work.” This step involves three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ must consider all of the relevant evidence and determine what is “the most [claimant] can still do despite [her physical and mental] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). This is called the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Id. Second, the ALJ must determine the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. Third, the ALJ must ...

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