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Campos v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 30, 2018

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff Alejandro Campos's (“Plaintiff's”) Motion to Reverse or Remand (“Motion”). ECF No. 16. The Motion is fully briefed. See ECF Nos. 17 (Commissioner's Response), 20 (Plaintiff's Reply). Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the parties' briefing, the Court concludes that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) ruling should be AFFIRMED. Therefore, and for the reasons articulated below, the Court will DENY the Motion.


         Plaintiff was born November 24, 1975. Administrative Record (“AR”) 71. He graduated from high school and completed four years of college. AR 39. He worked as a professional skier, chef, kitchen manager, and tugboat deck hand. AR 26, 39-44. In May 2013, Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), claiming he suffered from a disabling condition that began on January 1, 2011. AR 238-43. Assisted by counsel, Plaintiff claimed that his disability resulted from following impairments: hepatitis C; sarcoidosis; lymphoma; acute pancreatitis; problems with his right shoulder, arm, wrist, hand, and knee and with his left foot; a lumbar spine fracture, depression, and a brain injury. AR 238, 272-73.

         In December 2013, the SSA denied Plaintiff's claim, concluding that he had the capacity to “sustain work activity with a light exertional level” and that “[n]o evidence of mental impairment” existed. AR 74, 87. Regarding Plaintiff's physical functioning, State agency physician Colleen Ryan, M.D. noted that the severity of symptoms alleged by Plaintiff “appear[ed] inconsistent with reports of continued participation in extreme biking and other sports.” AR 81, 93-94 (referring to “10/23/13 cancer center note addendum, ” which stated Plaintiff “still continue[d] to participate in extreme sports, had a few injuries from biking accidents from the extreme sports in Colorado; otherwise has maintained fairly good functionality”). After reviewing the record, Dr. Ryan concluded that Plaintiff could perform light exertional work. AR 77-81, 90-94; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) (defining “light work”).

         Regarding Plaintiff's mental functioning, State agency psychiatrist Thomas VanHoose, Ph.D., observed that, in the preceding two years, Plaintiff “ha[d] seen his TS [treating source] multiple times and [made] no complaints of mental impairment or deficits.” AR 76, 89. After reviewing the record, Dr. VanHoose concluded that “given the overall evidence, [Plaintiff] is not credible in regards to mental impairment and no further development is warranted.” AR 75-76, 88-89.

         In April 2014, upon Plaintiff's request for reconsideration, the SSA again denied his claims. AR 135, 137, 143. Regarding Plaintiff's physical functioning, State agency physician Kenneth Glass, M.D., reviewed all of the evidence on file and stated, “[b]ased on the totality of the evidence in file the prior medical analysis was correct. The new evidence presented at recon[sideration] levels does not constitute a bas[is] to add any new physical limitations; therefore, the original analysis is hereby affirmed as written.” AR 104; see also AR 110, 117, 124.

         Regarding Plaintiff's mental functioning, State agency psychiatrist Suzanne Castro, PsyD., also reviewed all of the evidence and affirmed the previous analysis, concluding that Plaintiff did not allege “any changes, worsening, or new conditions [nor] sought mental health treatment since the initial level of the claim.” AR 105, 119.

         Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which was held before ALJ Eric Weiss in Albuquerque in May 2016. AR 17.[1] Assisted at this stage by a non-attorney representative, Plaintiff testified at the hearing, as did Cornelius J. Ford, an impartial vocational expert. AR 35-59. In July 2016, “after careful consideration of all of the evidence, ” the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. AR 17.[2]

         Plaintiff sought relief with the SSA's Appeals Council. In September 2017, the Appeals Council found, among other things, no abuse of discretion by the ALJ, no error of law, and no lack of substantial evidence. AR 1. It therefore denied Plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision and affirmed that decision as the Commissioner's final decision. Id.

         Plaintiff then timely filed suit in October 2017, asking this Court to reverse the decision of the Commissioner or to remand the case for a rehearing. ECF No. 1; Pl.'s Mot. 11-15.


         Plaintiff asserts three grounds for relief. First, in a five-page questionnaire completed one week before the ALJ hearing in May 2016, a physician assistant rated Plaintiff's mental capacities to do work and, among other things, rated Plaintiff as not meeting “competitive standards” in several areas.[3] Plaintiff claims that the ALJ was required to more thoroughly discuss-and give greater weight to-the opinion of this physician assistant as expressed in this questionnaire. Pl.'s Mot. 11-12. Plaintiff's second contention focuses on additional medical treatment records, primarily documenting his subjective assessments of pain on various outpatient visits, which were created after the written opinions of two state agency physicians. AR 383, 1296-1328.[4] Plaintiff argues that, in light of these additional records, the ALJ gave too much weight to the opinions of these state agency physician and did so without an adequate explanation. Id. at 13. Third, Plaintiff cites to a typographical error in the ALJ's decision[5] and claims that the ALJ failed to perform a proper “function-by-function assessment” by not considering whether Plaintiff had a limited abilit y to sit. Id. at 13-14.


         A. Standard of Review

         When the Appeals Council denies a claimant's request for review, the ALJ's decision becomes the final decision of the agency.[6] The Court's review of that final agency decision is both legal and factual. See Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008) (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)) (“The standard of review in a social security appeal is whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence.”)

         In determining whether the correct legal standards were applied, the Court reviews “whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). The Court may reverse and remand if the ALJ failed “to apply the correct legal standards, or to show . . . that she has done so.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996).

         The factual findings are conclusive “if supported by substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). Substantial evidence does not require a preponderance of the evidence. See Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)). Furthermore, a court is to “review only the sufficiency of the evidence, not its weight[.]” Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1257 (10th Cir. 2007) (emphasis in original). An ALJ's 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.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. A court should meticulously review the entire record but should neither “reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118 (quoting Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991)); Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214.

         Ultimately, if the correct legal standards were applied and substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings, the Commissioner's decision stands and Plaintiff is not entitled to relief. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214, Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760.

         B. 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).

         The SSA has devised a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4) (2018); Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25 (2003). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257 (10th Cir. 2005); Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-51 (10th Cir. 1988). In the first four steps, the claimant must show (1) that “he is not presently engaged in substantial gainful activity;” (2) that “he has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments, ” (3) that the impairment is equivalent to a listed impairment;[7] and (4) that “the impairment or combination of impairments prevents him from performing his past work.” Williams, 844 F.2d at 750-51; Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         If the claimant meets these burdens, the burden of proof then shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant retains sufficient “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) “to perform other work in the national economy in view of his age, education, and work experience.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 142, 146, n5.


         In his July 2016 written decision, the ALJ noted that he carefully considered “all of the evidence” and “the entire record” before him. AR 17, 19. In his “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, ” the ALJ discussed the evidence and opinions that led to his decision. AR 17, 19-27.

         Before beginning his analysis, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff only had sufficient quarters of insurance coverage to remain insured through December 31, 2013, and that Plaintiff would thus have to establish that a disability existed on or before that date to be entitled to benefits. AR 17. However, the ALJ ultimately found that Plaintiff was not under a disability from January 1, 2011, through the date of the ALJ's decision on July 6, 2016. Id.

         A. Steps One through Three

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since January 1, 2011, the alleged onset date of his disability. AR 19. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “gastroesophagheal reflux disease (GERD) status post-laparoscopic Nissen Fundoplication (on February 12, 2014); sarcoidosis; right knee status post-anterior ligament reconstruction; osteoarthritis; obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia; chronic pain syndrome; depression; and anxiety.” AR 19. The ALJ also found that Plaintiffs “hepatitis C, obesity, hypertension, and traumatic brain injury” were not severe in nature and explained his findings with appropriate references to the record. AR 20.[8]

         At step three, the ALJ found no impairment or combination thereof satisfied the criteria of a listed impairment, and he discussed the relevant evidence in explaining his finding. AR 20-22.

         B. Residual Functional Capacity

         Before performing the step four analysis, in which the ALJ considers whether a claimant can perform past work, the ALJ must first determine the claimant's RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (“Before we go from step three to step four, we assess your residual functional capacity.”).[9] Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a range of light work as defined in the ...

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