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Vigil v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 24, 2019

MICHAEL A. VIGIL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration,

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          THE HONORABLE GREGORY J. FOURATT, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff Michael Anthony Vigil's (“Plaintiff's”) “Motion to Reverse or Remand Administrative Agency Decision” [ECF 18] (“Motion”). The Motion is fully briefed.[1] 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.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1982. Administrative Record (“AR”) 198. He has an associate degree in electronic technology and has worked in a number of jobs, including sheet metal production, hand packaging, retail store management, and sales. AR 39, 59-60. Plaintiff stopped working in September 2014, and on January 12, 2015, he applied for social security disability benefits, claiming he suffered from a disability that began four days earlier. AR 198, 228; see also AR 120, 200, 207. He claimed that his disability resulted from five conditions: fibromyalgia, chronic pain, severe anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). AR 228.

         In May 2015, the Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Plaintiff's claim, concluding that Plaintiff had the physical capacity to perform “medium” forms of work and the mental capacity for “unskilled” types of work. AR 73-76, 85-88. In August 2015, upon Plaintiff's request for reconsideration, the SSA again denied his claims and again concluded that Plaintiff was able to perform “medium” and “unskilled” work. AR 99-103, 112-116.

         Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held in January 2017 before ALJ Doug Gabbard II. AR 33. Assisted by counsel, Plaintiff testified at the hearing, as did Melissa Brassfield, a vocational expert. AR 33, 38, 58. In March 2017, “after careful consideration of all the evidence, ” the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. AR 17.[2]

         Plaintiff sought relief with the SSA's Appeals Council. AR 197. In March 2018, 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 4. 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 May 2018, alleging he was “severely and irreparably disabled by multiple impairments” and that the ALJ's decision “lack[ed] substantial support in the evidence.” Pl.'s Compl. 1-2, ECF 1.

         II. PLAINTIFF'S CLAIMS

         Plaintiff's fundamental claim is that the ALJ erred in concluding that Plaintiff, despite his impairments and alleged symptoms, nevertheless had the “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) to work-specifically to “perform a range of medium work” that was “unskilled” in nature. Pl.'s Br. 11-15; AR 22. Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ did not support this RFC finding with “substantial evidence” because he failed to “properly account” for (a) Plaintiff's asserted psychological limitations and (b) Plaintiff's psychological treatment. Pl.'s Br. 11-14. Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ erred in his RFC finding because he wrongly gave “little weight” to the opinion of a certified nurse practitioner who managed Plaintiff's medication. Id. at 14-15.

         III. APPLICABLE LAW

         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.[3] 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) (quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005)). The Court may reverse and remand if the ALJ failed to “apply correct legal standards” or “show . . . [he or she] has done so.” Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004) (citing 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) (emphasis added). “Under the substantial-evidence standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains ‘sufficien[t] evidence' to support the agency's factual determinations.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (brackets in original) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). “And . . . the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high. Substantial evidence, [the Supreme] Court has said, is more than a mere scintilla.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “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).

         Under this standard, a court should still meticulously review the entire record, but it may not “reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Newbold v. Colvin, 718 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2013) (quoting Branum v. Barnhart, 385 F.3d 1268, 1270 (10th Cir. 2004)); Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. Indeed, 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). Therefore, “[t]he possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)). Consequently, a court “may not displace the agency's choice between two fairly conflicting views, even though the court would justifiably have made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski, 372 F.3d at 1200) (brackets omitted).

         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 v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214.

         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) (emphasis added).

         The SSA has devised a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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[4] 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 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.

         IV. ALJ'S FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

         In his March 2017 written decision, the ALJ affirmed that he carefully considered the evidence and the “entire record” before him. AR 19, 22, 25, 29. In his “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, ” the ALJ discussed the evidence and opinions that led to his decision. AR 19-25.

         A. Steps One through Three

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since January 8, 2015, the alleged onset date of his disability. AR 19. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following “severe” impairments: “fibromyalgia/chronic pain; mild thoracic spine degenerative disc disease; affective disorder; anxiety disorder; and a history of substance addiction disorders.” Id. The ALJ classified these impairments as “severe” because they “ha[d] more than a minimal effect on [Plaintiff's] ability to perform basic work related activities.” Id. The ALJ also considered Plaintiff's other impairments[5] but found them to be non-severe as they did not have “more than a minimal effect” on his ability to work. AR 19-20.

         At step three, the ALJ found that no impairment or combination thereof satisfied the criteria of a listed impairment. AR 20-22. In determining whether any of Plaintiff's mental impairments qualified as a listed impairment, the ALJ rated Plaintiff's mental limitations in four “broad areas of functioning.” AR 20-21. Because the ALJ only rated Plaintiff as having “mild limitations” in one category[6] and “moderate limitations” in three categories, [7] the ALJ found that the applicable criteria[8] for a listed mental impairment were not satisfied. AR 21. In finding that Plaintiff had only “moderate limitations” in the specific category of “concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace, ” the ALJ relied not only on the medical records but also on the information Plaintiff voluntarily provided in a “Function Report” worksheet:

[Plaintiff] has moderate limitations in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace. [Plaintiff] reported difficulty following spoken instructions and asserted that fogginess interferes with his ability to maintain attention [citing “Function Report - Adult” at ¶ 248]. Moderating these difficulties, [Plaintiff] remains able to pay attention for up to an hour [citing Id.]. He can watch movies, play video games, and handle money [citing Id. at AR 246-47]. Throughout the medical record, [Plaintiff] was ...

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