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Cordova v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 9, 2018

ROXANNE ALEXANDRA CORDOVA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          STEPHAN M. VIDMAR United States Magistrate Judge .

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum [Doc. 19] (“Motion”), filed on February 7, 2018. The Commissioner responded on April 9, 2018. [Doc. 21]. Plaintiff replied on April 25, 2018. [Doc. 24]. The parties have consented to the undersigned's entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 9]. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) did not apply the correct legal standards in evaluating Dr. Walker's opinion. Accordingly, the Motion will be granted, and the case will be remanded for further proceedings. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (sentence four).

         Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision[1] 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). Courts must meticulously review the entire record but may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute their 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. The 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 a 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 [Commissioner]'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. FAA, 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (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 omitted).

         Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

          In order to qualify for disability benefits, a claimant 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a).

         When considering a disability application, the Commissioner is required to use a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 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) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; and (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) 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. § 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261. If she cannot show that her impairment meets or equals a Listing, but she proves that she is unable to perform her “past relevant work, ” the burden of proof then shifts to the Commissioner, at step five, to show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering her residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income on February 1, 2013. Tr. 11. She alleged a disability-onset date of January 1, 1999. Id. Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. ALJ Ann Farris held a hearing on December 8, 2015, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tr. 11, 25-58. Plaintiff appeared with her attorney. Id. The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”) Pamela A. Bowman. Id.

         The ALJ issued her unfavorable decision on March 30, 2016. Tr. 20. At step one she found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date of her application. Tr. 13. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's lupus, affective disorder, and aseptic necrosis of both hips were severe. Id. She further found that Plaintiff's migraine headaches and hypothyroidism were not severe. Id.

         At step three the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. Tr. 14-15. Because none of Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled a Listing, the ALJ went on to assess Plaintiff's RFC. Tr. 15-19. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had

the [RFC] to perform sedentary work (lift 10 pounds occasionally, stand/walk for two hours in an eight-hour workday[, ] and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday) as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §] 416.967(a) except she can handle and finger objects only frequently. [Plaintiff] is limited to simple, routine tasks and occasional interaction with the public.

Tr. 15.

         At step four the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. Tr. 19. Accordingly, the ALJ went on to consider Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, work experience, and the testimony of the VE at step five. Tr. 19-20. She found that Plaintiff could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy and, therefore, was not disabled. Id. Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council, but that request was denied on April 4, 2017. Tr. 1- 3. Plaintiff timely filed the instant action on June 5, 2017. [Doc. 1].

         Analysis

         Plaintiff fails to show error in the evaluation of her treating physician, Dr. Sibbitt. Nevertheless, remand is warranted because the ALJ erred in failing to explain why she rejected Dr. Walker's assessments of certain moderate limitations. Because proper evaluation of Dr. Walker's opinion may render moot Plaintiff's other alleged errors, the Court declines to pass on them at this time.

         I. Plaintiff fails to show reversible error in the evaluation of Dr. Sibbitt's treating opinion.

         Social Security regulations require that, in determining disability, the opinions of treating physicians be given controlling weight when those opinions are well-supported by the medical evidence and are consistent with the record. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2). This is known as the “treating physician rule.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1119. The idea is that a treating physician provides a “unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations, ” and therefore, a treating physician's opinion merits controlling weight. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 762 (10th Cir. 2003).

         In order to receive controlling weight, treating physician opinions must be both supported by medical evidence and consistent with the record. If not, the opinions may not merit controlling weight but still must be given deference and weighed using the following six factors:

(1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, including the treatment provided and the kind of examination or testing performed; (3) the degree to which the physician's opinion is supported by relevant evidence; (4) consistency between the opinion and the record as a whole;(5) whether or not the physician is a specialist in the area upon which an opinion is rendered; and (6) other factors brought to the ALJ's attention which tend to support or contradict the opinion.

Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1301 (10th Cir. 2003); see 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). However, not every factor is applicable in every case, nor should all six factors be seen as absolutely necessary. What is absolutely necessary, though, is that the ALJ give good reasons- reasons that are “sufficiently specific to [be] clear to any subsequent reviewers”-for the weight she ultimately assigns to the opinions. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1119; see 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2); Branum v. Barnhart, 385 F.3d 1268, 1275 (10th Cir. 2004).

         In sum, when properly rejecting a treating physician's opinion, an ALJ must follow two distinct phases. First, the ALJ must find that the opinion is not supported by medical evidence and/or is not consistent with the record. Second, the ALJ must still give deference to the opinion and weigh it according to the factors listed above. Like all ...


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