United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
FASHING UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Marianita Victoria
Saenz's Motion to Reverse and Remand and Memorandum in
Support (Docs. 24, 24-1), which was fully briefed July 12,
2016. See Docs. 26, 27, 28. The parties consented to
my entering final judgment in this case. Docs. 12, 13, 14.
Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being
fully advised in the premises, I find that the Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to properly weigh the
medical opinion of Dr. Barbara Koltuska-Haskin. I therefore
GRANT Ms. Saenz's motion and remand this case to the
Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this
Standard of Review
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). If substantial evidence supports the
Commissioner's findings and the correct legal standards
were applied, the Commissioner's decision stands, and the
plaintiff is not entitled to relief. Langley v.
Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004).
“The failure to apply the correct legal standard 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 and
brackets omitted). The Court must meticulously review the
entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor
substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner.
Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir.
evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118. 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.” Id. While the Court
may not reweigh 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).
“‘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)
(quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200
(10th Cir. 2004)).
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish
that 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); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a).
considering a disability application, the Commissioner is
required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20
C.F.R. § 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S.
137, 140 (1987). At the first four steps of the evaluation
process, the claimant must show: (1) the claimant is not
engaged in “substantial gainful activity;” (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 (3) the impairment(s) either meet or equal 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 1260-61. If
the claimant cannot show that his or her impairment meets or
equals a Listing but proves that he or she is unable to
perform his or her “past relevant work, ” the
burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to
show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the
national economy, considering the claimant's residual
functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and
work experience. Id.
Background and Procedural History
Saenz was born in 1981, has an eighth grade education, and
has no past relevant work. AR 34, 48, 135, 158. Ms. Saenz
reported multiple rapes, multiple suicide attempts, and
multiple psychiatric hospitalizations as a teenager. AR 38,
403. Ms. Saenz filed an application for supplemental security
income on July 11, 2011-alleging disability since September
13, 2010 due to emotional problems, anger management issues,
depression, bipolar disorder, hypothyroidism, asthma, a heart
murmur, and problems from ectopic pregnancies. AR 135-40,
157. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”)
denied her claims initially on January 9, 2012. AR 84-87. The
SSA denied her claims on reconsideration on March 15, 2013.
AR 95-98. Ms. Saenz requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR
99-103. On March 11, 2014, ALJ John R. Morris held a hearing.
AR 30-52. Ms. Saenz represented herself at the hearing. AR
32-33. ALJ Morris issued his unfavorable decision on July 23,
2014. AR 8-29.
one, the ALJ found that Ms. Saenz had not engaged in
substantial, gainful activity since July 11, 2011, the date
of her application. AR 13. At step two, the ALJ found that
Ms. Saenz suffered from the following severe impairments:
obesity, diabetes, and “a mental condition variously
diagnosed to include depression, PTSD, and alcohol and
marijuana abuse.” Id. The ALJ found Ms.
Saenz's history of ectopic pregnancies, asthma, and
hypothyroidism to be non-severe. Id. At step three,
the ALJ found that none of Ms. Saenz's impairments, alone
or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR
14-16. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met
a Listing, the ALJ assessed Ms. Saenz's RFC. AR 16-23.
The ALJ found Ms. Saenz had the RFC to perform light,
unskilled work. AR 16.
four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Saenz did not have any past
relevant work. AR 23. At step five, the ALJ found that Ms.
Saenz could perform unskilled, light jobs that exist in
significant numbers in the national economy. AR 23-24. On
September 15, 2014, Ms. Saenz requested review of the
ALJ's unfavorable decision by the Appeals Council. AR 6.
On September 8, 2015, the Appeals Council denied the request
for review. AR 1-5. Ms. Saenz timely filed her appeal to this
Court on November 12, 2015. Doc. 1.
Ms. Saenz's Claims
Saenz raises four arguments for reversing and remanding this
case: (1) the ALJ erred by failing to give controlling weight
to the opinion of treating neuropsychologist Dr.
Koltuska-Haskin; (2) the ALJ's RFC finding that that
claimant can perform a full range of light work is not
supported by substantial evidence; (3) the ALJ's step
five findings are not supported by substantial evidence
because the ALJ gave the vocational expert an incomplete
hypothetical, and because the ALJ failed to show there were
jobs in the regional or national economies that Ms. Saenz
could perform; (4) the ALJ denied Ms. Saenz due process at
the administrative hearing. Because I remand based on the
ALJ's failure to properly weigh the opinion of Dr.
Koltuska-Haskin, I do not address the other alleged errors,
which “may be affected by the ALJ's treatment of
this case on remand.” Watkins v. Barnhart, 350
F.3d 1297, 1299 (10th Cir. 2003).
Saenz argues that the ALJ erred by not giving controlling
weight to the opinion of treating neuropsychologist Dr.
Koltuska-Haskin. Doc. 24-1 at 17-20. Ms. Saenz also argues
that the ALJ committed legal error by giving greater weight
to the opinions of non-treating consultative examiners Cathy
L. Simutis, Ph.D., and Davis Brimberg, Ph.D., without first
doing a proper treating source analysis. Id. The
Commissioner does not dispute that Dr. Koltuska-Haskin is a
treating neuropsychologist. See Doc. 26 at 11-13
(offering no argument in response to Ms. Saenz's
assertion that Dr. Koltuska-Haskin is a treating source, and
analyzing the ALJ's evaluation of Dr.
Koltuska-Haskin's opinion using the treating source
rules). The Commissioner simply argues that the
ALJ gave valid reasons for giving less weight to Dr.
Koltuska-Haskin's opinion. See id. For the
reasons discussed below, I find that the ALJ committed legal
error by failing to conduct a proper treating source analysis
of Dr. Koltuska-Haskin's opinion, and I remand on this
analyzing whether a treating source opinion is entitled to
controlling weight, the ALJ must perform a two-step process.
First, the ALJ must consider whether the opinion “is
well supported by medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory diagnostic techniques and is consistent with the
other substantial evidence in the record.”
Pisciotta v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 1074, 1077 (10th Cir.
2007) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2);
Watkins, 350 F.3d at 1300). If the opinion meets
both criteria, the ALJ must give the treating source's
opinion controlling weight. Id. To give anything
less than controlling weight, the ALJ must demonstrate with
substantial evidence that the opinion (1) is not
“well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory diagnostic techniques, ” or (2) is
“inconsistent with other substantial evidence” in
the record. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2). “Under the
regulations, the agency rulings, and our case law, an ALJ
must ‘give good reasons in [the] notice of
determination or decision' for the weight assigned to a
treating [source's] opinion.” Watkins, 350
F.3d at 1300 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2) and
citing SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *5; Doyal v.
Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 762 (10th Cir. 2003)).
ALJ does not assign a treating source's opinion
controlling weight, step two of the analysis requires the ALJ
to apply the six factors listed in the regulations to
determine whether a treating source's opinion should be
rejected altogether or assigned some lesser weight:
1. Examining relationship: more weight is
given to the opinion of a source who has examined the
claimant than to one who has not;
2. Treatment relationship: more weight is
given to the opinion of a source who has treated the claimant
than to one who has not; more weight is given to the opinion
of a source who has treated the claimant for a long time over
several visits and who has ...