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Franco v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 3, 2019

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff Christina Franco's (“Plaintiff's”) “Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency for Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum” (“Motion”). ECF No. 20. The Motion is fully briefed. See ECF Nos. 22 (Commissioner's Response), 23 (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 January 17, 1984. Administrative Record (“AR”) 81. She completed formal education through the seventh grade. AR 272. She has worked as a caregiver and a cashier. AR 35-37, 58-60, 262. She testified in November 2016 that she lived alone with her four children, then ages 8 to 17. AR 38.[1] In February 2016, Plaintiff applied for Supplemental Security Income with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), claiming she suffered from a disability beginning on January 1, 2014. AR 204.[2] Plaintiff claimed that her disability resulted from the following impairments: hypothyroidism, major depression disorder, fibromyalgia, anxiety, rheumatoid arthritis, back pain, leg cramps, and muscle spasms. AR 96, 271.

         In April 2016, the SSA denied Plaintiff's claim, concluding Plaintiff had the physical capacity to perform “[m]edium forms of work” and the mental capacity to perform “at least unskilled types of work.” AR 103, 113. In July 2016, upon Plaintiff's request for reconsideration, the SSA again denied her claims, once more concluding that Plaintiff had the physical capacity to perform “[m]edium” levels of work and the mental capacity to perform “[s]imple” types of work. AR 123, 133.

         Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which was held before ALJ Lillian Richter in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in November 2016. AR 33, 151.[3] Assisted by counsel, Plaintiff testified at the hearing, as did Mary Weber, an impartial vocational expert. AR 33, 35, 72. In March 2017, “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.[4]

         Plaintiff then sought relief with the SSA's Appeals Council. AR 202-03. In June 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 timely petitioned this Court for relief in August 2017, alleging the Commissioner's final decision was “erroneous as a matter of law and regulation.” Pl.'s Compl. 1-2, ECF No. 1.


         Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred by failing to “properly evaluate” three items. Pl.'s Mot. 5, ECF No. 20. First, Plaintiff asserts that, although the ALJ found fibromyalgia to be a “severe impairment, ” the ALJ nevertheless failed to properly evaluate its severity. Id. Second, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ did not properly evaluate medical opinion evidence. Pl.'s Mot. 5-11. Specifically, she argues that the ALJ gave too much weight to a physician's opinion that Plaintiff had no physical limitations and that the ALJ's resulting finding is not supported by substantial evidence. Pl.'s Mot. 6-10. She also argues that the ALJ did not adopt a portion of a psychologist's opinion-namely that Plaintiff's mental impairments “might impact her ability to be a dependable employee”-and failed to explain why. Pl.'s Mot. 10-11; AR 571. Third, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ did not properly evaluate her own testimony about her symptoms. Pl.'s Mot. 11-12.


         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.[5] 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) (“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.” (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992))).

         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 Commissioner's findings “as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 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) (quoting Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003)). It does not require a preponderance of evidence. See Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)). An ALJ's decision, however, “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 v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004).

         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. 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).

         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. § 416.905(a).

         The SSA has devised a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); 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 & n.5 (1987); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005); Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-51, 751 n.2 (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, ” and either (3) that the impairment is equivalent to a listed impairment[6] or (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 has advanced through step four, 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, n.5.


         In her March 2017 written decision, the ALJ affirmed that she carefully considered “all the evidence, ” “the complete medical history, ” and “the entire record” before her. AR 12, 14, 17. In her “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, ” the ALJ discussed the evidence and opinions that led to her decision. AR 14-25.

         A. Steps One through Three

          At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since February 2, 2016, the date she applied for disability. AR 14.[7] At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “obstructive sleep apnea; obesity; plantar fasciitis of the left foot; arthralgias, including back pain and generalized joint pain; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; fibromyalgia; and depressive disorder.” Id. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's visual impairment, [8] hypothyroidism, and “right fifth metatarsal avulsion fracture” were not severe in nature and explained these findings with appropriate references to the record. AR 14-15.

         At step three, the ALJ found no impairment or combination thereof satisfied the criteria of a listed impairment, and she discussed the relevant evidence in explaining this finding. AR 15-17.

         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 CF.R. § 416.1920(a)(4) (“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 “light work” as defined in the regulations. AR 17; see also 20 CF.R. § 416.967(a)-(e) (defining the physical exertion requirements of various levels of work). Specifically, regarding Plaintiffs physical capacities, the ALJ found the following RFC:

[Plaintiff] can lift, carry, push and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, and can stand/walk for 6 hours and sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour day. Additionally, she can frequent [sic] reach, handle and finger bilaterally.

Id. Regarding Plaintiffs mental capacities, the ALJ found the following RFC:

[S]he is limited to simple, routine and repetitive work; limited to making simple work related decisions in a workplace with few changes in the routine work setting; limited to occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers and the general public. The claimant cannot perform work in tandem with other ...

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