United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Tilda Garcia's
Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with
Supporting Memorandum, (Doc. 17), filed May 1, 2017;
Defendant Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill's Brief in
Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand the
Agency's Administrative Decision, (Doc. 19), filed
June 23, 2017; and Ms. Garcia's Reply in Support of
Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing
with Supporting Memorandum, (Doc. 20), filed July 14,
September 21, 2012, Ms. Garcia protectively filed
applications for disability insurance benefits
(“DIB”) and supplemental security income
(“SSI”) alleging disability beginning July 2,
2011. (Administrative Record “AR” 96-97). Ms.
Garcia's applications were denied initially on May 29,
2013, (AR 110), and upon reconsideration on October 11, 2013,
(AR 123). Ms. Garcia requested a hearing on December 9, 2013,
(AR 138), which was held before Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) Karen Wiedemann on January 15, 2015, (AR
53-83). At the hearing, Crystal D. Younger, an impartial
vocational expert (“VE”), testified, and Dennis
Lopez, a non-attorney representative, represented Ms. Garcia.
March 27, 2015, ALJ Wiedemann issued her decision finding Ms.
Garcia not disabled and denying her DIB and SSI. (AR 34-47).
On May 20, 2015, Ms. Garcia requested review by the Appeals
Council, (AR 25), which the Appeals Council denied on July
15, 2016, (AR 1-4). Through new counsel, Ms. Garcia
subsequently appealed to this Court.
Garcia now argues ALJ Wiedemann committed two reversible
errors: first, by failing to give good reasons for rejecting
the opinion of Richard Fink, Ph.D.; and second, by failing to
account for moderate limitations assessed by Don Johnson,
Ph.D. (Doc. 17 at 2). The Court has reviewed the Motion,
Response, Reply, and relevant law. Additionally, the Court
has meticulously reviewed the administrative record. Because
the ALJ failed to provide good reasons supported by the
record for the weight she assigned Dr. Fink, the Court finds
the Motion is well-taken and should be GRANTED.
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); Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human
Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992). 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); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365
F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart,
331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). The ALJ's failure to
apply the correct legal standards or demonstrate that he has
done so is grounds for reversal. Winfrey v. Chater,
92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Washington v.
Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). A court
should meticulously review the entire record but should
neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for
the Commissioner's. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118;
Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. A court's review is
limited to the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g), which is generally the ALJ's decision,
rather than the Appeals Council's denial of review.
O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (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; Hamlin, 365 F.3d
at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. An ALJ's
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.
Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d
at 1214. While the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try
the issues de novo, its examination of the record
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
ALJ]'s findings from being supported by substantial
evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084
(10th Cir. 2007) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372
F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
purposes of supplemental security income, a claimant
establishes a disability when 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) (2015), 42
U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (2004); 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1505(a), 416.905(a). In order to determine whether a
claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step
sequential evaluation process (“SEP”). Bowen
v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520, 416.920.
first four steps of the SEP, the claimant bears the burden of
showing: (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 either (3) her impairment(s) either
meet or equal one of the “Listings” of presumptively
disabling impairments; or (4) she is unable to perform her
“past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); see Grogan v. Barnhart, 399
F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). If the ALJ determines the
claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, the ALJ will
proceed to step five of the evaluation process. At step five
the Commissioner must 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 1261.
Garcia applied for SSI and DIB claiming post-traumatic stress
disorder, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, depression, and
pain in her left foot limited her ability to work. (AR 96).
At step one, the ALJ determined Ms. Garcia had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability
onset date. (AR 36). At step two, the ALJ found Ms. Garcia
has the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder,
schizoaffective disorder, anxiety, and polysubstance abuse in
early remission. Id. At step three, the ALJ
concluded none of Ms. Garcia's impairments, singly or in
combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a
Listed impairment. (AR 37).
proceeding to step four, the ALJ found Ms. Garcia has the RFC
to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels;
understand, remember, and execute simple instructions;
maintain attention and concentration for at least two hours
at a time; persist and remain on pace for simple tasks; and
interact with others on a brief, superficial level, meaning
occasional contact with the public and co-workers. (AR 38).
In the ensuing discussion, the ALJ thoroughly discussed Ms.
Garcia's testimony and medical history. (AR 39-44).
Regarding Dr. Fink, the ALJ quoted his conclusions verbatim.
(AR 41). Dr. Fink opined that Ms. Garcia appeared to have
limitations regarding memory and sustained concentration,
staying on task and concentrating through a full shift, and
working with coworkers and supervisors. Id. However,
the ALJ assigned Dr. Fink's opinion only “partial
weight to the extent that it is ...