United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Fashing, United States Magistrate Judge.
MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Cerina
Armijo's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing, with
Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 18), which was fully briefed on
June 16, 2017. See Docs. 20, 21, 22. The parties
consented to my entering final judgment in this case. Docs.
4, 7, 8. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and
being fully advised in the premises, I find that the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to
provide adequate narrative analysis to support the mental
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) he assessed.
In particular, the ALJ failed to explain how he addressed the
moderate to marked impairment in Ms. Armijo's
relationships with coworkers and supervisors assessed by Dr.
Robert Krueger. I therefore GRANT Ms. Armijo's motion and
remand this case to the Commissioner for further proceedings
consistent with this opinion.
Standard of Review
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). 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).
“The failure to apply the correct legal standard or to
provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that
appropriate legal principles have been followed is grounds
for reversal.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d
1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and
brackets omitted). The Court must meticulously review the
entire record, but may neither reweigh the evidence nor
substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner.
Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir.
evidence is such relevant evidence as 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 or if there is a mere scintilla of
evidence supporting it.” Id. While the Court
may not reweigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its
examination of the record as a whole 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] findings
from being supported by substantial evidence.'”
Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007)
(quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200
(10th Cir. 2004)).
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish
that he or 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); 20 C.F.R. §§
considering a disability application, the Commissioner is
required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Bowen v.
Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). At the first four
steps of the evaluation process, the claimant must show: (1)
the claimant is not engaged in “substantial gainful
activity;” (2) the claimant 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) the
impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the
Listings of presumptively disabling impairments;
or (4) the claimant is unable to perform his or her
“past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv), 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan,
399 F.3d at 1260-61. If the claimant cannot show that his or
her impairment meets or equals a Listing but proves that he
or she is unable to perform his or her “past relevant
work, ” the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner,
at step five, to show that the claimant is able to perform
other work in the national economy, considering the
claimant's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”), age, education, and work experience.
Background and Procedural History
Armijo was born in 1966 and completed four years of college
coursework, but did not earn a degree. AR 45, 196,
She worked as a secretary for approximately 15 years, and for
shorter periods as a cashier and a waitress. AR 47-48, 247.
Ms. Armijo filed applications for disability insurance
benefits and supplemental security income on December 19,
2011- alleging disability since February 16, 2011 due to
fibromyalgia, a seizure disorder, post-traumatic stress
disorder (“PTSD”), and bipolar disorder. AR
196-208, 246. The Social Security Administration
(“SSA”) denied her claims initially on August 2,
2012. AR 82-83, 138- 41. The SSA denied her claims on
reconsideration on July 10, 2013. AR 148-53. Ms. Armijo
requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 154-55. On December 8,
2014, ALJ John Rolph held a hearing. AR 39-81. ALJ Rolph
issued his unfavorable decision on February 10, 2015. AR 17-
one, the ALJ found that Ms. Armijo had not engaged in
substantial, gainful activity since February 16, 2011, her
alleged onset date. AR 22. At step two, the ALJ found that
Ms. Armijo suffered from the following severe impairments:
“fibromyalgia (myalgia and myositis) with
fatigue/malaise, history of seizure-like activity, headaches,
depression/Bipolar NOS, anxiety and post-traumatic stress
disorder (PTSD).” Id. At step three, the ALJ
found that none of Ms. Armijo's impairments, alone or in
combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 23-25.
Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a
Listing, the ALJ assessed Ms. Armijo's RFC. AR 25-29. The
ALJ found Ms. Armijo had the RFC to
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) including lifting and carrying twenty pounds
occasionally and ten pounds frequently. She can stand and
walk six hours each in an eight-hour day for forty-five to
sixty minutes at a time. She can sit for six hours in an
eight-hour day, for forty-five to sixty minutes at a time.
She may occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop,
kneel, crouch and crawl. She may never climb ladders, ropes
and scaffolds. She must avoid more than occasional exposure
to extreme cold and vibration. She must avoid all exposure to
hazards such as dangerous machinery, open flames, and
unsecured heights. She is fully capable of learning,
remembering and performing simple, routine and repetitive
work tasks, involving simple work instructions, which are
performed in a routine, predictable, and low stress work
environment, defined as one in which there is a regular pace,
few work place changes, and no “over the
shoulder” supervision. She can maintain concentration,
persistence and pace for two hours at a time with normal
breaks. She may have occasional contact with supervisors and
coworkers, but should have minimal to no contact with the
four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Armijo was unable to perform
her past relevant work as a secretary or waitress. AR 30. The
ALJ found Ms. Armijo not disabled at step five because she
could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy-such as cleaner/housekeeper, electronics
worker, “egg processor, ” and “cuff
folder.” AR 31. On April 13, 2015, Ms. Armijo requested
review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision by the Appeals
Council. AR 15-16. On July 11, 2016, the Appeals Council
denied the request for review. AR 1-6. Ms. Armijo timely
filed her appeal to this Court on September 7, 2016. Doc.
Ms. Armijo's Claims
Armijo raises two arguments for reversing and remanding this
case: (1) the ALJ failed to address all of the moderate and
marked limitations noted in the opinion of state agency
medical consultant Dr. Robert Krueger; (2) the ALJ failed to
address the limitations noted in the opinion of state agency
medical consultant Dr. Michael Gzaskow. Because I remand
based on the ALJ's failure to properly analyze the
opinions of Dr. Krueger, I do not address the other alleged
error, which “may be affected by the ALJ's
treatment of this case on remand.” Watkins v.
Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1299 (10th Cir. 2003).
Armijo argues that the ALJ committed legal error by failing
to provide an evidentiary basis for his mental RFC
determination. Doc. 18 at 16. Specifically, she argues that
the ALJ “failed to give the required narrative
explanation for why he rejected Dr. Krueger's assessment
for a marked to moderate impairment in relationships with
coworkers and supervisors.” Id. at 14. The
Commissioner argues that it was sufficient for the ALJ to
account for “most” of the moderate and marked
limitations in Dr. Krueger's opinion, and that the RFC is
adequate because it closely parallels the limitations in Dr.
Krueger's opinion. Doc. 20 at 9-10. For the reasons
outlined below, the Court finds that the ALJ failed to