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Parrish v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 12, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Payment of Benefits, or in the alternative, for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 20) filed December 5, 2016 (hereinafter “motion”). On February 6, 2017, Defendant filed a response (Doc. 22) to Plaintiff's motion and, on February 21, 2017, Plaintiff filed a reply (Doc. 23). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the parties have consented to have the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge conduct all proceedings and enter a final judgment in this case. See [Docs. 4 and 11]. The Court has considered Plaintiff's motion, Defendant's response, Plaintiff's reply, and the relevant law. Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed and considered the entire administrative record. [Doc. 15]. For the reasons set forth below, the Court FINDS that Plaintiff's motion should be is DENIED, and the Commissioner's decision in this case should be AFFIRMED.

         I. Procedural History

         On May 18, 2012, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (hereinafter “SSI”). [Doc. 15-8 at 2]. Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial level on August 24, 2012 (Doc. 15-5 at 2), and at the reconsideration level on May 9, 2013 (id. at 12). Plaintiff requested a hearing to review the denial of her application (id. at 18), and Administrative Law Judge Michelle K. Lindsay (hereinafter “ALJ”) conducted a hearing on July 11, 2014 (Doc. 15-3 at 30-56). Plaintiff, who was then represented by attorney Michelle Baca, appeared and testified at the hearing (id. at 35-51), as did Vocational Expert Pamela Bowman (hereinafter “VE”) (id. at 51-55).

         On September 26, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision (Doc. 15-3 at 12-24) finding that, under the relevant sections of the Social Security Act, Plaintiff was not disabled from the date her application was filed (id. at 12). Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. Id. at 8. On March 23, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on the ground that there was “no reason under our rules to review the [ALJ]'s decision.” Id. at 2. This decision was the final decision of the Commissioner. On May 18, 2016, Plaintiff filed her complaint in this case. [Doc. 1].

         II. 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) (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); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). A court should meticulously review the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214; Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118.

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118 (citation and quotation marks omitted); Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214 (citation and quotation marks omitted); Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760 (citation and quotation marks omitted). An ALJ's 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 (citation and quotation marks omitted); Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214 (citation and quotation marks omitted). While a court may not re-weigh 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) (citations omitted). “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the ALJ]'s findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         III. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         For purposes of SSI, a person establishes a disability when 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). In light of this definition for disability, a five-step sequential evaluation process (hereinafter “SEP”) has been established for evaluating a disability claim. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the SEP, the claimant has the burden to show that: (1) the claimant is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity;” and (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 either (3) the claimant's impairment(s) meet(s) or equal(s) 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. § 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. At the fifth step of the evaluation process, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering his or her residual functional capacity (hereinafter “RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         IV. Plaintiff's Age, Education, Work Experience, and Medical History; and the ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff was born on April 21, 1984 and was 28 years old on May 18, 2012, the date she filed her disability application. [Doc. 15-8 at 2]. Thus, for the purposes of her disability claim, Plaintiff is considered to be a “younger person.”[1] In her application, Plaintiff claimed to be disabled due to bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), depression, and thyroid disease. Id. at 6. Plaintiff did not complete high school, but obtained a GED in 2002 (Doc. 15-3 at 35), and reads, writes, and understands English (Doc. 15-8 at 6). Plaintiff testified that she is 5-feet 5-inches tall and weighed 343 pounds at the time of the hearing. [Doc. 15-3 at 38]. She lives with her fiancé in a second-story, walk-up apartment, and does not have a driver's license. Id. at 36-37.

         Plaintiff's medical records include: consultative psychiatric examination report, dated January 28, 2010, by Anne Ortiz, M.D. (Doc. 15-10 at 2-6); disability determination examination, dated May 21, 2010, by Matthew Caffrey, M.D. (id. at 8-10); preliminary report, dated June 12, 2012 (id. at 19-21) and clinic note, dated August 30, 2012 (Doc. 15-11 at 19-21), from Lindsey E. Riggin, M.D.; disability determination examination, dated July 28, 2012, by Raul Neftali Young-Rodriguez, M.D. (Doc. 15-10 at 29-31); mental status examination, dated July 20, 2012, by Mary S. Loescher, Ph.D. (id. at 34-37); treatment records, for the period from June 25, 2012 to April 24, 2013, from the Rape Crisis Center (Doc. 15-12 at 2-46); treatment records, for the period from February 10, 2014 to March 24, 2014, from Rio Rancho Family Health Center (id. at 51-64); and mental RFC questionnaire, dated June 30, 2014 (Doc. 15-13 at 3-11) and progress notes, for the period from April 7, 2014 to July 7, 2014 (id. at 13-28), from Jan Voshart, LPCC. Where relevant, Plaintiff's medical records are discussed in more detail below.

         At step one of the five-step evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the filing of her disability application on May 18, 2012. [Doc. 15-3 at 14]. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: “bipolar disorder; anxiety disorder; post-traumatic stress disorder; personality disorder with cluster B traits; and alcohol and marijuana abuse.” Id. The ALJ also found that there was “no objective medical evidence to support [Plaintiff]'s subjective complaints of dizziness, ” and that Plaintiff's hypothyroidism was “non-severe.” Id. The ALJ also found “that [Plaintiff]'s back condition and obesity, alone or in combination, are ‘non-severe' impairments.” Id. at 15. At the third step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926).” Id. In reaching that conclusion, the ALJ considered Listings 12.04 (Affective Disorders), 12.06 (Anxiety Related Disorders) and 12.08 (Personality Disorders). Id. In evaluating these mental listings, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has “mild restriction” of her activities of daily living (id.), and “moderate difficulties” with both social functioning and concentration, persistence or pace (id. at 16). She also found that Plaintiff had not experienced any episodes of decompensation of extended duration. Id. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments did not satisfy either the paragraph “B” or paragraph “C” criteria of the listings considered. Id.

         Before step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform:

         a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations:

• [Plaintiff] is limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions;
• [Plaintiff] is able to maintain attention and concentration to perform simple tasks for two hours at a time without requiring redirection to task; • [Plaintiff] should have only occasional public contact;
• [Plaintiff] should have only superficial interactions with co-workers and supervisors;
• [Plaintiff] should not be required to perform tandem tasks;
• [Plaintiff] requires work involving no more than occasional independent goal setting ...

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