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Adolph v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 21, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, to Remand for Rehearing (Doc. 15) filed on August 4, 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, 5, 6. Having considered the record, submissions of counsel, and relevant law, the Court finds Plaintiff's motion is not well-taken and will be denied.

         I. Procedural History

         On September 19, 2011, Deanna Lynne Adolph (“Plaintiff”) filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Administrative Record[1] (“AR”) at 312-13. She alleged a disability onset date of July 29, 2011 (AR at 313) due to dystonia, chronic hypertension, paroxysmal dystonia, narcoleptic disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (AR at 328). Her date last insured was June 30, 2012. AR at 325. The Social Security Administration determined that Plaintiff was not disabled both initially (AR at 138-41) and on reconsideration (AR at 146-48). Plaintiff then requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). AR at 149-50.

         After a de novo hearing on January 9, 2013 (AR at 99-112), ALJ Daniel Curran issued an unfavorable opinion, finding Plaintiff was not disabled on or before her date last insured (AR at 115-27). The Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review (AR at 404-09), and remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings (AR at 132-35). After two subsequent hearings (AR at 80-98, 51-78) ALJ Curran, again, found Plaintiff was not disabled on or before her date last insured (AR at 26-44). Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council (AR at 16-23), which the Council denied (AR at 1-5). Consequently, the ALJ's second decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 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 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); 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) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) she 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) her 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”), she is unable to perform her 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 [her] 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 [her] 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, ALJ Curran found that Plaintiff “did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of July 29, 2011 through her date last insured of June 30, 2012.” AR at 32 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that “through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] had the following severe impairments: psychogenic dystonia, narcolepsy, cataplexy, major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.” AR at 32 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)). The ALJ also found that Plaintiff “has the non-medically determinable impairment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” and the “nonsevere impairment[s] of hypertension and kidney disease.” AR at 32.

         At Step Three, the ALJ determined that “[t]hrough the date last insured, [Plaintiff] did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” AR at 33 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). The ALJ examined Listings 12.02 (organic mental disorders), 12.04 (affective disorders), and 12.06 (anxiety related disorders). AR at 33. With respect to Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff has mild limitations in activities of daily living, and moderate limitations in both social functioning and concentration, persistence, or pace. AR at 33-34. The ALJ found that Plaintiff has experienced no episodes of decompensation of extended duration. AR at 34. Because Plaintiff's mental impairments did not cause at least two “marked” limitations or one “marked” limitation and “repeated” episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration, the ALJ concluded that the paragraph B criteria were not satisfied. AR at 33; see also 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P, App. 1 § 12.06(B). The ALJ also found that Plaintiff did not meet the paragraph C criteria of Listing 12.02, 12.04, or 12.06. AR at 34-35.

         The ALJ next defined Plaintiff's RFC, and in doing so “considered all [Plaintiff's] symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence . . . .” AR at 135 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529; SSR 96-4P, 1996 WL 374187 (July 2, 1996); SSR 96-7P, 1996 WL 374186 (July 2, 1996)). The ALJ concluded that while Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms[, ]” Plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible . . . .” AR at 42. The ALJ considered the evidence of record, including function reports and testimony from Plaintiff and her mother, witness statements, medical records from May 2011 to August 2012, consultative examinations reports from Dr. Rattan and Dr. Didriksen, Dr. Yeganov's treating source statement, testimony from medical experts Dr. Smith, Dr. Amusa, and Dr. Devere, and medical and physical assessments by Dr. Lankford and Dr. Samaratunga. AR at 35-43. Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's RFC limits Plaintiff to light work and that

[m]entally, the [Plaintiff] is limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out only simple instructions; making judgments that are commensurate with the functions of unskilled work - i.e., simple work-related decisions; responding appropriately to supervision, coworkers and unusual work situations; and dealing with changes in a routine work setting. She is limited to no joint decision-making or teamwork, occasional contact with the general public, and the work must not require the claimant to direct or receive directions from the general public. In other words, interactions on the job with other people must be of a superficial rather than of a substantive nature. Specifically, the [Plaintiff] is able to do only routine, solitary, repetitive work that does not require close oversight by a supervisor.

AR at 35.

         At Step Four, ALJ Curran noted that Plaintiff has no past relevant work. AR at 43. Finally, at Step Five, the ALJ found that “[t]hrough the date last insured, considering the [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and [RFC], there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the [Plaintiff] could have performed.” AR at 43 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a)). The ALJ made this determination based on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”). AR at 44. The VE testified that a person with Plaintiff's “age, education, work experience, and [RFC] . . . would be able to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as housekeeping cleaning . . .; a garment sorter . . .; and . . . an addresser.” AR at 44. Ultimately, ALJ Curran determined that Plaintiff “was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from July 29, 2011, the alleged onset date, through June 30, 2012, the date last insured.” AR at 44 (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. See Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161, 1166 (10th Cir. 2012) (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 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 grounds for remand: (1) the ALJ conducted an incomplete analysis of medical source opinion evidence and the RFC is, therefore, contrary to the evidence; (2) the ALJ failed to properly assess Plaintiff's credibility when determining the RFC; and (3) the ALJ erred at step five by adopting VE testimony of inconsistent and obsolete jobs. Doc. 15 at 1-2.

         A. The ALJ properly weighed the medical source opinions and adequately assessed Plaintiff's RFC.

         When determining an applicant's RFC, the ALJ must consider and weigh all the medical opinions in the case record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(b), (c);[2] see also SSR 96-8P, 1996 WL 374184, at *7 (July 2, 1996). The ALJ must provide “good reason in [the] notice of determination or decision for the weight” he assigned to an opinion. Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d at 1297, 1300 (10th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted). “The ALJ's decision [must] be ‘sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the treating source's medical opinion and the reasons for that weight.'” Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1258 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Watkins, 305 F.3d at 1300); see also Ringgold v. Colvin, 644 F. App'x 841, 843 (10th Cir. 2016) (noting that an ALJ must provide “good reasons in his decision for the weight he gave to [an examining medical source's] opinion”). To completely reject a medical source's opinion, the ALJ must “give specific, legitimate reasons for doing so.” Kellam v. Berryhill, 696 F. App'x 909, 917 (10th Cir. 2017).

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's treatment of medical opinions from medical expert Dr. Devere, treating psychiatrist Dr. Yeganov, consulting neuropsychologist Dr. Didriksen, consulting psychologist Dr. Rattan, and non-examining psychologist Dr. Lankford. Doc. 15 at 7-16. However, the ALJ explained ...

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