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Garcia v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 12, 2017

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



         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Remand the Social Security Agency (“SSA”) decision to deny Plaintiff disability insurance benefits. Doc. 24. For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's Motion is DENIED, and this action is DISMISSED with prejudice.

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an initial application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) on April 15, 2013. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 161-65. Plaintiff alleged that she had a disability resulting from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, migraines, and knee problems. AR at 211-12. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held a hearing regarding Plaintiff's disability claim on December 1, 2015. AR at 30-54.

         On January 15, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, concluding that Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy and therefore was not disabled. AR at 9-25. Plaintiff appealed the denial of her application to the Appeals Council, which declined review on May 3, 2016. AR at 1-4. Plaintiff filed suit in this Court on July 7, 2016, seeking review of the ALJ's decision. Doc. 1.

         II. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a court may review a final decision of the Commissioner only to determine whether it (1) is supported by “substantial evidence” and (2) comports with the proper legal standards. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800-01 (10th Cir. 1991). “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) (internal quotations omitted).

         Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Casias, 933 F.3d at 800. “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). “[I]n addition to discussing the evidence supporting his decision, the ALJ must also 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 [the] findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007).

         III. Parties' Positions

         Plaintiff asserts that: (1) the ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate the opinion evidence of Dr. Tamara Kodis, Plaintiff's treating psychologist; (2) the ALJ erred by failing to properly consider the fact that Plaintiff receives disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs; (3) the ALJ erred by failing to properly develop the record; and (4) the Appeals Council violated Plaintiff's due process rights by refusing the request of Plaintiff's counsel to examine the evidence and to submit additional evidence for the Appeals Council to review. See doc. 24 at 10-16. Defendant argues that: (1) the ALJ properly evaluated the opinion evidence of Dr. Kodis and supported that evaluation with substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ properly considered and discounted Plaintiff's disability rating by the Department of Veterans Affairs; (3) the ALJ sufficiently developed the record to make a disability determination; and (4) the Appeals Council's decision to deny Plaintiff an extension of time to review the evidence and submit additional evidence did not violate Plaintiff's due process rights. See doc. 25 at 9-19. Ultimately, the Court concludes that the ALJ did not commit reversible error and therefore the opinion should not be overturned.

         IV. ALJ Evaluation

         A. Legal Standard

         For purposes of Social Security disability insurance benefits, an individual is disabled 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. § 423(d)(1)(A). To determine whether a person satisfies these criteria, the SSA has developed a five-step test. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If the Commissioner finds an individual disabled at any step, the next step is not taken. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         At the first four steps of the analysis, the claimant has the burden to show: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity;” (2) she 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 that either (3) her impairment(s) meet or equal one of the “Listings” of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) she is unable to perform her “past relevant work.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005).

         Step four of this analysis consists of three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) in light of “all of the relevant medical and other evidence.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). A claimant's RFC is “the most [he or she] can still do despite [physical and mental] limitations.” Id. § 404.1545(a)(1). Second, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past work. “To make the necessary findings, the ALJ must obtain adequate ‘factual information about those work demands which have a bearing on the medically established limitations.'” Winfrey, 92 F.3d at 1024 (quoting Social Security Ruling 82-62 (1982)). Third, the ALJ determines whether, in light of the RFC, the claimant is capable of meeting those demands. Id. at 1023, 1025.

         If the ALJ concludes that the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, he or she proceeds to step five of the evaluation process. At step five, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1257.

         B. The ...

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