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Garcia v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 8, 2018

ENRIQUE S. GARCIA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          THE HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Enrique S. Garcia's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing, With Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc. 17), filed November 16, 2017; Defendant Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill's Brief in Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand the Agency's Administrative Decision (the “Response”), (Doc. 19), filed December 22, 2017; and Ms. Garcia's Reply to the Commissioner's Brief in Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand (the “Reply”), (Doc. 20), filed January 29, 2018.[1]

         Ms. Garcia filed applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits on December 3, 2012, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2008. (Administrative Record “AR” 14). Ms. Garcia claimed she was limited in her ability to work due to: anxiety, depression, mood swings, asthma, leg pain, mobility problems, right wrist pain and weakness, high blood pressure, and dyslexia. (AR 236). Ms. Garcia later amended her alleged onset date to January 1, 2011. (AR 14). Ms. Garcia's applications were denied initially on May 16, 2013, and upon reconsideration on October 28, 2013. (AR 14). Ms. Garcia requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on February 25, 2016, before ALJ Lillian Richter. (AR 33). Ms. Garcia and Mary Weber, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing, and Ms. Garcia was represented by attorney Michelle Baca. (AR 33-76).

         On May 26, 2016, the ALJ issued her decision, finding Ms. Garcia not disabled at any time between her alleged disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR 27). Ms. Garcia requested review by the Appeals Council, (AR 9), which was denied, (AR 1-5), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal.

         Ms. Garcia, who is now represented by attorney Francesca MacDowell, argues in her Motion that the ALJ: (1) failed to properly consider evidence regarding her physical impairments; (2) failed to properly consider evidence regarding her mental functioning; (3) erred in considering her credibility; and (4) failed to properly consider the VE's testimony. (Doc. 17 at 5-20). The Court has reviewed the Motion, the Response, the Reply, and the relevant law. Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed the administrative record. Because the ALJ erred in her consideration of evidence regarding Ms. Garcia's mental limitations, the Court finds that Ms. Garcia's Motion should be GRANTED IN PART.

         I. Standard of Review

         The 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) (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)). 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); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). The Commissioner's “failure to apply the correct legal standards, or show . . . that she has done so, are grounds for reversal.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). A court should meticulously review the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. A court's review is limited to the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which is generally the ALJ's decision, rather than the Appeals Council's denial of review. O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (10th Cir. 1994).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. An ALJ's 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. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. While the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its examination of the record 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 ALJ]'s findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         For purposes of supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits, a claimant establishes a disability when 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) (2015), 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (2004); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a) (2012). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”). Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2012).

         At the first four steps of the SEP, the claimant bears the burden of showing: (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 either (3) her impairment(s) either meet or equal one of the “Listings”[2] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) she is unable to perform her “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv), 416.920(a)(4)(i- iv); see Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). If the ALJ determines the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, the ALJ will proceed to step five of the evaluation process. At step five the Commissioner must show 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. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         III. Background

         Ms. Garcia claimed she was limited in her ability to work due to: anxiety, depression, mood swings, asthma, leg pain, mobility problems, right wrist pain and weakness, high blood pressure, and dyslexia. (AR 236). At step one, the ALJ determined Ms. Garcia had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 11, 2011, the alleged onset date. (AR 16). At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Garcia has the following severe impairments: hypertension; “coronary artery disease status post left anterior descending drug-eluting stent placement;” acute anterior myocardial infarction; hyperlipidemia; esophageal reflux disease; obesity; anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified; and depressive disorder, not otherwise specified. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that none of Ms. Garcia's impairments, solely or in combination, equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926. (AR 16-18).

         At step four, the ALJ found that Ms. Garcia has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.967(a), with the limitations that Ms. Garcia can: lift, carry, push and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sit, stand, and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday; occasionally stoop; and frequently kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs. (AR 18). Additionally, the ALJ found Ms. Garcia: can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; should avoid exposure to unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, extreme heat, extreme cold, dust, odors, fumes, and pulmonary irritants; cannot operate a motor vehicle; is limited to simple, routine work that is performed indoors; cannot perform work at production pace, but can meet end of day goals; is limited to occasional contact with coworkers and members of the public; and is limited to work that does not require close proximity to others in order to avoid distraction. Id.

         In formulating Ms. Garcia's RFC, the ALJ stated that she considered Ms. Garcia's symptoms and the extent to which those symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with objective medical and other evidence, as required by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529 and 416.929, and Social Security Rulings (“SSR”) 96-4p and 96-7p. Id. The ALJ also stated that she considered opinion evidence in accordance with the requirements of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527 and 416.927 and SSRs 96-2p, 96-5p, 96-6p, and 06-3p. Id. The ALJ found that Ms. Garcia's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her symptoms are not entirely consistent with the evidence in the record. (AR 19).

         Turning to the medical evidence in the record, the ALJ assigned some weight to the opinion of consultative psychologist, Deborah Kos, Psy.D., stating that Dr. Kos “did not take into consideration [Ms. Garcia's] subjective complaints, which indicate that [Ms. Garcia] has more limitations on social functioning.” (AR 25). The ALJ also assigned some weight to the opinion of consultative physician, Sophia Skinner, M.D., because “it appears that she neither factored in [Ms. Garcia's] subjective complaints nor her medical history.” Id. Next, the ALJ assigned some weight to the opinions of state agency psychiatric consultant, Charles Mellon, M.D., and state agency psychological consultant, Charles F. Bridges, Ph.D., stating that “the medical evidence of record clearly demonstrates that [Ms. Garcia] is more limited in her mental functioning than they ...


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