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Sanchez v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 15, 2020

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



         THIS 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 opinion.

         I. Standard of Review

         The 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).

         “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. 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)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         To 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).

         When 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[2] 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.

         III. Background and Procedural History

         Ms. Sanchez was 29 years old at the time of her alleged onset of disability. AR 335.[3]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.

         On 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”), [4] 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.

         The 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.

         The ALJ 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 helper hand.


         At step 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.

         Ms. 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.[5]

         IV. Ms. Sanchez's Claims

         Ms. 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.

         V. Analysis

         A. The ALJ's Evaluation of Listing 1.02

         Certain 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. § 404.1520(d).

         Here, 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.

         Listing 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 joint(s). With:
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.

         As 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.

         Ms. 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.

         The 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, [6] 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) ...

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