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Vialpando v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 25, 2019

CANDACE MELANIE VIALPANDO, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER [1]

          STEVEN C. YARBROUGH UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 17) filed July 31, 2018, in support of Plaintiff Candace Melanie Vialpando's Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking review of the decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying Plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. On November 30, 2018, Plaintiff filed her Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing With Supporting Memorandum (“Motion”). Doc. 24. The Commissioner filed a Brief in Response on February 25, 2019 (Doc. 28), and Plaintiff filed a Reply on March 18, 2019 (Doc. 30). The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the applicable law and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds the Motion is not well taken and is DENIED.

         I. Background and Procedural Record

         Claimant Candace Melanie Vialpando suffers from the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, coagulation disorder, and affective disorder. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 15. She alleges that she became disabled as of August 8, 2012. AR 15. She earned a bachelor's degree in education and used to work a school teacher but was terminated by the school district due to her absences. AR 42-43, 214.

         On February 18, 2015, Ms. Vialpando filed a claim of disability under Title II of the Social Security Act. AR 180. Her application was denied on May 12, 2015 (AR 117), and upon reconsideration on September 15, 2015 (AR 124). Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Michael Leppala conducted a hearing on January 23, 2017. AR 28-68. Ms. Vialpando appeared in person at the hearing with attorney representative Michelle Baca. Id. The ALJ took testimony from Ms. Vialpando and an impartial vocational expert, Marsha Heald. Id.

         On May 3, 2017, ALJ Leppala issued an unfavorable decision. AR 10-22. On March 22, 2018, the Appeals Council issued its decision denying Ms. Vialpando's request for review and upholding the ALJ's final decision. AR 1-6. On May 5, 2018, Ms. Vialpando timely filed a Complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. Doc. 1. Because the parties are familiar with Plaintiff's medical history, the Court reserves discussion of the medical records relevant to this appeal for its analysis.

         II. Applicable Law

         A. Disability Determination Process

         An individual is considered disabled if 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) (pertaining to disability insurance benefits); see also Id. § 1382(a)(3)(A) (pertaining to supplemental security income disability benefits for adult individuals). The Social Security Commissioner has adopted the familiar five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”) to determine whether a person satisfies the statutory criteria as follows:

(1) At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.”[2] If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled regardless of his medical condition.
(2) At step two, the ALJ must determine the severity of the claimed physical or mental impairment(s). If the claimant does not have an impairment(s) or combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, he is not disabled.
(3) At step three, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant's impairment(s) meets or equals in severity one of the listings described in Appendix 1 of the regulations and meets the duration requirement. If so, a claimant is presumed disabled.
(4) If, however, the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal in severity one of the listing described in Appendix 1 of the regulations, the ALJ must determine at step four whether the claimant can perform his “past relevant work.” Answering this question involves three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ considers all of the relevant medical and other evidence and determines what is “the most [claimant] can still do despite [his physical and mental] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). This is called the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Id. §§ 404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a)(3). Second, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands of claimant's past work. Third, the ALJ determines whether, given claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of meeting those demands. A claimant who is capable of returning to past relevant work is not disabled.
(5) If the claimant does not have the RFC to perform his past relevant work, the Commissioner, at step five, must show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. If the Commissioner is unable to make that showing, the claimant is deemed disabled. If, however, the Commissioner is able to make the required showing, the claimant is deemed not disabled.

See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (disability insurance benefits); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) (supplemental security income disability benefits); Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005).

         The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a disability in the first four steps of this analysis. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146, n.5, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2294, n. 5, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy. Id. A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

         B. Standard of Review

         This Court must affirm the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits unless (1) the decision is not supported by “substantial evidence” or (2) the ALJ did not apply the proper legal standards in reaching the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); Casias, 933 F.2d at 800-01. In making these determinations, the Court “neither reweigh[s] the evidence nor substitute[s] [its] judgment for that of the agency.'” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008). “[W]hatever the meaning of ‘substantial' in other contexts, the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 2019 WL 1428885, at *3, __ S.Ct. __, (U.S. Apr. 1, 2019). Substantial evidence “is ‘more than a mere scintilla.'” Id. (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). “It means-and means only- such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         A decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record, ” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118, or “constitutes mere conclusion, ” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). The agency decision must “provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005). Therefore, although an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence, “the record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence, ” and “the [ALJ's] reasons for finding a claimant not disabled” must be “articulated with sufficient particularity.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996). But where the reviewing court “can follow the adjudicator's reasoning” in conducting its review, “and can determine that correct legal standards have been applied, merely technical omissions in the ALJ's reasoning do not dictate reversal.” Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1166 (10th Cir. 2012). The court “should, indeed must, exercise common sense.” Id. “The more comprehensive the ALJ's explanation, the easier [the] task; but [the court] cannot insist on technical perfection.” Id.

         III. Analysis

         In support of her Motion to Remand, Ms. Vialpando argues: the ALJ impermissibly disregarded limitations in a state agency non-examining consultant's opinion and failed to sufficiently credit the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Dean. The Court does not find either argument compelling and affirms the ALJ's decision.

         A. The ALJ Did Not Improperly Disregard the State Agency Consultant's Opinion.

         State agency consultant Carol Mohney Ph.D, evaluated Ms. Vialpando's medical records on April 30, 2015. AR 86-90. Dr. Mohney reviewed and discussed the medical evidence and, in answering questions relating to Ms. Vialpando's mental residual functional capacity assessment (“MRFCA”), assessed in worksheet format the following “moderate limitations”[3]:

. The ability to understand and remember very short and simple ...

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