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Gonzales v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

February 26, 2018

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 16) filed May 10, 2017, in support of Plaintiff Alfonso Mario Gonzales, Jr.'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 July 7, 2017, Plaintiff filed his Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency for Rehearing With Supporting Memorandum (“Motion”). (Doc. 19.) The Commissioner filed a Response in opposition on September 7, 2017 (Doc. 21), and Plaintiff filed a Reply on September 22, 2017. (Doc. 22.) 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 Alfonso Mario Gonzales, Jr. (“Mr. Gonzales”) alleges that he became disabled on September 12, 2012, at the age of thirty-three because of back, neck and knee injuries, asthma, post-traumatic stress syndrome, severe headaches, anxiety, and dizziness. (Tr. 30, 76, 239.[3]) Mr. Gonzales completed the eighth grade, and worked as a busboy, dishwasher, and warehouse worker. (Tr. 240, 241, 250-52.) Mr. Gonzales reported he stopped working on March 1, 2003, because of his medical conditions. (Tr. 239.)

         On September 1, 2012, Mr. Gonzales protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. (Tr. 210-15, 235.) Mr. Gonzales's application was initially denied on December 12, 2012. (Tr. 76-87, 88, 106-109.) It was denied again at reconsideration on August 30, 2013. (Tr. 89-104, 105, 115-19.) On October 8, 2013, Mr. Gonzales requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 120-22.) ALJ Donna Montano conducted a hearing on June 2, 2015. (Tr. 27-75.) Mr. Gonzales appeared in person at the hearing with attorney representative Gary Martone. (Id.) The ALJ took testimony from Mr. Gonzales (Tr. 30-63, 67-71), and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”) (Tr. 63-66, 72-74). On June 30, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 8-21.) On October 11, 2016, the Appeals Council issued its decision denying Mr. Gonzales's request for review and upholding the ALJ's final decision. (Tr. 1-5.) On December 13, 2016, Mr. Gonzales 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 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. § 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.”[4] If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled regardless of his 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, he 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 his “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 [his 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 his 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. § 416.920(a)(4); 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 Mr. Gonzales was not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation. (Tr. 19-20.) Specifically, the ALJ found that Mr. Gonzales had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his application date of September 12, 2012, [5] and had severe impairments of obesity, anxiety disorder, asthma, post-traumatic stress disorder, and pain disorder. (Tr. 13.) The ALJ, however, determined that Mr. Gonzales's impairments did not meet or equal in severity one the listings described in Appendix 1 of the regulations. (Tr. 13-15.) As a result, the ALJ proceeded to step four and found that Mr. Gonzales had the residual functional capacity to perform less than a full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b). Specifically,

the claimant is able to lift up to 20 pounds occasionally, lift or carry up to ten pounds frequently, stand or walk for approximately six hours in an eight-hour workday and sit for approximately six hours in an eight-hour workday, with normal breaks. He should avoid concentrated exposure to fumes odors dust and gasses. From a mental standpoint, the claimant is limited to work involving only simple routine tasks with little to no changes in the work setting. He can make commensurate work related decisions and respond appropriately to coworkers and supervisors, but contact with co-workers should only be superficial.

(Tr. 15.) The ALJ further concluded at step four that Mr. Gonzales had no past relevant work. (Tr. 19.) The ALJ determined at step five based on Mr. Gonzales's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the VE, that there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Gonzales could perform. (Tr. 19-20.) For this reason, the ALJ determined that Mr. Gonzales was not disabled. (Tr. 20.)

         In support of his Motion, Mr. Gonzales argues that (1) the ALJ failed to properly consider the State agency psychological consultant opinion evidence; and (2) the ALJ failed to properly consider Mr. Gonzales's obesity. (Doc. 19 at 7-12.) For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds there is no reversible error.

         A. State Agency Psychological Consultant Opinion Evidence

         1. State Agency Examining Psychological Consultant Mark Simpson, PsyD, LADAC

         On December 15, 2012, Mr. Gonzales presented to Mark Simpson, PsyD, for a mental status consultative examination. (Tr. 390-92.) Dr. Simpson initially noted that Mr. Gonzales did not appear to have difficulty with balance, walking, or sitting, and that there was no evidence of pain behaviors during the approximately one hour evaluation. (Tr. 390.) Dr. Simpson indicated that Mr. Gonzales was cooperative throughout the evaluation. (Id.)

         Mr. Gonzales reported a long history of depression, anger, anxiety, learning difficulties, difficulties with concentration, and chronic neck and back pain. (Id.) He also reported that anxiety attacks had resulted in three emergency room visits the previous year.[6] (Id.) Mr. Gonzales told Dr. Simpson that he had been stabbed twice in his torso, once in 1985 and once in 2006, and was in a motor vehicle accident in 2009, which resulted in injuries to his back, knee and neck, and caused headaches. (Tr. 391.) Mr. Gonzales stated he had not worked since 2003 due to his injuries. (Id.) Mr. Gonzales stated he had been arrested five or six times for being with a friend who had drugs, and arrested once for being involved in a shooting. (Id.)

         On mental status exam, Dr. Simpson observed that Mr. Gonzales was (1) oriented to person, date, place, and to the reason he was being evaluated, and that there was no evidence of psychomotor agitation or retardation. (Tr. 391.) He noted that (1) Mr. Gonzales's mood was depressed and his affect was constricted; (2) he presented as being undereducated; (3) his thought process was linear and goal directed; and (4) his insight and judgment were good. (Id.) Dr. Simpson indicated there was no evidence of perception abnormalities, and no evidence of suicidal and/or homicidal ideations. (Id.)

         Dr. Simpson's Axis I diagnosis was post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic, and he assessed a GAF score of 53.[7] (Tr. 391.) Dr. Simpson's impression was that Mr. Gonzales was challenged by “chronic pain, asthma, headaches, and by PTSD” and that it appeared “that these challenges will make it more difficult to seek, obtain, and maintain employment.” (Tr. 392.) As to Mr. Gonzales's mental functional limitations, Dr. Simpson assessed that Mr. Gonzales had mild limitations in his ability (1) to understand and remember very short and simple instructions; and (2) to be aware of normal hazards in the workplace. (Id.) He further assessed that Mr. Gonzales had mild-to-moderate limitations in his ability (1) to understand and remember detailed or complex instructions; (2) to carry out instructions; (3) to attend and concentrate; (4) to work without supervision; (5) to interact with the public; (6) to interact with co-workers; (7) to interact with supervisors; (8) to adapt to changes in the workplace; and (9) to use public transportation to travel to unfamiliar places. (Id.)

         2. State Agency Nonexamining Psychological Consultant ...

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