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Urias v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 11, 2017

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


         THIS MATTER came before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, to Remand for Rehearing (Doc. 15), filed March 2, 2017. 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. 6. Having reviewed the parties' submissions, the relevant law, and the relevant portions of the Administrative Record, the Court will grant the Motion.

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff protectively filed an application with the Social Security Administration for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act on June 19, 2012. AR at 166.[1] Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of December 30, 2011, the day she stopped working, due to fibromyalgia and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). AR at 170. Plaintiff most recently worked as an administrative assistant until she “was let go, ” because of “a business related decision.” AR at 32, 170. Plaintiff speculates that she was terminated due to her condition “since [she] had been unable to work as scheduled.” AR at 170. Regardless, Plaintiff testified that she can no longer work “[b]ecause [her] strength doesn't hold out long enough to get through a work day” and because of “brain fog.” AR at 36, 41, 45.

         The agency denied Plaintiff's claims initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a de novo hearing before an administrative law judge. AR at 68-107. ALJ Myriam C. Fernandez Rice held an evidentiary hearing on April 30, 2015, at which Plaintiff appeared via video conference. AR at 27-64. Plaintiff was represented by attorney Mark Hendricks at the hearing. AR at 27. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on May 29, 2015. AR at 10-22. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of the ALJ's Decision to the Appeals Council, which the Council denied on September 7, 2016. AR at 1-9. 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 now 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 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. § 404.1505(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).[2]

         At Step One of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. AR at 15. At Step Two, she determined that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of “fibromyalgia; status-post open reduction and internal fixation of tibia and fibula fracture; hypertension; post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”); hypothyroidism; depression; and anxiety[.]” AR at 15. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments, individually and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the regulatory “listings.” AR at 15-17.

         When a plaintiff does not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine her residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). RFC is a multidimensional description of the work-related abilities a plaintiff retains in spite of her medical impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(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. In this case, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retains the RFC to

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she can lift or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; she can stand or walk for approximately 6 hours per 8-hour workday and sit for approximately 6 hours per 8-hour workday, with normal breaks; she can understand, remember, and carry out detailed, but not complex instructions, make decisions, attend and concentrate for extended periods, accept instructions, and respond appropriately to changes in a routine work setting; she can have only occasional in person interaction with the public, but telephone contact is not impacted.

AR at 17.

         Employing this RFC at Steps Four and Five, and relying on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work as an administrative assistant, a receptionist and a customer service representative. AR at 20. However, the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform despite her limitations. AR at 21. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retains the capacity to work as a credit authorization clerk, an appointment clerk and a claims clerk. AR at 21. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled and denied benefits. AR at 21.

         II. Legal Standards

         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).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff appeals the ALJ's decision on numerous grounds. See Doc. 15. However, because the Court agrees that the ALJ committed legal error when weighing Plaintiff's counselor's opinion, Doc. 15 at 5, and by failing “to reconcile an inconsistency in the VE testimony with information in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles[, ]” Doc. 15 at 21 (citing Haddock v. Apfel, 196 F.3d 1084, 1091 (10th Cir. 1999)), the Court will reverse and remand on these issues and will not address Plaintiff's other claims of error “because they may be affected by the ALJ's treatment of this case on remand.” Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1299 (10th Cir. 2003).

         A) Weight Assigned to Ms. Coker's Opinions.

         Diane Coker, M.A., first saw Plaintiff on March 13, 2013, and she has seen her about once a month since. AR at 38, 611. At her initial visit, Plaintiff reported she was unable to work because of her symptoms and described her history of PTSD, possible OCD and depression, and verbal and physical abuse. AR at 611. On March 25, 2013, Ms. Coker administered the PTSD, Anxiety Scale and Traumatic Events Assessment. AR at 609. Among other things, Ms. Coker noted marked to extreme impairments on Plaintiff's abilities to engage in her activities of daily living, concentrate, maintain friendships, engage in hobbies, and work. AR at 608.

         In a May 15, 2013 letter, Ms. Coker opined that Plaintiff is unable to work due to the severity of her psychiatric impairments. AR at 504. As summarized by the ALJ, Ms. Coker noted that Plaintiff has “panic attacks, recurrent and intrusive recollections of traumatic events, difficulty sleeping, and difficulty concentrating.” AR at 19, 504. At that time, Ms. Coker diagnosed Plaintiff with PTSD with depression and assessed a GAF[3]score of 40.[4] AR at 504.

         By June 10, 2013, Plaintiff's anxiety had lessened “a little bit.” AR at 597. However, on August 8, 2013, she was described as “very fearful and anxious.” AR at 596. By January 31, 2014, Plaintiff had made “a little progress” and was “opening up more about the extent of her impairments - physical, psychological, and emotional.” AR at 592. On April 11, 2014, Ms. Coker noted that while Plaintiff “is making small steps of progress with multiples issues and challenges, ” she “has little stamina and gets exhausted quickly.” AR at 590. On July 16, 2014, Ms. Coker noted that Plaintiff had been able to do a little gardening, as her body felt “a little better” after a vacation at sea level. AR at 588.

         In a letter dated August 11, 2014, Ms. Coker summarized Plaintiff's symptoms as follows:

She has extreme anxiety - up to and including panic attacks - over even minor events, especially any discord. She is fearful and tearful, and is unable to stand up for herself. She continues to experience recurrent and intrusive recollections of past traumatic events, distressing dreams, feeling these events are recurring, experiencing extreme psychological distress when exposed to fearfulness. She still cannot remember parts of some of the traumatic events. She has sleep difficulty, and difficulty concentrating, remembering, and making decisions. She has an exaggerated and easily triggered startles response. Ms. Urias feels detached from others and has a restricted range of affect, the most positive being recent occasional feelings of relief. She feels a lot of sadness and cries often. ...

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