United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER 
F. ROBBENHAAR UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
Background and Procedural History
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. 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,
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. 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.
Disability Determination Process
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.” 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
(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
(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
(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).
Standard of Review
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).
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.
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
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
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. Tr. 216. The ALJ, therefore,
determined that Ms. Miller was not disabled. Tr. 217.
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.
reasons discussed below, the Court finds the ALJ failed to
properly evaluate certain of the medical source opinion
evidence. This case, therefore, requires remand.
The ALJ Failed to Properly Evaluate Certain of the
Medical Source Opinion Evidence
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.
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.
Treating Physician ...