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Gonzales v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 28, 2018

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


         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse or Remand Administrative Agency Decision (Doc. 15) filed on December 18, 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. 5, 7, 8. 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 June 4, 2013, Sara Jane Gonzalez (“Plaintiff”) filed an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (SSA), alleging disability beginning September 1, 2007. Administrative Record[1] (AR) at 71-73. Plaintiff's date last insured was September 30, 2007. AR at 72. Her claim was denied both initially (AR at 87-89) and on reconsideration (AR at 93-95). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on the merits of her application. AR at 98-99.

         In addition to Plaintiff, Leslie J. White, a vocational expert, and Steven Lovato, Plaintiff's son, also testified during the de novo hearing. See AR at 28. Plaintiff was represented by attorney Michael Armstrong. See AR at 28. ALJ Eric Weiss issued an unfavorable decision on March 24, 2016. AR at 14-20. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council (AR at 10), which the Council denied on March 30, 2017 (AR at 1-5). Consequently, the ALJ's 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 uses a 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.” Ryan v. Colvin, Civ. 15-0740 KBM, 2016 WL 8230660, at *2 (D.N.M. Sept. 29, 2016) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(B); 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” Plaintiff 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).

         Here, at Step One of the process, [2] the ALJ found that Plaintiff “did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of September 1, 2007 through her date last insured of September 30, 2007.” AR at 16 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1571-1576). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “had the following medically determinable impairments: depression and generalized anxiety.” AR at 16 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521-1523). He also determined, however, that “[t]hrough the date last insured, [Plaintiff] did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limited the ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months; therefore, the claimant did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.” AR at 17 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521-1523). Having determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability at Step Two, the ALJ did not proceed to any further steps in the sequential evaluation process. AR at 18-20.

         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. 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 quotation marks and 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 offers three reasons for reversal of the ALJ's unfavorable disability determination. First, she contends that the ALJ erred by finding her mental impairments not severe and by concluding the sequential evaluation at Step Two. Doc. 15 at 12-14. Second, she suggests that the ALJ breached his duty to develop the record to clarify ambiguities surrounding the extent of her mental impairments during the relevant time period. Id. at 14-15. Finally, she maintains that the ALJ failed to properly consider lay testimony concerning when Plaintiff manifested psychological problems and the nature of those problems. Id. at 23-26.

         A. The ALJ properly found Plaintiff's mental impairments to be non- severe.

         At Step Two of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the medically determinable mental impairments of depression and generalized anxiety. AR at 16-17. Significantly, however, he determined that these impairments were not severe through her date last insured. AR at 16-17. Because a claimant must establish disability on or before her date last insured in order to receive disability benefits, see Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1139 (10th Cir. 2010), Plaintiff must establish a disability on or before September 30, 2007. But, as the ALJ explains:

[t]his case presents a narrow window of time during which disabling impairments would need to be proven in order to prevail. With an alleged onset date of September 1, 2007 and a date last insured of September 30, 2007, one would normally look for a run-up of medical documentation that shows severity peaking around the time of alleged onset. Here, however, records from the relevant time period are few and quite benign.

         AR at 20. Indeed, the record does not reveal any visits by Plaintiff with her treating physician, Ana Rodriguez, M.D., in September 2007, though Plaintiff did see Dr. Rodriguez both before and after this time period. Given the significance of Plaintiff's 2006 and 2007 medical records to the disability determination, the Court will detail their contents.

         In January of 2006, about a year and a half prior to Plaintiff's alleged onset of disability, Plaintiff presented to Dr. Rodriguez for an initial appointment. AR at 697-99. Among other issues, she reported experiencing anxiety and depression, and she recounted that she had been seen by a therapist and treated with medication two and a half years prior. AR at 697. According to Plaintiff, she had taken the prescribed medication for a “very short period of time.” AR at 697. She explained that symptoms of depression and anxiety, having been untreated for two and a half years, were recurring. AR at 697. More particularly, she reported isolating herself, experiencing ...

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