United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
H. RITTER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. §
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. §§
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.
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
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
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.
The ALJ did not err in affording Dr. Owen's findings only
“significant, ” rather than “great, ”
weight and in rejecting his adaptation limitations.
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
1. Understand and Remember
A. Detailed or complex instructions: moderate ...