United States District Court, D. New Mexico
ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO
HONORABLE GREGORY J. FOURATT, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE
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
14, 2014, Plaintiff Bernadette Martinez applied for
disability insurance benefits, alleging that her disability
began on December 31, 2013. 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.
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
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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 …”).
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)).
SUMMARY OF ARGUMENTS
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.
APPLICABLE LAW AND SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
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.
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).
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. 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.
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. 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.
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
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. Based on the evidence, the ALJ also
determined that the paragraph C criteria were not
satisfied. AR 17-18.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
Medical Opinion Evidence
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