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Lee v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 20, 2019

GABRIEL LEE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Gabriel Lee's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum [Doc. 18], filed August 3, 2018. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73(b), the parties have consented to the undersigned Magistrate Judge to conduct dispositive proceedings in this matter and enter final judgment. [Docs. 5, 7, 8]. Having reviewed the parties' submissions, the relevant law, and the relevant portions of the Administrative Record, [1] the Court will deny Mr. Lee's Motion.


         This Court's institutional role in a social security appeal is specific and narrow. This Court must affirm the decision of the Acting Commissioner where it is shown to be supported by substantial evidence and is free from harmful legal error. Mr. Lee argues that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") who denied his claim failed to meet these deferential standards by improperly weighing his treating psychologist's opinion, failing to incorporate moderate limitations found by the Administration's non-examining physician into his residual functional capacity ("RFC"), and declining to conduct a drug addiction and alcoholism ("DAA") assessment after concluding that Mr. Lee is not disabled despite his alcoholism. [See Doc. 18, p. 2]. The Court, however, finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision to only afford "some weight" to Mr. Lee's treating psychologist, and that Mr. Lee's alternative arguments for reversal are foreclosed by binding case law. Therefore, the decision of the Acting Commissioner must be affirmed.


         Mr. Lee filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on November 9 and 10, 2015. AR at 215-222. Mr. Lee alleged a disability onset date of July 21, 2014, due to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder; Major Depressive Disorder; Traumatic Brain Injury; Anxiety; Chronic Headaches; and, "painful tingling in arms and hands." AR at 255. The Administration denied Mr. Lee's claims initially and upon reconsideration, and he requested a de novo hearing before an ALL AR at 79-158.

         ALJ Michael Leppala held a hearing on July 11, 2017, at which Mr. Lee and a Vocational Expert ("VE") testified. AR at 30-78. Thereafter, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on November 16, 2017. AR at 10-29. Mr. Lee requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, but on January 13, 2018, 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).[2]

         At Step One of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Lee has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. AR at 16. At Step Two, he determined that Mr. Lee has the following severe impairments: affective disorder, anxiety disorder and alcohol addiction disorder. AR at 16. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Lee's impairments do not meet or medically equal the regulatory "listings." AR at 17-18. Mr. Lee does not challenge these findings on appeal.

         When a claimant does not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine his residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(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 374184, at *1. In this case, the ALJ determined that Mr. Lee retains the RFC to:

perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-ex ertional limitations: can understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions and make commensurate work-related decisions, respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and work situations, deal with routine changes in work setting, maintain concentration, persistence, and pace for up to and including two hours at a time with normal breaks throughout a normal workday. He is limited to superficial interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public.

AR at 18. Employing this RFC at Steps Four and Five, and relying on the testimony of the VE, the ALJ determined that Mr. Lee can return to his past relevant work as a line cook and dishwasher, precluding benefits at Step Four. AR at 22. However, the ALJ also determined that there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Lee can perform, precluding benefits at Step Five. AR at 23. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Mr. Lee retains the capacity to work as a machine cleaner and landscape specialist. AR at 23. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Mr. Lee is not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act, and denied benefits. AR at 24.


         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) (quoting Marys v. Colvin, 739 F.3d 569, 571 (10th Cir. 2014)). "[I]n making this determination, [this Court] cannot reweigh the evidence or substitute [its] judgment for the administrative law judge's." Smith v. Colvin, 821 F.3d 1264, 1266 (10th Cir. 2016). The Court must exercise "common sense" when determining whether the substantial evidence standard has been met; if the Court can follow the ALJ's reasoning, the decision must stand. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1166 (10th Cir. 2012). The standard for a decision to be supported by substantial evidence is low. '"Substantial evidence' means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." 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).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Mr. Lee argues that the ALJ should have given greater weight to the opinions of his treating psychologist, Gabriel Longhi, Psy.D. [Doc. 18, p. 2]. Mr. Lee also argues that the ALJ erred by improperly picking and choosing among the moderate limitations found by non-examining consultant Scott Walker, M.D. Finally, Mr. Lee argues that the ALJ was required to conduct a DAA evaluation in his case, and failed to do so. The Court disagrees.

         A. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision to only give "some weight" to Dr. Longhi's opinions.

         Under law, "[i]t is the ALJ's duty to give consideration to all the medical opinions in the record. ... He must also discuss the weight he assigns to such opinions." Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue,695 F.3d 1156, 1161 (10th Cir. 2012) (citations omitted). Mr. Lee does not argue that the ALJ failed to comply with this requirement, only that the ALJ ...

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