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Baker v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 25, 2017

STACY LORRAINE BAKER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO REVERSE OR REMAND AND REMANDING TO AGENCY FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS

          KEVIN R. SWEAZEA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Stacy Lorraine Baker seeks review of the Social Security Administration's denial of her applications for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(e), 423(d), 1382c. Because the Court agrees that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) committed legal error in weighing the opinions of Baker's treating doctors and other medical providers, it GRANTS Baker's motion to reverse or remand and REMANDS this case to the agency for further proceedings commensurate with this decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Baker alleged disability as of July 17, 2012, at age thirty six, arising from depression, PTSD, anxiety and panic attacks, insomnia, and major depressive and trace borderline disability disorders. [AR 1]. Following a hearing, Administrative Law Judge Barry O'Mellin denied Baker's applications for benefits. [AR 65-86]. At step three of the five-part framework[1] used to evaluate disability, the ALJ concluded that Baker's head, neck, right shoulder, affective, anxiety, personal, and sleep disorders as well as insomnia did not meet or equal a listed impairment the agency has determined to be presumptively disabling. [AR 68-70]. At steps four and five, the ALJ determined that Baker could not perform her past positions, but retained the residual functional capacity to complete light work so long she limited the use of her right arm and interactions with the public. [AR 70-74]. Relying on the testimony of a vocation expert, the ALJ concluded that sufficient jobs existed in the national economy that matched her age, education, work experience, and limitations, such as a shipping/receiving weigher, swatch clerk, and surveillance systems monitor. [AR 78-79]. After the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's finding that Baker is not disabled [AR 4], Baker filed the instant complaint in this Court to reverse or remand. [Doc. 1].

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ applied the correct legal standard. See Hendron v. Colvin, 767 F.3d 951, 954 (10th Cir. 2014). If substantial evidence supports the conclusion that the plaintiff is not disabled and the ALJ followed the law, the plaintiff is not entitled to relief. See Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004). The term “substantial evidence” means that which “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1118 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Even if the Court could reach the opposite conclusion, the decision must stand if the record as a whole is not “overwhelmed by other evidence” to the contrary or unless a “mere scintilla” supports it. Salazar v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 615, 621 (10th Cir. 2006).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Baker challenges the ALJ's decision on three grounds: the ALJ (1) improperly rejected opinions of two treating doctors; (2) improperly rejected the opinions of other medical sources; (3) exceeded his proper scope in assessing Baker's credibility.

         A. Treating Doctors

         The Court agrees that the ALJ erred in assigning limited weight to the opinions of Baker's treating physiologist, Katherine Hull, Psy.D., and treating physician, Norma Perez-Abele. Opinions from treating doctors are entitled to controlling weight unless they are (1) unsupported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques; or (2) inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the record. See Pisciotta v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 1074, 1077 (10th Cir. 2007); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2) & 416.927(d)(2) (2016). In determining an opinion is deficient under either prong-and therefore not entitled to controlling weight-the ALJ must provide specific, legitimate reasons to allow for meaningful appellate review. See Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1119 (10th Cir. 2004). Simply repeating the governing legal standard is insufficient to meet this obligation.

         In this case, the ALJ decided that Drs. Hull and Perez-Abele's opinions were undeserving of controlling weight by stating, but not applying, the law. In terms of Dr. Hull, the ALJ concluded her “opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, because it is not well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and it is inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record.” [AR 74]. Aside from not explaining what substantial evidence conflicted with Dr. Hull's opinion, which itself is error, the ALJ's own recitation of Dr. Hull's treatment show Dr. Hull did preform clinical diagnostics. [AR 74 (noting that Dr. Hull performed a “Global Assessment of Function” “Medical Assessment of Ability to Do Work-Related Activities (Mental), Assessment of Adaptation to Temperament Characteristics Required By Jobs, Affective Disorders, and Anxiety Related Disorders”)]. Without the ALJ's clear identification of the alleged evidentiary conflicts and specific deficiencies of the diagnostics, the Court is left without a “meaningful” record to review.

         As to Dr. Perez-Abele, the ALJ again repeated the governing law without analysis. [AR 75 (“Dr. Perez-Abele's opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, because it is not well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and it is inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record.”)]. The Court is equally capable of reciting the law. What it may not do is conduct a de novo review of the record to ferret out the underlying reasons why the ALJ believes Dr. Perez-Abele's lacks support or is otherwise inconsistent with the weight of the evidence.

         The ALJ's finding of inconsistency as to both providers is also difficult to reconcile with the ALJ's later statement that “the more highly qualified medical personnel, namely . . . Dr. Perez-Able and psychologist Dr. Hull . . . indicated only slight and moderate, but not marked limitations in their assessments of the claimant's work related mental abilities.” [AR 75]. In other words, it is hard to understand how, on the one hand, the ALJ believes Dr. Hull and Perez-Able's opinions are inconsistent with the substantial evidence in this case and then, on the other, conclude Baker cannot work by seemingly relying on the very same “deficient” assessments.Although the ALJ may well be correct that Ms. Baker has the residual functional capacity to perform certain jobs under both treating source's evaluations, it is not the role of the Court to resolve this internal conflict. The ALJ should do so on remand.

         Even had the ALJ properly navigated the controlling-weight analysis, it was incumbent upon the ALJ to also “give good reasons, tied to the factors specified in the cited regulations for this particular purpose, for the [limited] weight [he] assigned.” Krauser v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1330 (10th Cir. 2011) (identifying the factors as (1) the length of the relationship and examination frequency; (2) “the nature and extent of the treatment relationship”-types of treatment provided and testing performed; (3) the extent “to which the physician's opinion is supported by relevant evidence”; (4) the opinion's consistency with the total record; (5) whether the provider is a specialist in the particular field; ...


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