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Jones v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

May 29, 2019

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


         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and/or Remand (Doc. 16), filed on December 10, 2018. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the parties have consented to me serving as the presiding judge and entering final judgment. See Docs. 6; 9; 10. Having considered the record, submissions of counsel, and relevant law, the Court finds Plaintiff's motion is not well-taken and will be denied.

         I. Procedural History

         Ms. Bernadine Jones (Plaintiff) protectively filed an application with the Social Security Administration for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act on January 14, 2014. Administrative Record[1] (AR) at 109, 263-64. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of December 24, 2010. See AR at 263. Because Plaintiff's earning record showed that she “ha[d] acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to remain insured through December 31, 2015[, ]” she was required to “establish disability on or before that date in order to be entitled to a period of disability and [DIB].” AR at 15, 294.

         Disability Determination Services determined that Plaintiff was not disabled both initially (AR at 109-26) and on reconsideration (AR at 127-42). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on the merits of her application. AR at 153. Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified during the de novo hearing.[2]See AR at 38-93. ALJ Lillian Richter issued an unfavorable decision on February 27, 2017. AR at 12-37. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council (AR at 241-62), which the council denied on March 26, 2018 (AR at 1-6). Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003).

         II. Applicable Law and the ALJ's Findings

         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); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).

         The claimant has the burden at the first four steps of the process to show: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) she has a “severe medically determinable . . . impairment . . . or a combination of impairments” that has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year; and (3) her impairment(s) meet or equal one of the listings in Appendix 1, Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404; or (4) pursuant to the assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), she is unable to perform her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); see also Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). “RFC is a multidimensional description of the work-related abilities [a claimant] retain[s] in spite of her medical impairments.” Ryan v. Colvin, Civ. 15-0740 KBM, 2016 WL 8230660, at *2 (D.N.M. Sept. 29, 2016) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(B); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)). If the claimant meets “the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability[, ] . . . the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that” the claimant retains sufficient RFC “to perform work in the national economy, given [her] age, education, and work experience.” Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261 (citing Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 & n.2 (10th Cir. 1988) (internal citation omitted)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         At Step One of the process, [3] ALJ Richter found that Plaintiff “did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of December 24, 2010[, ] through her date last insured of December 31, 2015.” AR at 17 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “had the following severe impairments: epicondylitis; cervical radiculitis; insomnia; obesity; metabolic syndrome; joint pain of the hand; psoriatic arthropathy; osteoarthritis of the bilateral hands; bilateral trigger finger of the thumb; fatigue; polycythemia; migraines; epilepsy; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; mild degenerative disc disease of the acromioclavicular joint of the right shoulder; depression; anxiety; and posttraumatic stress disorder.” AR at 17 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)). ALJ Richter also noted the following nonsevere impairments that did “not significantly limit [her] ability to perform basic work activities”: “hypertension; hypothyroidism; tinnitus; hyperglycemia; hypertriglyceridemia; restless leg syndrome; and metatarsal fracture.” AR at 17-18.

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that “[t]hrough the date insured, [Plaintiff] did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” AR at 18 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). Ultimately, the ALJ found that through the date last insured, Plaintiff

had the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §] 404.1567(b) except that [she] can lift, carry, push, and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; can stand and/or walk for 6 hours, and sit for 6 hours in an 8 hour day; can occasionally handle and finger bilaterally; can frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; can frequently climb ramps and stairs; can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can never balance; can never be exposed to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts; should avoid extreme cold; cannot operate a motor vehicle; is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive work; can have occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and members of the public; and is limited to making simple work related decisions in a workplace with few changes in the routine work setting.

         AR at 21. The ALJ determined that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff can perform the jobs of cotton classer aide, blending tank tender helper, and laminating machine offbearer. AR at 30. Ultimately, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from December 24, 2010, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2015, the date last insured.” AR at 30 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)).

         III. Legal Standard

         The Court must “review the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005) (internal citation omitted)). A deficiency in either area is grounds for remand. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161, 1166 (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172 (internal quotation omitted)). “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation omitted) (alteration in original)). The Court will “consider whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, but [it] will not reweigh the evidence or substitute [its] judgment for the Commissioner's.” Id. (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172 (internal quotation marks and quotations omitted)).

         “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski, 372 F.3d at 1200 (internal quotation omitted)). The Court “may not ‘displace the agenc[y's] choice between two fairly conflicting views, even though the [C]ourt would justifiably have made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo.'” Id. (quoting Zoltanski, 372 F.3d at 1200 (internal quotation omitted)).

         IV. Discussion

         Plaintiff contends that the following issues require reversal: (1) the ALJ inadequately weighed the opinions of Michael Gzaskow, M.D., consulting psychiatrist; (2) the ALJ inadequately weighed the opinion of Dawn Barr, MSW, LCSW; (3) the ALJ offered insufficient reasoning for giving significant weight to the state agency consultants. Doc. 16 at 17-22.

         A. The ALJ adequately evaluated Dr. Gzaskow's opinions.

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinions of Dr. Gzaskow, who is a licensed medical doctor and an acceptable medical source under the regulations. See Doc. 16 at 17-19. Plaintiff saw Dr. Gzaskow, a consultative psychiatrist, one time in connection with her application for DIB. See AR at 371-73, 798-804. “When considering the weight of non-treating sources, the ALJ must consider” the factors as laid out in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). S ...

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