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Vasquez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

August 30, 2017

MICHAEL VASQUEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SHON T. ERWIN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying Plaintiff’s applications for benefits under the Social Security Act. The Commissioner has answered and filed a transcript of the administrative record (hereinafter TR. ___ ). The parties have consented to jurisdiction over this matter by a United States magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         The parties have briefed their positions, and the matter is now at issue. Based on the Court’s review of the record and the issues presented, the Court REVERSES AND REMANDS the Commissioner’s decision.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff’s applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income initially and on reconsideration. Following an administrative hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 119-126). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. (TR. 1-4). Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         II. THE ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by agency regulations. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 & 416.920. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 10, 2013, the alleged disability onset date. (TR. 121). At step two, the ALJ determined Mr. Vasquez suffered from the severe impairment of diabetes. (TR. 121). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff’s impairment did not meet or medically equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (TR. 123).

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Vasquez had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) & 416.967(b). (TR. 124). With this RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not capable of performing his past relevant work. (TR. 125). However, because the ALJ concluded that Mr. Vasquez could perform the full range of light work, he proceeded to assess the issue of disability utilizing the Medical-Vocational Guidelines found at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 (“the Grids”). See Social Security Ruling 83-11, Titles II And XVI: Capability to Do Other Work--the Exertionally Based Medical-Vocational Rules Met, 1983 WL 31252 at (1983) (allowing application of the Grids when the claimant can perform all of the exertional demand at a given level of exertion, i.e.-a full range of “light” work).

         Because Mr. Vasquez was considered a “younger individual,” with a limited education, no transferrable work skills, and was deemed capable of performing a full range of light work, the applicable Medical-Vocational Rule was 202.18, which directed a finding of “not disabled.” See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2; Rule 202.18. The ALJ applied this rule, and concluded that Mr. Vasquez was not disabled. (TR. 125-126).

         III. ISSUES PRESENTED

         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred in the evaluation of impairments involving Plaintiff’s left shoulder, diabetic neuropathy, and lower back.

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court reviews the Commissioner’s final “decision to determin[e] whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted).

         While the court considers whether the ALJ followed the applicable rules of law in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, the court will “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Vigil v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 1199, 1201 (10th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         V. ERROR IN THE CONSIDERATION OF VARIOUS IMPAIRMENTS

         Plaintiff alleges error in the evaluation of impairments involving his left shoulder, lower back, and diabetic neuropathy. Specifically, Mr. Vasquez contends that the ALJ erred: (1) at step two in concluding that these impairments were not severe and (2) at step four in failing to consider the impairments when formulating the RFC.[1] The Court concludes that any error at step two was harmless, but the ALJ did err at step four in failing to consider the full impact of the impairments.

         A. Step Two

         “At step two, the ALJ must ‘consider the combined effect of all of [the claimant's] impairments without regard to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of sufficient severity [to survive step two].’” Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1123-24 (10th Cir. 2004). See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1523 & 416.923. Mr. Vasquez has alleged disability based on a left shoulder impairment, a low back impairment, and diabetic neuropathy. According to Plaintiff, the ALJ erred at step two in concluding that these impairments were not severe. (ECF No. 17:3-5). But any error at step two became harmless when the ALJ determined that Mr. Vasquez suffered from at least one severe impairment and proceeded to the next step of the evaluation sequence. See Carpenter v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 1264, 1266 (10th Cir. 2008).

         B. Step Four

         Alternatively, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred at step four by failing to consider the three impairments when assessing the RFC. (ECF No. 17:5-11). In support, Mr. Vasquez points to significant probative evidence documenting the impairments which the ALJ allegedly ignored. (ECF No. 17:5-11). Plaintiff’s argument has merit.

         1. The ALJ’s Duty at Step Four

         At step four, the ALJ must “consider the combined effect of all of the [claimant’s] impairments without regard to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of such severity” as to warrant an award of benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B); see alsoWells v. Colvin,727 F.3d 1061, 1065 (10th Cir. 2013) (explaining that when “assessing [a] claimant’s RFC, the ALJ must consider the ...


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