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Lopez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 2, 2018

STEPHAN LOPEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JERRY H. RITTER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Stephan Lopez' Motion to Reverse or Remand [Doc. 15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15], filed March 6, 2018');">18. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73(b), the parties have consented to have me serve as the presiding judge and enter final judgment. [Doc. 14]. Having reviewed the parties' submissions, the relevant law, and the relevant portions of the Administrative Record, the Court will deny Mr. Lopez' Motion.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This Court's institutional role is to ensure that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision in a Social Security appeal complied with the relevant legal standards and was supported by substantial evidence. Mr. Lopez contends that neither standard was met by the ALJ in his case. In support, he argues that the ALJ failed to include adaptation limitations found by a consultative examiner in his residual functional capacity (“RFC”), failed to properly weigh the opinions of his treating nurse practitioner when formulating his RFC, and omitted a severe impairment from his Step Two analysis. [Doc. 15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15, p. 3]. Thus, Mr. Lopez asks the Court to reverse the ALJ's finding of nondisability and remand his case for further proceedings by the Administration. However, for the following reasons, the Court finds that Mr. Lopez has failed to demonstrate harmful, reversible error, and so affirms the ALJ's denial of disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits in this case.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Mr. Lopez filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on April 4, 2014. AR at 198-207.[1] Mr. Lopez alleged a disability onset date of January 1, 2013, AR at 249, due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Bipolar Disorder, and Hepatitis C. AR at 70. The Administration denied Mr. Lopez' claims initially and upon reconsideration, and he requested a de novo hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). AR at 70-115');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15, 131.

         ALJ James Bentley (“the ALJ”) held a hearing on September 8, 2016, at which Mr. Lopez and a Vocational Expert (“VE”) testified. AR at 37-58. Thereafter, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 20, 2016. AR at 17-36. Mr. Lopez requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council; however, on August 25, 2017, the Council denied his request for review. AR at 1-5. As such, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003). This Court now has jurisdiction to review the decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a).

         A claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that he 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); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">1505(a), 416.905(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).[2]

         At Step One of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Lopez has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. AR at 22. At Step Two, he determined that Mr. Lopez has the following severe impairments: “posttraumatic stress disorder; attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder; bipolar disorder; polysubstance abuse (in remission); [and] personality disorder[.]” AR at 22. The ALJ so found after review of Mr. Lopez' medical records from the Bureau of Prisons and recent mental health treatment notes authored by Stuart Cline, LPCC, and Patricia Drey, PMHMP-BC. However, pertinent here, the ALJ found Mr. Lopez' Hepatitis C to be nonsevere. AR at 24. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Lopez' impairments do not meet or medically equal the regulatory “listings.” AR at 24-26.

         When a claimant does not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine his residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">1520(e), 416.920(e). “RFC is not the least an individual can do despite his or her limitations or restrictions, but the most.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 37418');">184, at *1. In this case, the ALJ determined that Mr. Lopez retains the RFC to “perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: simple tasks with routine supervision; able to relate to coworkers and supervisors on a superficial work-basis only; but, cannot have work-related contact with the public.” AR at 26. Employing this RFC at Steps Four and Five, and relying on the testimony of the VE, the ALJ determined that Mr. Lopez retains the residual functional capacity to return to his past relevant work as a kitchen helper, and, furthermore, that there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he can perform. AR at 29-30. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Mr. Lopez retains the capacity to work as a laundry worker, industrial sweeper/cleaner, or hand packager. AR at 30. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Mr. Lopez has not been under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act from his alleged onset date through the date of his decision and denied benefits. AR at 31.

         III. LEGAL STANDARDS

         This Court “review[s] the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Vigil v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 1199, 1201 (10th Cir. 2015');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15) (quoting Mays v. Colvin, 739 F.3d 569, 571 (10th Cir. 2014)). A deficiency in either area is grounds for remand. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 115');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">156, 1161 (10th Cir. 2012). “‘Substantial evidence' means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Racette v. Berryhill, 734 Fed.Appx. 592, 595 (10th Cir. 2018');">18) (quoting Howard v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 945, 947 (10th Cir. 2004)). “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). The Court reviews the record as a whole, does not reweigh the evidence, and cannot substitute its judgment for that of the agency. White v. Berryhill, 704 Fed.Appx. 774, 776 (10th Cir. 2017) (citing Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008)). Moreover, “merely technical omissions in the ALJ's reasoning do not dictate reversal. In conducting [my] review, [I] should, indeed must, exercise common sense.” Keyes-Zachary, 695 F.3d at 1166.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Mr. Lopez argues that the ALJ erred in three ways. [See Doc. 15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15');">15, p. 3]. First, Mr. Lopez argues that the ALJ failed to include all his limitations, as identified by consultative examiner John Owen, Ph.D., in the RFC finding. [Id., pp. 3, 8-9]. Second, Mr. Lopez argues that the ALJ failed to afford proper weight to the opinions of Nurse Practitioner Patricia Drey. [Id., pp. 3, 9-12]. Finally, Mr. Lopez argues that the ALJ improperly relied on the opinions of Jeffrey Glassheim, D.O., in finding that his Hepatitis C is non-severe. [Id., pp. 3, 12-13]. The Court addresses each argument in turn.

         A) The ALJ did not err in affording Dr. Owen's findings only “significant, ” rather than “great, ” weight and in rejecting his adaptation limitations.

         Dr. Owen examined Mr. Lopez at the Administration's request on June 25, 2014. See AR at 356-358. Dr. Owen obtained Mr. Lopez' psychosocial history, which included noting Mr. Lopez' then-present use of both methamphetamine and heroin and his history of incarceration. AR at 357. After interviewing Mr. Lopez, Dr. Owen administered a Mini-Mental State Examination, on which Mr. Lopez scored a 27 out of a maximum 30 points, even though he admitted to using heroin the morning of the examination. AR at 357. Dr. Owen diagnosed Mr. Lopez with Opioid Use Disorder, ongoing; Methamphetamine Use Disorder, ongoing; Posttraumatic Stress Disorder; Personality Disorder; Cluster A Traits; Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity Disorder, combined type, provisional; and Bipolar Disorder (NOS), provisional. AR at 357. Pertinent here, in Dr. Owen's “statement of opinion of abilities, ” he indicated that Mr. Lopez would have the following limitations:

1. Understand and Remember
A. Detailed or complex instructions: moderate ...

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