United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
FASHING, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Mary Elizabeth
Sanchez's Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency for
Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 27), which was
fully briefed on August 23, 2019. See Docs. 27, 29,
30. The parties consented to my entering final judgment in
this case. Docs. 27, 29, 30. Having meticulously reviewed the
entire record and being fully advised in the premises, I find
that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) failed to support her
step-four findings with substantial evidence. I therefore
GRANT Ms. Sanchez's motion and remand this case to the
Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this
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). 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).
“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) (internal quotation marks,
brackets, and citation omitted).
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. While the Court
may not reweigh 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
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] findings
from being supported by substantial evidence.'”
Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007)
(quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200
(10th Cir. 2004)).
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish
that he or 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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).
considering a disability application, the Commissioner is
required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S.
137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation
process, the claimant must show: (1) the claimant is not
engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2)
the claimant 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) the impairment(s) either meet or equal one
of the Listings of presumptively disabling impairments;
or (4) the claimant is unable to perform his or her
“past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1260-61.
If the claimant cannot show that his or her impairment meets
or equals a Listing but proves that he or she is unable to
perform his or her “past relevant work, ” the
burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to
show 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. Id.
Background and Procedural History
Sanchez was 29 years old at the time of her alleged onset of
disability. AR 335.She had earned her GED and lived in Rio
Rancho, New Mexico with her husband and children. AR 40-41,
335, 450, 452. Previously, Ms. Sanchez worked as a dental
assistant, cosmetic salesperson, and hostess. AR 21, 36-37.
She stopped working after being laid off in 2008. AR 451.
Although she began attending nursing school shortly
thereafter, she wasn't able to continue because of her
children's school schedule. AR 42.
January 16, 2012, an orthopedic surgeon performed an
operation on Ms. Sanchez's right hand to excise a
three-centimeter mass in the palm of her hand and to perform
a right open carpal tunnel release. AR 689. Three years
later, on April 27, 2015, Ms. Sanchez underwent a second
surgery described as a “Revision of Open Median Nerve
Decompression Right Carpal Tunnel.” AR 540-43.
Following her second surgery, Ms. Sanchez filed an
application for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI
of the Social Security Act (“SSI”),
alleging disability since January 16, 2012, due to symptoms
associated with the removal of the palmar mass from her right
hand. AR 335, 423-31. Her date last insured was December 31,
2013, which was well before her second surgery. Id.
Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Ms.
Sanchez's claim initially and on reconsideration. AR
334-52. Ms. Sanchez then requested a hearing before an ALJ.
AR 364- 65. On April 27, 2017, ALJ Ann Farris held a hearing.
AR 16. ALJ Farris issued her unfavorable decision on October
30, 2017. AR 12-27.
found that Ms. Sanchez met the insured status requirements of
the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013. AR 17. At
step one, she found that Ms. Sanchez had not engaged in
substantial, gainful activity during the relevant period-from
her alleged onset date of January 16, 2012, through her date
last insured of December 31, 2013. Id. At step two,
she found that Ms. Sanchez had the following severe
impairments: “status post carpal tunnel syndrome repair
right wrist and status post excision of mass from the right
hand.” Id. At step three, the ALJ found that
none of Ms. Sanchez's impairments, alone or in
combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 17-18.
Because she found that none of the impairments met a Listing,
the ALJ assessed Ms. Sanchez's RFC. AR 18. The ALJ found
that Ms. Sanchez had the RFC to
perform a wide range of light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R.
§] 404.1567(b). The claimant could only occasionally
handle, finger, and feel with the right hand, which is the
dominant hand. She could generally use the right hand as a
four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Sanchez was not capable of
performing her past relevant work as a dental assistant, a
cosmetic salesperson, or a hostess. AR 21. At step five, she
found that Ms. Sanchez was able to perform work that existed
in significant numbers in the national economy, including as
an usher, furniture rental consultant, and a children's
attendant. AR 22. The ALJ thus found Ms. Sanchez not disabled
at step five. Id.
Sanchez requested that the Appeals Council review the
ALJ's unfavorable decision. AR 1-3. On October 4, 2018,
the Appeals Council denied her request for review.
Id. Ms. Sanchez timely filed her appeal to this
Court on December 3, 2018. Doc. 1.
Ms. Sanchez's Claims
Sanchez raises three main arguments and several sub-arguments
for reversing and remanding this case. She maintains that (1)
the ALJ erred at step three by failing to properly evaluate
Listing 1.02; (2) the ALJ erred at step four by failing to
properly evaluate her RFC, including by failing to properly
assess opinion evidence from both a treating physician and
lay source as well as failing to properly assess her
complaints of pain; and (3) the ALJ erred at step five by
failing to properly evaluate whether 59, 800 jobs in the
national economy is a significant number. Doc. 27 at 5.
The ALJ's Evaluation of Listing 1.02
impairments are considered severe enough to justify a
presumption of disability in those who meet their criteria.
Those impairments are set forth in an appendix of
“Listed Impairments, ” at 20 C.F.R. pt. 404,
Subpt. P, Appx. 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d),
404.1525, 404.1526). At step three of the Sequential
Evaluation Process, the ALJ considers whether any of a
claimant's impairments “meets or medically
equals” one of the listed impairments. If an impairment
is found to meet or medically equal a listed impairment, it
is conclusively presumed to be disabling, and there is no
need for further analysis. See 20 C.F.R. §
at step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Sanchez had the severe
impairments of “status post carpal tunnel syndrome
repair right wrist and status post excision of mass from the
right hand.” AR 17. Then, at step three, she
purported to give “particular attention” to
Listing 1.02. AR 18.
1.02, the listing applicable to the “major dysfunction
of a joint, ” requires a claimant to show medical
evidence of the following for a 12-month period:
Gross anatomical deformity (e.g., subluxation, contracture,
bony or fibrous ankylosis, instability) and chronic joint
pain and stiffness with signs of limitation of motion or
other abnormal motion of the affected joint(s), and findings
on appropriate medically acceptable imaging of joint space
narrowing, bony destruction, or ankylosis of the affected
A. Involvement of one major peripheral weight-bearing joint
(i.e., hip, knee, or ankle), resulting in inability to
ambulate effective, as defined in 1.00B2b; or
B. Involvement of one major peripheral joint in each upper
extremity (i.e. shoulder, elbow, or wrist-hand), resulting in
inability to perform fine and gross movements effectively, as
defined in 1.00B2c.
20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app.1, § 1.02. For Ms.
Sanchez to demonstrate that her impairment meets or equals
this listing, she must “meet all of the
specified medical criteria.” See Sullivan v.
Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990). Indeed, “[a]n
impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no
matter how severe, does not qualify.” Id. In
addition, a claimant must provide “specific medical
findings” to support each of the requisite criteria for
a particular impairment. Lax, 489 F.3d at 1085.
relevant here, Ms. Sanchez must show, among other criteria,
the involvement of a “major peripheral joint in
each upper extremity.” See 20 C.F.R.
pt. 404, subpt. P, app.1, § 1.02(B) (emphasis added).
While she references portions of the record that suggest she
has suffered pain and loss of fine and gross motor skills in
her right hand, she does not do so with respect to
any major peripheral joint in her left upper
extremity. Nor does she advance any argument that her
condition extends to both upper extremities. What is unclear,
however, is whether the ALJ's step-three finding actually
hinged upon Ms. Sanchez's failure to show involvement of
both upper extremities.
Sanchez submits that the ALJ's analysis as to Listing
1.02 is “issue conclusive and lacks a narrative
explanation.” Doc. 27 at 11. She maintains that the
ALJ's finding that she does not meet the requirements of
Listing 1.02 is not supported by the evidence. Id.
at 12. Instead, she insists that the evidence demonstrates
she was unable to effectively perform fine and gross
movements as a result of pain and numbness. Id. at
11 (citing AR 38, 40, 43-45, 501-03, 520, 527, 532, 535-36,
538, 542, 554, 564, 566-67, 595, 645, 650, 656, 661, 664,
668-69, 672, 674, 676-79, 701). Finally, Ms. Sanchez argues
that the ALJ's decision concerning Listing 1.02 lacks
adequate analysis from which the Court may conclude that she
applied the correct legal standards. Id. at 12.
ALJ's step-three findings are not a model of clarity or
specificity. Instead, the ALJ reasoned, quite generally, that
“the specified criteria required of [Listing 1.02] was
not demonstrated by the available medical evidence.” AR
18. She identified many of the criteria required under
Listing 1.02,  but she did not articulate why Ms.
Sanchez's impairments did not meet those requirements.
Further, her recitation of Listing 1.02's criteria
involved a critical omission. She explained that the listing
requires “involvement of one major peripheral joint
resulting in inability to perform fine and gross movements
effectively as defined in 1.00B2c.” AR 18. Contrary to
this explanation, however, Listing 1.02(B) ...