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Saiz v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 1, 2019

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



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Julie Catana Saiz' Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum [Doc. 15');">15], filed September 5, 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 serving as the presiding judge and entering final judgment. [Docs. 5, 7, 9]. Having studied the parties' submissions, the relevant law, and the relevant portions of the Administrative Record, [1] the Court will deny the 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. Ms. Saiz argues that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who denied her claim failed to meet these deferential standards by improperly rejecting the functional limitations identified by one of her treating counselors, Juan Casaus, MA, LPCC. However, having reviewed Mr. Casaus' treatment notes and the ALJ's rationale for rejecting his opinions in her decision, the Court is not convinced that the ALJ erred. To the contrary, the ALJ's reasons for rejecting Mr. Casaus' opinions are supported by substantial evidence. As such, the ALJ's decision must be affirmed.


         Ms. Saiz filed an application with the Social Security Administration for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act on July 18, 2014. AR at 147. She alleged a disability onset date of August 10, 2013, the day she stopped working, due to Depression, Anxiety and Hepatitis-C. AR at 60, 147. Ms. Saiz most recently worked as a title clerk at an automobile dealership. AR at 34. She testified that she can no longer work in this capacity because she started having panic attacks associated with stress. AR at 34-35.

         The agency denied Ms. Saiz' claims initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a de novo hearing before an ALJ. AR at 59-93. ALJ Ann Farris held an evidentiary hearing on December 9, 2016. AR at 29-58. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on March 29, 2017. AR at 12-28. Ms. Saiz submitted a Request for Review of the ALJ's Decision to the Appeals Council, which the Council denied on March 14, 2018. AR at 1-11. 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 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. § 404.15');">1505(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.15');">1520(a)(4).[2]

         At Step One of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Saiz has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. AR at 17. At Step Two, she determined that Ms. Saiz has the severe impairments of “anxiety, depression, substance abuse now in remission, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[.]” AR at 15');">15. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Saiz' impairments, individually and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the regulatory “listings.” AR at 18-19. Ms. Saiz does not challenge these findings on appeal. [See generally Doc. 15');">15].

         When a claimant does not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine her residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.15');">1520(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 Ms. Saiz retains the RFC to “perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she is limited to simple, work-related decisions with few workplace changes. She should not be required to have interaction with the general public. She can have occasional, superficial interaction with co-workers.” AR at 19.

         Employing this RFC at Steps Four and Five, and relying on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Saiz is unable to perform her past relevant work as an accounts payable clerk, food supervisor, bath attendant, customer service representative, or license clerk. AR at 22. However, the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Ms. Saiz can perform, despite her limitations. AR at 23-24. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Ms. Saiz retains the capacity to work as an addresser, flat work tier, or prep cook. AR at 23-24. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Saiz is not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act, and denied benefits. AR at 24.

         III. Legal Standards

         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');">15) (quoting Mays 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, 15');">156');">695 F.3d 115');">156, 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. ...

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