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Miller v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 9, 2019

GAYLYN MILLER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of SOCIAL SECURITY, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER [2]

          JOHN F. ROBBENHAAR UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 15) filed October 10, 2018, in support of Plaintiff Gaylyn Miller's (“Plaintiff”) Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking review of the decision of Defendant Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's claim for Title II disability insurance benefits. On December 14, 2018, Plaintiff filed her Motion to Reverse or Remand. Doc. 19. The Commissioner filed a Response in opposition on February 19, 2019 (Doc. 21), and Plaintiff filed a Reply on February 26, 2019 (Doc. 22). 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 well taken and is GRANTED.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         Claimant Gaylyn V. Miller (“Ms. Miller”) alleges that she became disabled on September 2, 2012, at the age of fifty-eight, because of epilepsy, arthritis, cervical pain, complications from stroke, depression, anxiety and migraines. Tr. 396, 406.[3] Ms. Miller completed part of the eleventh grade in 1971, and thereafter worked as a housekeeper and commercial janitor. Tr. 230, 232-34, 398-99, 407.

         On October 15, 2014, Ms. Miller filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. Tr. 376-79. Ms. Miller's application was initially denied on June 29, 2015. Tr. 256-69, 270, 285-89. It was denied again at reconsideration on February 16, 2016. Tr. 271-83, 284, 295-99. On April 14, 2016, Ms. Miller requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 301-02. ALJ Michael Leppala conducted a video hearing on July 20, 2017. Tr. 225-55. Ms. Miller appeared in person at the hearing with attorney representative Jamie M. Dawson.[4] Id. The ALJ took testimony from Ms. Miller, and an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), Karen Provine. Id. On February 14, 2018, ALJ Leppala issued an unfavorable decision. Tr. 203-17. On June 5, 2018, the Appeals Council issued its decision denying Ms. Miller's request for review and upholding the ALJ's final decision. Tr. 1-7. On August 7, 2018, Ms. Miller timely filed a Complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. Doc. 1.

         II. Applicable Law

         A. Disability Determination Process

         An individual is considered disabled if 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) (pertaining to disability insurance benefits); see also 42 U.S.C. § 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 analysis 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.”[5] If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled regardless of her 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, she 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 listings described in Appendix 1 of the regulations, the ALJ must determine at step four whether the claimant can perform her “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 her 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. 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, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (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

         The ALJ made his decision that Ms. Miller was not disabled at step four of the sequential evaluation. Tr. 216-17. Specifically, the ALJ found that Ms. Miller met the insured status requirements through September 30, 2017, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of September 2, 2012. Tr. 208. The ALJ determined that Ms. Miller had severe impairments of cerebrovascular accident and affective disorder. Tr. 209. The ALJ also found that Ms. Miller had non-severe impairments of discogenic and degenerative back disorder, obesity, epilepsy, migraines, bunion, hammertoe and arthritis of the feet, hypertension, status-post stent placement, and arthritis. Tr. 209-10. The ALJ determined that Ms. Miller did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listing. Tr. 210-11. Proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Ms. Miller had the residual functional capacity to

understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions and make commensurate work-related decisions. The Claimant could respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and work situations. She could deal with routine changes in the work setting. The Claimant could maintain concentration, persistence, and pace for up to and including two hours at a time with normal breaks throughout an eight-hour workday. She was limited to completing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks.

Tr. 211. Based on the RFC and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Miller was capable of performing her past relevant work as a cleaner, commercial or institutional.[6] Tr. 216. The ALJ, therefore, determined that Ms. Miller was not disabled. Tr. 217.

         In her Motion, Ms. Miller argues that (1) the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical source opinions of examining State agency psychological consultants Carl B. Adams, Ph.D., and James W. Schutte, Ph.D., and treating physician Julio Munoz, M.D., in assessing her ability to do work-related physical and mental activities; and (2) the ALJ improperly accorded Dr. Schutte's opinion differing degrees of weight. Doc. 20 at 18-24.

         For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds the ALJ failed to properly evaluate certain of the medical source opinion evidence. This case, therefore, requires remand.

         A. The ALJ Failed to Properly Evaluate Certain of the Medical Source Opinion Evidence

         Ms. Miller argues generally that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate three medical source opinions; i.e., examining State agency psychological consultants Carl B. Adams, Ph.D., and James W. Schutte, Ph.D., and treating source Julio Munoz, M.D., in assessing her ability to do work-related physical and mental activities. Doc. 20 at 18-22. More specifically, Ms. Miller argues that each of their opinions assessed that she was severely limited in her ability to concentrate and persist at tasks, yet the ALJ failed to account for this limitation in the RFC. Id. Ms. Miller asserts that Dr. Adams' assessed GAF score of 50, which indicates serious impairment in, inter alia, occupational and school functioning, supports a greater limitation in concentration and persistence than the ALJ assessed, and that Dr. Adams' assessment is consistent with Dr. Schutte's assessed low IQ and low memory skills, and with Dr. Munoz's assessed limitations regarding Ms. Miller's ability to concentrate and persist at tasks. Id. Ms. Miller also argues that Dr. Schutte's opinion regarding her marked limitation to interact with the general public and coworkers is consistent with her testimony and other record evidence, and that the ALJ improperly accorded little weight to this part of Dr. Schutte's opinion. Id. Lastly, Ms. Miller asserts that the evidence supports Dr. Munoz's assessed functional limitations in her ability to do work-related physical and mental activities, and that the ALJ's RFC failed to account for any physical limitations at all. Id.

         The Commissioner contends the ALJ reasonably accounted for Ms. Miller's limitations in concentration and persistence by assessing that she could “maintain concentration, persistence, and pace for up to and including two hours at a time with normal breaks throughout an eight- hour workday, ” and limiting her to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. Doc. 21 at 10, 12. The Commissioner also contends that the Tenth Circuit has routinely found that GAF scores do not directly correlate to an individual's ability to perform work and that the ALJ did not err in not explicitly discussing Dr. Adams' assessed GAF score. Id. at 10-11. The Commissioner further contends that the ALJ properly accorded less weight to Dr. Schutte's opinion related to Ms. Miller's ability to socially interact based on the record as a whole. Id. at 11-12. Lastly, the Commissioner asserts that the ALJ properly considered Dr. Munoz's opinion, but gave it little weight for a number of reasons. Id. at 13-14.

         1. Treating Physician ...


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