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Maldonado v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 26, 2017

JESUS J. MALDONADO, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 22), filed December 16, 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 relevant law, and the relevant portions of the Administrative Record, the Court will deny the Motion.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff is a 23 year old man with no physical impairments who works as his mother's paid caregiver (albeit at levels that do not reach substantial gainful activity). He drives, watches TV, plays video games, and cares for his children without assistance. See AR at 30-36. Yet, Plaintiff claims that he is disabled due to mental impairments. The Social Security Administration disagreed, and denied him benefits. Plaintiff now appeals to this Court, asserting that decision was in error because the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) that reviewed his claim failed to account for restrictions imposed by three different medical consultants. As further explained below, however, the ALJ's analysis of these opinions conformed to the relevant regulations and case law. Therefore, no error occurred, and this Court affirms the ALJ's decision.

         II. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an application with the Social Security Administration for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act on October 24, 2013. AR at 248-253.[2] Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of January 1, 2000, due to “learning disability, depression, anger problems, ADHD, panic attacks, anxiety attacks, [and] sleeping problems.” AR at 248, 146.

         The agency denied Plaintiff's claims initially and upon reconsideration, and he requested a hearing. AR at 120, 141, 157. After a de novo hearing, ALJ Eric Weiss issued an unfavorable decision on December 17, 2015. AR at 6-18. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of ALJ Weiss' decision to the Appeals Council, which the Council denied on March 3, 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 use 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 recognized that Plaintiff's earnings for taking care of his mother did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity. AR at 11. At Step Two, he determined that Plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of “Affective Disorder; Organic Brain Syndrome; Depressive Disorder; Anxiety Disorder; Learning Disorder; Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); Communication Disorder [and] Borderline Intellectual Functioning.” AR at 11. 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 11-13.

         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). In this case, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retains the RFC “to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels” with the following non-exertional limitations:

The claimant is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions and make commensurate work related decisions, but not at a production rate pace and in a work environment with few changes. He may have occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers and the public. He is able to maintain concentration, persistence and pace for 2 hours at a time during the 8 hour workday with normal breaks.

AR at 13. 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, 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 (DOT number 381.687-018), Cleaner and Polisher (DOT number 709.687-010), or Dishwasher(DOT number 318.687-010). AR at 18. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled, and denied benefits. AR at 18.

         III. 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).

         IV. Analysis

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ's RFC finding was flawed because he failed to properly evaluate the opinions of Donald Gucker, Ph.D., Eligio Padilla, Ph.D., and John Owen, Ph.D. The Court addresses each in turn.

         A) Dr. Gucker

         After reviewing Plaintiff's medical records, Dr. Gucker provided a non-examining medical source opinion on March 5, 2014. In providing this opinion, Dr. Gucker filled out a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment (“MRFCA”). See AR at 114-17. The MRFCA is a form used by the Social Security Administration, which is broken up into three sections. See POMS DI 24510.060. “Section I is for recording summary conclusions derived from the evidence in the file and directs that detailed explanation of the degree of limitation for each category is to be recorded in Section III.” Carver v. Colvin, 600 F.App'x 616, 618 (10th Cir. 2015) (unpublished) (internal quotation marks omitted).[3] The purpose of Section III is to state, among other things, “[t]he extent to which the individual can still perform and sustain specific mental activities and mental functions.” POMS DI 24510.061 (emphasis in original). Thus, “[i]t is the narrative written by the psychiatrist or psychologist in Section III that adjudicators are to use in the assessment of RFC.” Carver, 600 F.App'x at 619 (citation omitted); see also Nelson v. Colvin, 655 F.App'x 626, 628 (10th Cir. 2016) (unpublished) (citing POMS, DI 25020.010 B.1). However, “if a consultant's Section III narrative fails to describe the effect that each of the Section I moderate limitations would have on the claimant's ability, or if it contradicts limitations marked in Section I, the MRFCA cannot properly be considered part of the substantial evidence supporting an ALJ's RFC finding.” Carver, 600 F.App'x at 619.

         In Section I of Plaintiff's MRFCA, Dr. Gucker assessed certain marked and moderate limitations on Plaintiff's abilities. AR at 115-16. Dr. Gucker then ...


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