United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
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.
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. 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
Weight Assigned to Ms. Coker's Opinions.
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.
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
GAFscore of 40. AR at 504.
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
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. ...