United States District Court, D. New Mexico
HONORABLE GREGORY J. FOURATT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
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. 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
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.
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
then requested a hearing, which was held before ALJ Lillian
Richter in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in November 2016. AR 33,
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.
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.
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.
Standard of Review
the Appeals Council denies a claimant's request for
review, the ALJ's decision becomes the final decision of
the agency. 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))).
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).
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).
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).
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
Sequential Evaluation Process
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).
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 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.
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,
ALJ'S FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
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.
Steps One through Three
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
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,  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.
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.
Residual Functional Capacity
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.”). 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
[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 ...