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Hodge v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 9, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Natasha Nicole Hodge seeks review of the Social Security Administration's denial of her application for supplemental security income. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382(c). Because the Court agrees that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining that Hodge could perform some sedentary work, and, as a result, was not disabled, the Court GRANTS Hodge's motion and REMANDS this case to the agency for further proceedings commensurate with this decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Hodge alleged disability as of April 2, 2008, at age twenty seven, arising from bipolar disorder, type 2 diabetes, and low back pain. [AR 253; 218]. Following a hearing, Administrative Law Judge Eric Weiss denied Baker's application for benefits. [AR 12-31; 32-76]. At step three of the five-part framework[1] used to evaluate disability, the ALJ concluded that Hodge's lower back, right foot, and ankle problems, as well as major depressive and bipolar disorders, impairments the ALJ determined were severe, did not meet or equal a listed impairment the agency has determined to be presumptively disabling. [AR 18-19]. At steps four and five, the ALJ determined that Hodge did not have any past relevant work experience, but retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary jobs so long as she only has “occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors.”[2] [AR 19-25]. Relying on the testimony of a vocation expert, the ALJ concluded that sufficient jobs existed in the national economy that matched Hodge's age, education, work experience, and limitations, such as an addresser and document specialist. [AR 25]. After the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, Hodge filed the instant complaint in this Court and moved to reverse or remand the agency adverse determination. [AR 1-4; Docs. 1, 16].


         This Court reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. 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

         Hodge challenges the ALJ's decision on two grounds: (1) the determination that Hodge retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work; and (2) the ALJ's reliance on the testimony of the vocational expert in concluding there were jobs available that Hodge could perform. Hodge's first assertion encompasses both the ALJ's rejection of alleged physical and mental limitations as well as her legal objection to reasons the ALJ gave for not incorporating into the RFC limitations from a psychologist consultant and the factual support for the RFC determination. Because the Court determines that the ALJ improperly rejected the agency consultant's assessment of her mental impairments, and the record support the ALJ cited as the bases is indicative of the overall lack substantial evidence supporting the RFC determination, the Court does not specifically reach the physical limitations issue. The ALJ's error in determining the RFC at step four requires remand and necessarily invalidates the ALJ's step-five finding; therefore, the Court does not address Hodge's contention regarding reliance on the vocational expert.

         A. RFC Determination

         The centerpiece of Hodge's challenge is the ALJ's treatment of clinical psychologist Sheri Spies' mental limitations in fashioning the RFC. The Social Security Administration hired Dr. Spies to examine and evaluate Hodge because, in its view, existing mental health records were insufficient to permit a determination. See SSR 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180 (explaining that such “consultants are highly qualified . . . experts in the evaluation of the medical issues in disability claims under the Act”). In that capacity, Dr. Spies opined that Hodge's “ability to maintain employment was markedly limited due to [her] symptoms of depression.”[3] [AR 21]. A “marked limitation, ” in agency speak, is synonymous with a severe limitation in an area of functioning. Dr. Spies assigned Hodge a GAF of 45, [4] “indicating serious symptoms.” [AR 21]. The ALJ concluded “Dr. Spies' opinions regarding the claimant's psychological abilities are not well supported in the record” and that “these opinions appear to be founded by the claimant's self-reported symptoms.” [AR 22].

         As with all medical opinions, the ALJ must consider the limitations an agency consultant places on a plaintiff's mental abilities, discuss the weight he assigns to the consultant's assessment, and give good reasons for that weight he chooses. See Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161 (10th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). In fulfilling this obligation, the ALJ examines “the supportability of the opinion in the evidence”; “the consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole, including other medical opinions, and any explanation for the opinion provided by the . . . psychological consultant[.]” SSR 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180. The ALJ's duty in this regard encompasses two concomitant standards: (1) the legal hurdle the ALJ must clear by assigning a weight to a medical opinion as well as articulating a legitimate reason for doing so; and (2) the ALJ's separate factual obligation to of tie the reasons to record evidence.

         1. Legal attacks to the RFC

         The ALJ did not specify what weight he gave the limitations Dr. Spies placed on Hodge's ability to work in formulating the RFC. Instead, the ALJ criticized Dr. Spies' opinion for its reliance on Hodge's “subjective reports” as well as its support in the record. As legal error, Hodge challenges the ALJ's failure to assign an express weight to Dr. Spies' mental evaluation and the ALJ's implicit rejection of Dr. Spies' evaluation for the improper reason that it was based, at least in part, on Hodge's own accounts of her symptoms.

         a. Assignment of weight ...

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