United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
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
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 (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.
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).
Applicable Law and the ALJ's Findings
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).
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. §
at Step One of the process,  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
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)).
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)).
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.
The ALJ properly found Plaintiff's mental impairments to
be non- severe.
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
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
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 ...