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Manzanares v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 18, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Deputy Commissioner for Operations of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on plaintiff Marie Manzanares's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 14), which was fully briefed on September 15, 2017. Docs. 16, 20, 21. The parties consented to my entering final judgment in this case. Doc. 24. Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to apply the correct legal standards in weighing the opinions of non-examining state agency psychologists Christal Janssen, Ph.D. and Carol Mohney, Ph.D. The Court therefore GRANTS Ms. Manzanares's motion and remands this case to the Commissioner for 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. Manzanares, currently age 35, attended special education classes and graduated from high school. AR 231, 236.[4] She has worked as a server, cashier, salesperson, medical records clerk, and an apartment leasing agent AR 64-65, 236. Ms. Manzanares filed applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) on August 6, 2012-alleging disability since July 17, 2012[5] due to bipolar disorder, depression, and attention deficit disorder (“ADD”). AR 195-210, 235. The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her claims initially on October 29, 2012. AR 122-28. The SSA denied her claims on reconsideration on March 25, 2013. AR 133-37. Ms. Manzanares requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR 138-40. On January 27, 2015, ALJ Ann Farris held a hearing. AR 35-69. ALJ Farris issued her unfavorable decision on May 26, 2015. AR 13-34.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Manzanares was insured for disability benefits through March 31, 2016. AR 18. At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Manzanares had not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since July 11, 2012, her alleged onset date. Id. Because Ms. Manzanares had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for at least twelve months, the ALJ proceeded to step two. AR 19. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Manzanares had the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder NOS (“not otherwise specified”) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”). Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Ms. Manzanares's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled a Listing. AR 19-21. Because the ALJ found that none of the impairments met a Listing, the ALJ assessed Ms. Manzanares's RFC. AR 21-27. The ALJ found that Ms. Manzanares

has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: the claimant can only make simple, work-related decisions with few workplace changes; she should not be required to have interactions with the general public; she should have only occasional and superficial interactions with co-workers; and she should not be required to work at a production pace (i.e., an assembly type job or tandem tasks).

AR 21.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Manzanares was unable to perform her past relevant work as a medical records worker, cashier, leasing agent, or sales representative. AR 27. The ALJ found Ms. Manzanares was not disabled at step five, concluding that she still could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy-such as addresser, shirt folder, and linen room attendant. AR 27-29.

         Ms. Manzanares requested review by the Appeals Council. AR 12. On November 4, 2016, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. AR 1-4. Ms. Manzanares timely filed her appeal to this Court on December 29, 2016.[6] Doc. 1.

         IV. Ms. Manzanares's Claims

         Ms. Manzanares raises three arguments for reversing and remanding this case: (1) the ALJ failed to provide legitimate reasons for rejecting the opinion of her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Roxana Raicu; (2) the ALJ failed to incorporate all of the moderate limitations opined by state agency non-examining psychologists Christal Janssen, Ph.D. and Carol Mohney, Ph.D.; and (3) the ALJ's step five finding is not supported by substantial evidence because she failed to conduct the analysis required in cases where the number of jobs available in the national economy is questionable. Doc. 14 at 12-23. Because the Court remands based on the ALJ's failure to properly analyze the opinions Drs. Janssen and Mohney, the Court does not address the other alleged errors, 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. The ALJ Erred in Failing to Either Incorporate, or Explain Why She Rejected, a Moderate Limitation Noted in the Medical Opinions of Drs. Janssen and Mohney.

         Although an ALJ need not discuss every piece of evidence, the ALJ must discuss the weight assigned to each medical source opinion. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161 (10th Cir. 2012) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e)(2)(ii), 416.927(e)(2)(ii)). Specifically, when assessing a plaintiff's RFC, an ALJ must explain what weight is assigned to each opinion and why. SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *5 (July 2, 1996).[7] “If the RFC assessment conflicts with an opinion from a medical source, the adjudicator must explain why the opinion was not adopted.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *7. “[T]here is no requirement in the regulations for a direct correspondence between an RFC finding and a specific medical opinion on [a specific] functional capacity” because “the ALJ, not a physician, is charged with determining a claimant's RFC from the medical record.” Chapo v. Astrue, 682 F.3d 1285, 1288 (10th Cir. 2012) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted)); see also Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061, 1071 (10th Cir. 2013) (“exact correspondence between a medical opinion and the mental RFC is not required”). Nevertheless, “[a]n ALJ is not entitled to pick and choose through an uncontradicted medical opinion, taking only the parts that are favorable to a finding of nondisability.” Chapo, 682 F.3d at 1292 (quoting Haga v. Astrue, 482 F.3d 1205, 1208 (10th Cir. 2007)). An ALJ “must discuss the uncontroverted evidence he chooses not to rely upon, as well as significantly probative evidence he rejects.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1010 (10th Cir. 1996). Ultimately, an ALJ is required to weigh medical source ...

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