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Garcia v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

October 11, 2017

ROBERT J. GARCIA, JR., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 22) filed on February 9, 2017. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the parties have consented to me serving as the presiding judge and entering final judgment. See Docs. 3, 7, 10. Having considered the record, submissions of counsel, and relevant law, the Court finds Plaintiff's motion is well-taken and will be granted in part.

         I. Procedural History

         On January 14, 2013, Mr. Robert J. Garcia, Jr. (Plaintiff) filed an application with the Social Security Administration for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Administrative Record[1] (AR) at 12, 76. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of November 15, 2012. AR at 12, 76. Disability Determination Services determined that Plaintiff was not disabled both initially (AR at 100-03) and on reconsideration (AR at 109-13). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on the merits of his application. AR at 107-08.

         Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified during the de novo hearing. See AR at 32-74. ALJ Eric Weiss issued an unfavorable decision on April 3, 2015. AR at 9-31. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council (AR at 7-8), which the council denied on July 18, 2016 (AR at 1-6). Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003).

         II. Applicable Law and the ALJ's Findings

         A claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that he 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); see also 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. § 404.1520(a)(4); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).

         The claimant has the burden at the first four steps of the process to show: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) he 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 (3) his impairment(s) meet or equal one of the listings in Appendix 1, Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404; or (4) pursuant to the assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), he is unable to perform his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); see also Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). “RFC is a multidimensional description of the work-related abilities [a claimant] retain[s] in spite of [his] medical impairments.” 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(B); see also 20 C.F.R. §404.1545(a)(1). If the claimant meets “the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability[, ] . . . the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant retains sufficient . . . RFC to perform work in the national economy, given his age, education, and work experience.” Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261 (citing Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 & n.2 (10th Cir. 1988) (internal citation omitted)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         At Step One of the process, ALJ Weiss found that while Plaintiff “worked after the alleged disability onset date[, ] . . . this work activity did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity.” AR at 14. The ALJ found, therefore, that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date, November 15, 2012. AR at 14 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (‘PTSD'), organic brain syndrome disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder . . . .” AR at 14 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)). The ALJ found that the following impairments are non-severe: plantar fasciitis, obesity, mild degenerative changes in his cervical spine (neck pain), abdominal pain, sleep apnea, headaches, muscle weakness, vascular disease, and alcohol and substance abuse addiction. AR at 14-17.

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” AR at 17 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). With respect to Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ further found that Plaintiff has mild limitations in the first functional area (activities of daily living), and moderate limitations in both the second functional area (social functioning) and the third functional area (concentration, persistence or pace). AR at 17-18. The ALJ found that Plaintiff has experienced no episodes of decompensation of extended duration. AR at 18. Because Plaintiff's “mental impairments do not cause at least two ‘marked' limitations or one ‘marked' limitation and ‘repeated' episodes of decompensation, ” the ALJ found that the paragraph B criteria are not satisfied. AR at 18; see also 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P, App. 1 § 12.06(B). The ALJ also found that the evidence of record “fails to establish the presence of the ‘paragraph C' criteria of 12.02[, ] 12.04” or 12.06. AR at 18.

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that while Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms[, ] . . . [Plaintiff's] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible . . . .” AR at 20. The ALJ considered the evidence of record and Plaintiff's administrative hearing testimony, as well as the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician and treating counselor, the consultative physicians, and Plaintiff's girlfriend. AR at 19-25. Ultimately, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §] 404.1567(c) . . . .” AR at 19. Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff “can lift 50 pounds occasionally and lift or carry 25 pounds frequently, and push and pull the same; and may stand or walk for six hours in an eight hour day and sit for two hours, with normal breaks.” AR at 19. The ALJ found, however, that “due to a combination of mental impairments, [Plaintiff] is limited to performing simple, routine tasks; and may have occasional interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the public.” AR at 19.

         ALJ Weiss concluded that Plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work as a heating and air conditioning installer (skilled medium work) and a janitor (semi-skilled medium work), because Plaintiff's RFC limits him to unskilled medium work. AR at 25-26. At the hearing, the ALJ asked the VE to assume an individual with Plaintiff's limitations who is “limited to performing simple, routine tasks, and may have occasional interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the public.”[2] AR at 63. The ALJ advised the VE to consider “any of the reasoning levels that satisfy unskilled work[, ]” specifically including “detailed, but uninvolved instructions” and “several concrete variables.” AR at 63-64. The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform three jobs at the light, unskilled level: cleaner and polisher, mail clerk, and photocopying machine operator. AR at 65-66.

         The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, [since] November 15, 2012 . . . .” AR at 27 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)).

         III. Legal Standard

         The Court must “review the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal citation omitted)). A deficiency in either area is grounds for remand. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161, 1166 (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172 (internal quotation omitted)). “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation omitted) (alteration in original)). The Court will “consider whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, but [it] will not reweigh the evidence or substitute [its] judgment for the Commissioner's.” Id. (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172 (internal quotation marks and quotations omitted)).

         “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski, 372 F.3d at 1200 (internal quotation omitted)). The Court “may not ‘displace the agenc[y's] choice between two fairly conflicting views, even though the court would justifiably have made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo.'” Id. (quoting Zoltanski, 372 F.3d at 1200 (internal quotation omitted)).

         IV. Discussion

         Plaintiff asserts three broad issues in his Motion. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ made errors in making the RFC finding, which ultimately rendered the ALJ's conclusion about Plaintiff's ability to work contrary to law. Doc. 22 at 3. Second, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in failing to develop the record. Id. Third, Plaintiff alleges that “[t]he ALJ committed legal error by relying on VE testimony that was inconsistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles [DOT], without obtaining an explanation for the inconsistency.” Id.

         A. The Court will remand for further proceedings on the ALJ's findings regarding Plaintiff's non-exertional limitations.

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ failed to (1) fully consider his functional limitations (mental and physical) in making the RFC finding; and (2) apply correct legal standards to the opinions of treating psychiatrist Teresa O'Brien, M.D., treating counselor Patricia Parish, and Agency consulting psychologist Louis Wynne, Ph.D. Doc. 22 at 3. Plaintiff argues that the erroneous RFC finding then “tainted the VE testimony at step five, which rendered the ALJ's conclusion that Mr. Garcia can work contrary to law.” Id. The Court begins by examining the ALJ's analysis of Plaintiff's providers.

         1. Treating psychiatrist Teresa O'Brien, M.D.

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ improperly considered the opinion of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Teresa O'Brien. Id. at 10-13. Plaintiff presents two main points of contention: first, it was error for the ALJ to give Dr. O'Brien's opinion “partial weight, ” and for the ALJ render his own psychiatric conclusion; second, the ALJ gave insufficient reasons to reject Dr. O'Brien's opinion. Id.

         a. ALJs must follow a two-step inquiry when evaluating a treating physician's opinion.

         An ALJ must consider all medical opinions found in the record.[3] Padilla v. Colvin, No. CV 14-495 CG, 2015 WL 10383109, at *4 (D.N.M. June 29, 2015) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(b), 416.927(b)). “Medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about” a plaintiff's impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2). An opinion from a treating physician is generally entitled to more weight than either an examining or an agency physician. Padilla, 2015 WL 10383109, at *4 (citing Robinson v. Barnhart, 366 F.3d 1078, 1084 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal citations omitted)).

         “The ALJ should accord opinions of treating physicians controlling weight when those opinions are well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record; this is known as the ‘treating physician rule.'” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2); Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1119 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal citations omitted)). “A treating physician's opinion is accorded controlling weight because the treating physician has a ‘unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations.'” Id. (quoting Doyal, 331 F.3d at 762 (internal quotation omitted, alteration in original)).

         Where the “treating physician's opinion is not supported by medical evidence or consistent with the record, ” id. (citation omitted), it is “still entitled to deference and must be weighed using all of the factors provided in 20 C.F.R. [§§] 404.1527 and 416.927.'” Robinson, 366 F.3d at 1082 (quoting Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1300 (10th Cir. 2003) (quoting Soc. Sec. Ruling, SSR 96-2p, Policy Interpretation Ruling Titles II & XVI: Giving Controlling Weight to Treating Source Medical Opinions, 1996 WL 374188, at *4 (July 2, 1996))). The factors include:

(1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, including the treatment provided and the kind of examination or testing performed; (3) the degree to which the physician's opinion is supported by relevant evidence; (4) consistency between the opinion and the record as a whole; (5) whether or not the physician is a specialist in the area upon which an opinion is ...

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