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Martinez v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 19, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's “Motion to Reverse or Remand Administrative Agency Decision” (“Motion”) [ECF No. 15]. At the time of her disability application, Plaintiff was 30 years old. She insisted she was disabled due to post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) and depression arising from the loss of custody of her children during a time when she was incarcerated for a parole violation. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record, considered the parties' arguments, and being otherwise fully advised, the Court concludes that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits and that the proper legal standards were applied. Therefore, and for the following reasons, the Court will DENY Plaintiff's Motion.


         On July 14, 2014, Plaintiff Bernadette Martinez applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging that her disability began on December 31, 2013.[1] Administrative R. (“AR”) 208-09. Plaintiff's application was initially denied on November 5, 2014 [AR 155-61], and upon reconsideration on January 14, 2015. AR 162-66. Plaintiff then filed a written request for hearing, and, on August 25, 2015, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Myriam Fernandez Rice held a video hearing from Albuquerque, while Plaintiff appeared in Santa Fe. Plaintiff testified at the hearing and was represented by counsel. The ALJ also heard testimony from Pamela Bowman, an impartial vocational expert. AR 29-64.

         On November 4, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision, finding that Plaintiff had not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act since the date of her application. AR 14-24. Plaintiff requested the ALJ's decision be reviewed by the Appeals Council, and, on February 16, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review. AR 1-3. Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.


         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a court may review a final decision of the Commissioner only to determine whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2015); see also Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008) (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings and the correct legal standards were applied, the Commissioner's decision stands, and the plaintiff is not entitled to relief. See Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); see also Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004). “The failure to apply the correct legal standards 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 omitted). “In reviewing the ALJ's decision, ‘we neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute our judgment for that of the agency.'” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991)); see also Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214 (“[B]ecause our review is based on the record taken as a whole, [the Court] will meticulously examine the record in order to determine if the evidence supporting the agency's decision is substantial …”).

         Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003) (quoting Fowler v. Bowen, 876 F.2d 1451, 1453 (10th Cir. 1989)). “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.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118 (quoting Bernal v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 297, 299 (10th Cir. 1988)). “The record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence, but an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). “Rather, in addition to discussing the evidence supporting his decision, the ALJ also must discuss the uncontroverted evidence he chooses not to rely upon, as well as significantly probative evidence he rejects.” Id. at 1010. “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's 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)).


         Plaintiff argues the ALJ's decision is both not supported by substantial evidence and is legally erroneous. Pl.'s Mot. to Reverse or Remand Administrative Agency Decision (“Pl.'s Mot”), ECF No. 15. Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred: (i) in evaluating medical opinion evidence, and (ii) in her consideration of testimony by a vocational expert. Mem. in Support of Pl.'s Mot. to Reverse or Remand Administrative Agency Decision (“Pl.'s Mem.”) 18-26, ECF No. 16. Defendant argues the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, as she reasonably evaluated the entire record, including medical source opinions and Plaintiff's statements. Def.'s Br. in Resp. to Pl.'s Mot. to Reverse and Remand the Agency's Administrative Decision (“Def.'s Resp.”), ECF No. 18.


         A. Legal Standard

         For purposes of Social Security disability insurance benefits, the term “disability” means “inability 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) (2015). To determine if an individual is disabled, the Social Security Administration utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation process, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (2015), with each step being followed in order. Id. § 404.1520(4). If it is determined that the individual is or is not disabled at a step of the evaluation process, the evaluation will not go on to the next step. Id.

         The claimant bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability at steps one through four. Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-52 (10th Cir. 1988).

At step one, the claimant must show “that he is not presently engaged in substantial gainful activity;” at step two “that he has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments;” at step three that the impairment is “equivalent to a listed impairment;” and, at step four, “that the impairment or combination of impairments prevents him from performing his past work.”

Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005) (quoting Williams, 844 F.2d at 750-52). At step five, “the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant retains sufficient residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work in the national economy, given his age, education, and work experience.” Id. (quoting Williams, 844 F.2d at 751).

         B. ALJ Decision

         On November 4, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits. In doing so, the ALJ conducted the five-step sequential evaluation process. AR 14-24. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 31, 2013, the date of her alleged disability onset. At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and a personality disorder.[2] The ALJ found these impairments to be severe because they “cause significant limitations in the [Plaintiff's] ability to perform basic work activities.” AR 16.

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.[3] In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ reviewed Plaintiff's subjective statements regarding her condition and daily living, objective medical reports, and opinion evidence. The ALJ also evaluated Plaintiff's mental impairments under Listings 12.04, 12.06, and 12.08. AR 17-18.

         Focusing solely on Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ first found she experiences a mild restriction in her activities of daily living. The ALJ based this finding on Plaintiff's ability to perform personal care activities, including preparing meals, doing household chores, shopping, and driving. Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff experiences moderate difficulties in social functioning. She premised this finding on Plaintiff's reports about social phobias as well as the state agency psychological consultant's opinion. Lastly, the ALJ found Plaintiff experiences moderate difficulties with regard to concentration, persistence, and pace, which she based on Plaintiff's testimony as well as the state agency psychological consultant's report. AR 17-18.

         After considering all of these factors, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's mental impairments did not satisfy the paragraph B criteria for Listings 12.04 (affective disorders), 12.06 (anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders), or 12.08 (personality disorders) because her mental impairments had not caused any episodes of decompensation.[4] Based on the evidence, the ALJ also determined that the paragraph C criteria were not satisfied.[5] AR 17-18.

         Before step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

[T]o perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: The [Plaintiff] is able to perform unskilled work where interpersonal contact is incidental, e.g. assembly work; tasks are no more complex than those learned and performed by rote, with few variables and little judgment; and supervision required is simple, direct, and concrete. The [Plaintiff] is limited to only occasional interaction with the public and co-workers.

AR 18. In support of this RFC assessment, the ALJ found that “[Plaintiff's] medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, [Plaintiff's] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible . . . .” AR 19. Then, the ALJ detailed the many factors she considered. The ALJ explained her reasoning for assigning very little weight to the opinions of Dr. Leslie Hayes, Plaintiff's treating physician, and Tracey Garcia, Plaintiff's therapist. The ALJ also related her reasoning for assigning little weight to Michael Cummings, the state agency consultative psychologist. AR 18-22. Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that “[o]verall, the medical evidence fails to support the [Plaintiff's] allegation of disabling symptoms and limitations.” Despite her claims, “[Plaintiff] reported she had never been hospitalized for mental issues; [never] experienced any suicide attempts; and was not taking any medication for mental issues.” AR 21.

         Plaintiff previously worked as a customer service representative and a special education teacher aide. At step four, the ALJ determined she was unable to perform her past work, given her RFC. AR 22-23. At the fifth and final step, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff was born on October 15, 1983, and was therefore 30 years old as of the alleged disability onset date, which is considered to be a “younger individual” pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563. The ALJ further noted that Plaintiff has at least a high school education, is able to communicate in English, and stated “[t]ransferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the [Plaintiff] is ‘not disabled, ' whether or not [she] has transferable job skills.” AR 23.

         After determining that Plaintiff could not return to her past work, the ALJ asked the vocational expert to consider whether there were jobs that existed in the national economy for an individual with Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. AR 23-24. The vocational expert identified three jobs that such an individual would be capable of performing, including: industrial cleaner (DOT[6] 381.687-018), laborer/polisher (DOT 706.687-014), and laundry folder (DOT 361.587-010). AR 23. Subsequently, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is “capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy” and therefore she was not disabled under the meaning of the Act from December 31, 2013 through the date of the decision. AR 24.

         V. ANALYSIS

         A. Medical Opinion Evidence

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's treatment of medical opinions offered by Dr. Leslie Hayes, Michael Cummings, and Tracey Garcia. The Court concludes the ALJ did not err in evaluating these opinions.

         1. ...

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