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Armijo v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 6, 2018

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


          Laura Fashing, United States Magistrate Judge.

         THIS 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.

         I. Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision[2] 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. 2007).

         “Substantial 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)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         To 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. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a).

         When 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[3] 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. Id.

         III. Background and Procedural History

         Ms. Armijo was born in 1966 and completed four years of college coursework, but did not earn a degree. AR 45, 196, 247.[4] 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- 38.

         At step 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 public.

AR 25.

         At step 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. 1.[5]

         IV. Ms. Armijo's Claims

         Ms. 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).

         V. Analysis

         Ms. 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 ...

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