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Zamora v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 25, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency for Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 20), filed November 30, 2016. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73(b), the parties have consented to me serving as the presiding judge and entering final judgment. Doc. 12. Having reviewed the parties' submissions, the applicable law, and the relevant portions of the Administrative Record, the Court will deny the Motion.

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an application with the Social Security Administration for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act on March 14, 2012, with a protective filing date of February 15, 2012. AR at 154, 170.[2] Plaintiff originally alleged a disability onset date of December 1, 2010, due to Bipolar, PTSD, degenerative disks, arthritis, and depression. AR at 174. The alleged disability onset date was later amended to February 15, 2012. See AR at 29, The agency denied Plaintiff's claims initially and upon reconsideration, and he requested a hearing. AR at 51, 84, 99. After a de novo hearing, ALJ Ann Farris (“the ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision on September 11, 2015. AR at 11-20. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of ALJ Farris' decision to the Appeals Council, which the Council denied on April 1, 2016. AR at 1-3. As such, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003). This Court has jurisdiction to review the decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a).

         A claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that he 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). The Commissioner must utilize a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); see Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).

         At Step One of the process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant time period. AR at 13.[3] At Step Two, she determined that Plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of “heroin and alcohol addiction; degenerative disc disease; post-traumatic stress disorder (‘PTSD'); and antisocial personality disorder.” AR at 13. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments, individually and in combination, did not meet or medically equal the regulatory “listings.” AR at 13-14.

         When a claimant does not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine his residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). RFC is a multidimensional description of the work-related abilities a plaintiff retains in spite of his medical impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). “RFC is not the least an individual can do despite his or her limitations or restrictions, but the most.” SSR 96-8P, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (emphasis in original). In this case, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retains the RFC to:

Perform light work (lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand or walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday, and sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday) as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except he can balance only occasionally and must avoid hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery. He can have occasional, superficial interaction with co-workers and make simple decisions in an environment with few workplace changes.

AR at 15. As Plaintiff has no past relevant work under the regulations, the ALJ skipped Step Four. At Step Five, relying upon the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform despite his limitations. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff maintains the RFC to work as a cleaner, marker, or photocopy machine operator. AR at 20. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled and denied benefits. AR at 20.

         II. Legal Standard

         This Court “review[s] the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Vigil v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 1199, 1201 (10th Cir. 2015) (quoting Mays v. Colvin, 739 F.3d 569, 571 (10th Cir. 2014)). A deficiency in either area is grounds for remand. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161 (10th Cir. 2012). However, in making this determination, this Court “cannot reweigh the evidence or substitute [its] judgment for the administrative law judge's.” Smith v. Colvin, 821 F.3d 1264, 1266 (10th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted). Additionally, the Tenth Circuit dictates that in reviewing social security appeals, the court should, “indeed must, exercise common sense.” Keyes-Zachary, 695 F.3d at 1166.

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff raises only one issue on appeal - wheteher the ALJ erred in formulating his RFC by failing to incorporate certain moderate limitations identified by Paula Hughson, M.D., a psychological consultative examiner. See Doc. 26 at 1 (citing SSR 96-8p, which provides that “[i]f the RFC assessment conflicts with an opinion from a medical source, the adjudicator must explain why the opinion was not adopted.”).

         Dr. Hughson performed a consultative psychiatric evaluation of Plaintiff on June 4, 2012, at the administration's request. See AR at 273. At that time, Plaintiff's chief complaint was “I need a little time to get adjusted (after prison), and my back is messed up.” AR at 273. After reviewing Plaintiff's history and conducting a mental status examination, Dr. Hughson diagnosed Plaintiff with opiate dependence, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder. AR at 276. Dr. Hughson further provided a statement of opinion of abilities in which she found that Plaintiff is moderately to markedly limited in the ability to interact with the public and moderately limited in the ability to interact with coworkers and supervisors. AR at 278.

         The ALJ gave Dr. Hughson's opinion “moderate weight.” AR at 18. In reaching this finding the ALJ compared Dr. Hughson's opinion to that of C. Nadig, Psy.D., who conducted a consultative examination of Plaintiff a year later, on June 7, 2013. See AR at 18, 306. In contrast to Dr. Hughson, Dr. Nadig diagnosed Plaintiff only with opioid use disorder and “problems related to release from prison, ” ruling out PTSD as well as a mood or anxiety disorder. AR at 309-10. Dr. Nadig further found that any limitation in Plaintiff's ...

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