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Mayfield v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 13, 2020

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff James Anthony Joseph Mayfield's (“Mr. Mayfield”) pro se letter to the Court (Doc. 19), filed July 11, 2019, in which he moves the Court to reverse and remand Defendant the Commissioner of Social Security's decision terminating his disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits under 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(f) and 1382c(a)(4)(A). The Commissioner filed a response in opposition to Mr. Mayfield's motion on September 13, 2019. (Doc. 20.) The deadline for Mr. Mayfield to file a reply in support of his motion expired on September 27, 2019, (Doc. 18); and, to date, Mr. Mayfield has neither filed a reply nor requested an extension of time in which to do so. The Court therefore concludes that briefing on Mr. Mayfield's motion is complete. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the applicable law, being otherwise fully advised, and for the reasons set forth below, the Court FINDS that Mr. Mayfield's motion is well taken and should be GRANTED.

         I. Legal Standards

         A. Standard of Review

         The standard that courts apply in reviewing the Commissioner's decisions is the same whether a decision initially denies benefits or subsequently terminates them. Hayden v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 986, 988 (10th Cir. 2004); Glenn v. Shalala, 21 F.3d 983, 984 (10th Cir. 1994). Specifically, this Court must affirm the Commissioner's final decision unless: (1) “substantial evidence” does not support the decision; or, (2) the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) did not apply the correct legal standards in reaching it.[3] Hayden, 374 F.3d at 988; Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004). The Court must meticulously review the entire record but may “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.'” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008); 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. A 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. Although the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its consideration of the record must include “anything that may undercut or detract from the [agency]'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 agency's] findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007).

         The agency decision must “provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005). Thus, although an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence, “the record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence, ” and “the ALJ . . . must discuss the uncontroverted evidence he chooses not to rely upon, as well as significantly probative evidence he rejects.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996).

         B. Sequential Evaluation Process for Termination of Benefits

         This case involves the Commissioner's termination of Mr. Mayfield's benefits under the Social Security Act (“SSA”). The Commissioner may terminate the benefits of an individual previously found to be disabled under the SSA if the physical or mental impairments which formed the basis of the award of benefits have ceased, do not exist, or are no longer disabling. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(f), 1382c(a)(4). To determine whether termination of benefits is appropriate, the Commissioner has adopted a sequential evaluation process of eight steps for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and seven steps for supplemental security income (“SSI”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(1)-(8), 416.994(b)(5)(i)-(vii). Whether a claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity[4] is the first step to be considered in determining the claimant's continued eligibility for DIB but is not considered for SSI; otherwise the steps are the same for both types of benefits. Compare 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(1)-(8) (DIB-eight steps), with 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(i-vii) (SSI-seven steps).

         The seven shared steps of the sequential evaluation process for termination of benefits are as follows:

1) Does the claimant have an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or equals the severity of [an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1]?
2) If not, has there been medical improvement?[5]
3) If there has been medical improvement, does the improvement relate to the claimant's ability to do work, i.e., has there been an increase in the claimant's [residual functional capacity (“RFC”)] based on the impairment(s) present on the date of the most recent favorable medical determination?
4) If there has been no medical improvement, or if such improvement is not related to claimant's ability to work, do any of the exceptions to medical improvement apply? See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(d)-(e), 416.994(b)(3)-(4) (list[ing] the applicable exceptions).
5) If there is medical improvement related to the claimant's ability to work, are the claimant's current impairments severe when considered in combination?[6]
6) If the claimant's impairments are severe, does the claimant retain the ability to perform his or her past relevant work?
7) If the claimant's impairments are severe and the claimant cannot perform his or her past relevant work, does the claimant nevertheless possess the RFC to perform other work?

Maestas v. Berryhill, No. CV 17-679 CG, 2018 WL 3037390, at *2-3 (D.N.M. June 19, 2018); Ortega v. Berryhill, No. 2:16-CV-01074-LF, 2018 WL 1972677, at *2 (D.N.M. Apr. 26, 2018). The Commissioner bears the burden of proof in a termination-of-benefits review. Hayden, 374 F.3d at 991; Glenn, 21 F.3d at 987.

         II. Background and Procedural History

         It is well-documented and undisputed that Mr. Mayfield, who is now thirty-nine, has had chronic epilepsy since childhood. (See, e.g., AR 415-16.) Mr. Mayfield has his GED and as a young adult held two jobs, one at Wal-Mart and another at a cell phone company; at both jobs, however, flickering lights triggered seizures and he was fired. (AR 39, 58, 324.) On April 30, 2008, the Commissioner found Mr. Mayfield to be disabled and entitled to DIB and SSI beginning on August 1, 2004. (AR 55-60.)[7] Specifically, the Commissioner found that: (1) Mr. Mayfield's date last insured was March 1, 2006; (2) he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date; (3) he had the severe impairments of “seizure disorder grand mal type, depression and low average intelligence”; (4) he did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (5) he had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the non-exertional limitations of:

(a) “avoidance of exposure to machinery, heights and other hazards”;
(b) “avoidance of fluorescent lighting”;
(c) “avoidance of concentrated exposure to vibrations”;
(d) “inability to read and understand basic instruction”; and,
(e) “moderate impairment in interacting with supervisors and perform[ing] work on a persistent basis during a 40-hour work-week”; and,

         (6) considering his age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were “no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy” that he could perform. (Id.)

         On November 30, 2015, however, the Commissioner determined that Mr. Mayfield is no longer disabled and thus no longer entitled to DIB or SSI. (AR 45-46.) The Commissioner affirmed his decision to terminate Mr. Mayfield's benefits on reconsideration on March 23, 2016, and again on reconsideration after a hearing before a state agency disability hearing officer on June 1, 2016. (AR 47-50.) On June 27, 2016, Mr. Mayfield requested a hearing before an ALJ. (AR 95-97.) ALJ James Burke held an initial hearing on October 18, 2016, at which Mr. Mayfield appeared pro se and requested additional time to obtain counsel. (AR 37-39.) The ALJ therefore continued the hearing to June 15, 2017, on which date attorney Michelle Baca appeared on Mr. Mayfield's behalf.[8] (AR 25-34, 130-34.) At the hearing, the ALJ heard Ms. Baca's arguments and Mr. Mayfield's testimony.[9] (Id.) Afterward, without objection from Ms. Baca or Mr. Mayfield, the ALJ received and considered records from psychologist Mary S. Loescher, Ph.D., and submitted interrogatories to and received written answers from impartial vocational expert (“VE”) Thomas A. Greiner. (AR 11, 309-17, 422-28.)

         On January 17, 2018, ALJ Burke issued his decision finding that Mr. Mayfield's disability ended on November 1, 2015 and that he has not become disabled again since that date. (AR 17.) In particular, the ALJ found that: (1) as of April 30, 2008, Mr. Mayfield had the medically determinable impairment of seizure disorder; (2) as of November 1, 2015, Mr. Mayfield had not engaged in substantial gainful activity; (3) Mr. Mayfield did not develop any additional impairments between April 30, 2008 and November 1, 2015; (4) since November 1, 2015, Mr. Mayfield has not had an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (5) as of November 1, 2015, Mr. Mayfield experienced medical improvement; and, (6) since November 1, 2015, Mr. Mayfield's seizure disorder “has not caused more than a minimal impact on [his] ability to perform basic work activities, ” and therefore, he “no longer has a severe impairment or combination of impairments.” (AR 11-17.)

         In support of these findings the ALJ observed that, according to Mr. Mayfield's medical records and by his own report, he has not had a seizure in several years, because his seizures are controlled by Keppra. (AR 15-17.) The ALJ accorded “little weight” to the opinion of medical consultant Edward S. Bocian, M.D., that Mr. Mayfield should avoid concentrated exposure to hazards due to his seizure history, finding that the opinion was “not consistent with the evidence as a whole.”[10] (AR 16.) The ALJ also accorded “little weight” to the opinions of Dr. Loescher, a consultative examiner. (Id.) Based on her clinical interview and mental status examination of Mr. Mayfield and his results on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale IV (“WAIS-IV”), Dr. Loescher opined that Mr. Mayfield is mildly to moderately restricted in his ability to understand, remember, and carry out complex instructions and to make judgments on complex work-related decisions, and that it would “possibly be anxiety producing for [Mr. Mayfield] to adapt to a work setting.”[11](AR 422, 428.) The ALJ rejected Dr. Loescher's opinions on the basis that she pointed to no “medically acceptable clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques” to support them. (AR 16.)

         Mr. Mayfield requested review by the Appeals Council, which was denied on December 17, 2018. (AR 1-7.) He then appealed to this Court. (Doc. 1.) Mr. Mayfield attached printouts from various websites regarding epilepsy to his July 11, 2019 letter to the Court. (Doc. 19 at 2-29.) He also attached documentation regarding Keppra, generically known as levetiracetam. (Id. at 31-42.) Finally, he attached a May 22, 2019 letter from his treating physician, Sue Katz, M.D., who wrote in pertinent part:

[Mr. Mayfield] has requested a letter to explain his diagnosis of epilepsy. He has [a] history of uncontrolled gran[d] mal seizures prior to treatment with high dose levetiracetam. He reports his last gran[d] mal seizure as 2009. He continues with frequent petit mal seizures. He estimates these as almost daily, several in a week. He also ...

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