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Garcia v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 3, 2017

TILDA GARCIA, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS 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, 2017.

         On 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.

         On 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.

         Ms. 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.

         I. Standard of Review

         The 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. 1994).

         “Substantial 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)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         For 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.

         At the 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”[1] 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.

         III. Background

         Ms. 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).

         Before 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 ‚Äúpartial weight to the extent that it is ...

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