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Chavez v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 14, 2020

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


          STEPHAN M. VIDMAR United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and/or Remand [Doc. 21], filed on July 3, 2019. The Commissioner responded on August 30, 2019. [Doc. 26]. Plaintiff replied on September 13, 2019. [Doc. 27]. The parties have consented to my entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 11]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that the Appeals Council erred in failing to consider the letters of Dr. Hninn and Dr. Kuny. Accordingly, the Motion will be granted, and the case will be remanded for further proceedings. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (sentence four) (2018).

         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); see 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”[2]of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) she is unable to perform her “past relevant work.” §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(iv); see Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). 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 and disability insurance benefits on March 17, 2015. Tr. 26. She alleged a disability-onset date of March 31, 2014. Id. Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Eric Weiss held a hearing on September 7, 2017, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tr. 26, 49. Plaintiff appeared in person with her attorney. Tr. 26, 51. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Mary Weber, who testified via telephone. Tr. 26, 75-81.

         The ALJ issued his unfavorable decision on February 23, 2018. Tr. 41. He found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2019. Tr. 28. At step one, he found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 31, 2014, her alleged onset date. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: obesity, asthma, right shoulder bursitis and acromioclavicular joint arthritis, obstructive sleep apnea, lumbar spondylosis and facet joint syndrome with radiculopathy, somatization disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and major depressive disorder. Id. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's gastroesophageal reflux disease, hypertension, vocal cord dysfunction, mild osteoarthritis of the right hip, partial medial meniscus tears, and headaches were not severe. Tr. 29. Finally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had failed to establish fibromyalgia as a medically determinable impairment. Tr. 29-30.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. Tr. 30-33. Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 33-39. The ALJ found that Plaintiff

has the [RFC] to perform sedentary work as defined in [20 C.F.R. §§] 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except [Plaintiff] is able to occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but can never climb ladders, ropes[, ] and scaffolds. [Plaintiff] is able to occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel[, ] and crawl and can frequently reach with bilateral upper extremities. [Plaintiff] must avoid more than occasional exposure to unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery and must avoid more than occasional exposure to pulmonary irritants such as dust, fumes, odors[, ] and gases. [Plaintiff] is able to understand, remember[, ] and carry out simple instructions and make commensurate work[-]related decisions in a work setting with few, if any, changes. [Plaintiff] is able to occasionally interact with supervisors, co-workers[, ] and the public and is able to maintain concentration, persistence[, ] and pace for two hours at a time during the workday with normal breaks.

Tr. 33.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work as an overnight stocker or material clerk. Tr. 39-40. Accordingly, the ALJ went on to consider Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, work experience, and the testimony of the VE at step five. Tr. 40- 41. He found that Plaintiff could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy and, therefore, was not disabled. Id.

         After the ALJ issued his unfavorable decision on February 23, 2018, Plaintiff obtained letters from two treating physicians dated February 26 and April 2, 2018 (three days and 38 days after the ALJ's decision, respectively) opining that Plaintiff was, essentially, disabled. Tr. 8, 22. She provided these letters and other evidence to the Appeals Council and asked that the evidence be considered. Tr. 2. The Appeals Council determined that the letters “[did] not show a reasonable probability that [they] would [have] change[d] the outcome of the [ALJ's] decision.” Id. The Appeals Council did not exhibit any of the new ...

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