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Archuleta v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

February 15, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          KIRTAN KHALSA United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 13) filed February 7, 2017, in support of Plaintiff Leona Archuleta's (“Plaintiff”) Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking review of the decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's claim for Title XVI supplemental security income benefits. On April 17, 2017, Plaintiff filed her Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing With Supporting Memorandum (“Motion”). (Doc. 18.) The Commissioner filed a Response in opposition on June 16, 2017 (Doc. 21), and Plaintiff filed a Reply on June 30, 2017. (Doc. 23.) The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the applicable law and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds the Motion is not well taken and is DENIED.

         I. Background and Procedural Record

         Claimant Leona Archuleta (“Ms. Archuleta”) alleges that she became disabled on October 4, 2007, at the age of twenty-three because of degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine with complications, headaches (TMJ), major depression, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, cognitive problems with special education history, status-post multiple surgeries, and chronic pain. (Tr. 344, 477.[3]) Ms. Archuleta completed the twelfth grade in 2004, [4] and worked for approximately three months in late 2006 early 2007[5] as a cashier and shelf stocker in the liquor department at Walgreens. (Tr. 314-16, 499, 509.) Ms. Archuleta reported she stopped working on October 4, 2007, due to her medical conditions.[6] (Tr. 499.)

         On November 29, 2012, Ms. Archuleta protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. (Tr. 477-78, 494.) Ms. Archuleta's application was initially denied on March 22, 2013. (Tr. 343, 344-60, 384-87.) It was denied again at reconsideration on September 24, 2013. (Tr. 361-78, 379, 393-97.) On November 13, 2013, Ms. Archuleta requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 400.) The ALJ conducted a hearing on March 5, 2015. (Tr. 308-42.) Ms. Archuleta appeared in person at the hearing with non-attorney representative Nicki Kinley.[7](Id.) The ALJ took testimony from Ms. Archuleta (Tr. 314-35), and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Pamela Bowman (Tr. 335-41). On April 24, 2015, ALJ Eric Weiss issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 288-302.) On July 21, 2016, the Appeals Council issued its decision denying Ms. Archuleta's request for review and upholding the ALJ's final decision. (Tr. 1-7.) On September 20, 2016, Ms. Archuleta timely filed a Complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (Doc. 1.)

         II. Applicable Law

         A. Disability Determination Process

         An individual is considered disabled if 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) (pertaining to disability insurance benefits); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(A) (pertaining to supplemental security income disability benefits for adult individuals). The Social Security Commissioner has adopted the familiar five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a person satisfies the statutory criteria as follows:

(1) At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.”[8] If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled regardless of her medical condition.
(2) At step two, the ALJ must determine the severity of the claimed physical or mental impairment(s). If the claimant does not have an impairment(s) or combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, she is not disabled.
(3) At step three, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant's impairment(s) meets or equals in severity one of the listings described in Appendix 1 of the regulations and meets the duration requirement. If so, a claimant is presumed disabled.
(4) If, however, the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal in severity one of the listing described in Appendix 1 of the regulations, the ALJ must determine at step four whether the claimant can perform her “past relevant work.” Answering this question involves three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ considers all of the relevant medical and other evidence and determines what is “the most [claimant] can still do despite [her physical and mental] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). This is called the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Id. §§ 404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a)(3). Second, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands of claimant's past work. Third, the ALJ determines whether, given claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of meeting those demands. A claimant who is capable of returning to past relevant work is not disabled.
(5) If the claimant does not have the RFC to perform her past relevant work, the Commissioner, at step five, must show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. If the Commissioner is unable to make that showing, the claimant is deemed disabled. If, however, the Commissioner is able to make the required showing, the claimant is deemed not disabled.

See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (disability insurance benefits); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) (supplemental security income disability benefits); Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a disability in the first four steps of this analysis. Bowen v.Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146, n.5, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2294, n. 5, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy. Id. A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

         B. Standard of Review

         This Court must affirm the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits unless (1) the decision is not supported by “substantial evidence” or (2) the ALJ did not apply the proper legal standards in reaching the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); Casias, 933 F.2d at 800-01. In making these determinations, the Court “neither reweigh[s] the evidence nor substitute[s] [its] judgment for that of the agency.'” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008). A decision is based on substantial evidence where it is supported by “relevant evidence . . . a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118. A decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record[, ]” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118, or “constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). The agency decision must “provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005). Therefore, although an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence, “the record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence, ” and “the [ALJ's] reasons for finding a claimant not disabled” must be “articulated with sufficient particularity.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996).

         III. Analysis

         The ALJ made his decision that Ms. Archuleta was not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation. (Tr. 301-02.) Specifically, the ALJ found that Ms. Archuleta had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her application date of November 29, 2012, [9] and had severe impairments of somatization disorder, anxiety disorder, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, fibromyalgia, left sacroiliac joint syndrome, greater tronchanteric bursitis on the left, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with lumbar facet syndrome, lumbosacral spondylosis without myelopathy, spinal stenosis of the lumbar region without claudication, and flexor tenosynovitis in both hands. (Tr. 293.) The ALJ found that Ms. Archuleta had nonsevere impairments of irritable bowel syndrome, obstructive sleep apnea, headaches, obesity, gastro-esophageal reflux disease, and temporomandibular joint dysfunction. (Id.) The ALJ, however, determined that Ms. Archuleta's impairments did not meet or equal in severity one the listings described in Appendix 1 of the regulations. (Tr. 295.) As a result, the ALJ proceeded to step four and found that Ms. Archuleta had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a) except

she could lift 10 pounds occasionally and could lift and carry at most a negligible amount frequently; she could at most occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl, but could never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds; she must avoid more than occasional exposure to extreme cold, vibration, and workplace hazards such as dangerous moving machinery and unprotected heights; and she is limited to performing simple, routine tasks with few if any workplace changes.

(Tr. 298.) The ALJ further concluded at step four that Ms. Archuleta had no past relevant work. (Tr. 300.) The ALJ determined at step five that based on Ms. Archuleta's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the VE, that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Ms. Archuleta could perform. (Tr. 301-02.)

         Ms. Archuleta asserts several arguments in support of her Motion as follows: (1) the ALJ failed to provide proper reasons for rejecting State agency examining psychological consultant Dr. Paula Hughson's opinion regarding her ability to do work-related mental activities; (2) the ALJ erred by failing to account for all of the moderate limitations found by State agency nonexamining psychological consultants Donald Gucker, Ph.D. and Ralph Robinowitz, Ph.D.; (3) the ALJ's step-five findings are not supported by substantial evidence because (i) the VE testimony regarding the number of jobs in the national economy is not reliable, and (ii) there is a conflict between the ALJ's RFC and the reasoning level requirement for the job of charge account clerk; and (4) the ALJ impermissibly evaluated Ms. Archuleta's character instead of her symptoms. (Doc. 18 at 11-24.) The Court finds no reversible error as discussed below.

         A. State Agency Examining Psychological Consultant Paula Hughson, M.D.

         The record indicates that the Administration ordered a psychiatric mental status exam to establish Ms. Archuleta's mental functioning since she had not sought treatment for any mental impairment. (Tr. 358.) Thus, on March 18, 2013, Ms. Archuleta presented to Paula Hughson, M.D., for a consultative psychiatric examination. (Tr. 880-85.)

         Ms. Archuleta reported to Dr. Hughson that her chief complaint was “degenerative disc disease and fibromyalgia, and a lot of other things.” (Id.) Dr. Hughson noted Ms. Archuleta's reported psychiatric problems[10] as follows:

Began noticing increased anxiety about three years ago. Often becomes anxious anticipating that she will not be able to fall asleep. On a good night she sleeps for five to six hours Often she naps during the day. Feels high anxiety on “bad days.” Describes obsessive ordering rituals dating back to childhood. Was also obsessive about her schoolwork, had to check and recheck things multiple times. Has been on Citalopram for two months. She had negative side effects with other psychotropic medications, but cannot say their names. Says her doctor has “mentioned possible referral to mental health but she is too busy with medical appointments as it is.”

(Tr. 881.) Ms. Archuleta reported she had never seen a mental health professional or had any psychiatric hospitalizations. (Tr. 882.) She stated she required some assistance with her activities of daily living and that her mother and daughter helped her with the care of the house. (Id.) She said she had friends, but mostly interacts with her family. (Id.) She stated she gets along very well with others. (Id.)

         On mental status exam, Dr. Hughson noted that Ms. Archuleta was alert; oriented to date, day, month, year, season, person, place and situation; was able to repeat three words with recall at five minutes; she correctly completed five serial seven subtractions; her affect was congruent and she smiled frequently; her mood was anxious; her thought process linear; her thought content relevant; her estimated intelligence and fund of information was low average; her insight was limited; and her judgment was fair. (Tr. 882-83.) Dr. Hughson noted that Ms. Archuleta had no homicidal or suicidal ideation, no hallucinations, and no delusions. (Tr. 882.) Dr. Hughson's Axis I diagnoses were somatization disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. (Tr. 883.) Dr. Hughson assessed a GAF score of 48.[11] Dr. Hughson explained that Ms. Archuleta had excessive limiting symptoms in multiple systems absent organic findings, which is characteristic of somatization disorder. (Id.) She also explained that Ms. Archuleta's attitude and affect appeared incongruous with her degree of limitation, and that her lack of emotional insight was typical of psychosomatic disorders. (Id.)

         Dr. Hughson completed a Statement of Opinion of Abilities (Psychiatric Only) and assessed that Ms. Archuleta had no limitations in (1) understanding and remembering very short and simple instructions; (2) interacting with coworkers and supervisors; and (3) being aware of normal hazards in the workplace and reacting appropriately. (Tr. 884.) She assessed that Ms. Archuleta had mild limitations in (1) understanding and remembering detailed or complex instructions and (2) interacting with the public. (Id.) Finally, she assessed that Ms. Archuleta had moderate limitations in (1) carrying out instructions; (2) attending and concentrating; (3) working without supervision; (4) adapting to changes in the workplace; and (4) using public transportation or traveling to unfamiliar places. (Id.)

         The ALJ accorded moderate weight to Dr. Hughson's opinions and explained that “[a]lthough not inconsistent with the findings here, this statement makes no use of vocationally relevant terms, and is not informed by the greater variety of evidence that was available for review by the state agency consultants. It is therefore considered to be of lesser probative value.” (Tr. 299.) Ms. Archuleta argues that the ALJ's explanation for “rejecting” Dr. Hughson's psychiatric assessment is “facially dubious and too vague” because it is unclear what ALJ Weiss meant by “vocationally relevant terms.” (Doc. 18 at 13-14.) Ms. Archuleta further argues that Dr. Hughson “conducted her evaluation at the request of DDS in the required format, and used the forms provided by DDS when making her assessment.” (Id. at 13.) The Commissioner contends that the ALJ did not “reject” Dr. Hughson's opinion, but concluded it was entitled to moderate weight. (Doc. 21 at 9.) The Commissioner further contends that the ALJ reasonably observed that Dr. Hughson did not translate her limitations into “vocationally relevant terms, ” or actual RFC restrictions, and this was a valid reason to give her opinion slightly less weight. (Id. at 10.) The Commissioner asserts that the ALJ correctly observed that Dr. Hughson did not review any records, but that the State agency nonexamining psychological consultants had access to all of Ms. Archuleta's medical records at the time of their reviews. (Id. at 10-11.)

         “An ALJ must evaluate every medical opinion in the record, although the weight given each opinion will vary according to the relationship between the disability claimant and the medical professional.” Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1215. Specifically, when assessing a claimant's RFC, an ALJ must explain what weight is assigned to each opinion and why. SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183 at *5.[12] “An ALJ must also consider a series of specific factors in determining what weight to give any medical opinion.” Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1215 (citing Goatcher v. United States Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 52 F.3d 288, 290 (10th Cir. 1995)).[13] An ALJ need not articulate every factor. Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1258 (10th Cir. 2007). Generally the opinion of a treating physician is given more weight than that of an examining consultant, and the opinion of a non-examining consultant is given the least weight of all. Robinson v. Barnhart, 366 F.3d 1078, 1084 (10th Cir. 2004). Ultimately, ALJs are required to weigh medical ...

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