United States District Court, D. New Mexico
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO
REVERSE AND REMAND
R. SWEAZEA, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
seeks review of the Commissioner's determination that she
is not entitled to disability benefits under Title II of the
Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. With the
consent of the parties to conduct dispositive proceedings in
this matter, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(c);
Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the Court has considered Plaintiff's
Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing (Doc. 16), filed
September 28, 2018, the Commissioner's response in
opposition (Doc. 20), filed November 30, 2018, and
Plaintiff's reply (Doc. 24), filed January 14, 2019.
Having so considered, the Court FINDS and CONCLUDES that
Plaintiff's motion should be GRANTED.
November 12, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for Social
Security disability insurance benefits, alleging that she had
been disabled since October 1, 2014, due to back and hip
pain; neuropathy pain; Type 2 diabetes; depression; OCD;
anxiety disorder; sleep apnea; insomnia; dyslexia; headaches;
and ulcers. (AR 203, 218). Her application was denied at both
the initial and reconsideration levels of review, and a
subsequent hearing before administrative law judge
(“ALJ”) Michael Leppala again ended in a denial.
(AR 26, 102-03).
making his decision, ALJ Leppala engaged in the required
five-step disability analysis,  first finding that Plaintiff had
not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged
onset date of October 1, 2014. (AR 18). At step two, ALJ Leppala
found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of diabetes
mellitus, obesity, affective disorder, and anxiety.
(Id.). At step three, the ALJ determined that none
of Plaintiff's impairments, whether alone or in
combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a
listed impairment. (AR 19).
Leppala next assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional
Capacity (“RFC”),  finding that Plaintiff had the
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). The
Claimant is capable of lifting and or carrying 20 pounds
occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sitting for about 6
hours in an 8-hour workday, and standing and/or walking about
6 hours in an 8-hour workday, with normal breaks. The
Claimant would be capable of performing simple tasks with
routine supervision, and of interacting appropriately with
coworkers and supervisors for incidental work purposes, but
should have only occasional contact with the public.
time of his RFC determination, ALJ Leppala had before him
evidence in the form of, inter alia, Plaintiff's
testimony, medical records and opinion statements provided by
Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Ariadna
Sadziene-Bessinger, MD, and primary care provider, Physician
Assistant (“PA”) Mark A. Limback, and disability
assessments conducted by non- examining state agency
consultants at the initial and reconsideration levels of
review. As is relevant here, Plaintiff testified that she is
unable to work due to a variety of mental health challenges
as well as neuropathic, osteoarthritic, and migraine pain.
Similarly, both of Plaintiff's medical providers
completed medical source statements wherein they opined that
Plaintiff's mental and physical illnesses resulted in
multiple functional limitations.
regard, Dr. Sadziene-Bessinger determined that Plaintiff had
marked limitations in her abilities to maintain attention and
concentration for extended periods; perform activities within
a schedule; maintain regular attendance and be punctual;
maintain physical effort for long periods; work in
coordination with/or in proximity to others; complete a
normal workday/workweek without interruptions from pain or
fatigue based symptoms; to perform at a consistence pace
without unreasonable rest periods; carry out detailed
instructions; interact appropriately with the general public;
ask simple questions or request assistance; respond
appropriately to changes in the work place; travel in
unfamiliar places; and set realistic goals or make
independent plans. (AR 663-65).
Sadziene-Bessinger further noted that Plaintiff was
moderately limited in her abilities to remember locations and
work-like procedures; understand, remember, and carry out
very short and simple instructions; sustain an ordinary
routine without special supervision; make simple work-related
decisions; accept instructions and respond appropriately to
criticism from supervisors; maintain socially appropriate
behavior; and be aware of normal hazards and take adequate
precautions. (AR 664-65). She also determined that Plaintiff
met the criteria for the listings of affective and
anxiety-related disorders. (AR 666-67).
Limback, in turn, opined that Plaintiff had severe pain which
caused marked limitations in her abilities to maintain
regular attendance; maintain physical effort for long
periods; and to complete a normal workday/workweek, and
moderate limitations in terms of maintaining attention and
concentration; performing activities within a schedule; and
working in coordination with/or proximity to others. (AR
contrast, the agency consultants who examined Plaintiff's
medical records at the initial and reconsideration levels of
review did not assess Plaintiff with any marked limitations.
And, at the reconsideration level of review, the consultants
developed an RFC assessment that virtually mirrors ALJ
Leppala's RFC determination. (AR 90-101, 104-116).
Predictably, then, ALJ Leppala gave “little
weight” to Dr. Sadziene-Bessinger's opinions,
“some weight” to PA Limback's opinions, and
“great weight” to the agency consultants'
administrative findings. (AR 23-24). ALJ Leppala also
dismissed Plaintiff's testimony with the stock phrase
that “Claimant's statements concerning the
intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [her] symptoms
are not entirely consistent with the…evidence in the
record.” (AR 23).
Plaintiff's RFC assessment in hand, the ALJ proceeded to
steps four and five where, with the help of a vocational
expert, he determined that Plaintiff could not perform her
past relevant work but that she could perform the
requirements of representative occupations such as marker and
photocopy machine operator. (AR 26). Accordingly, ALJ Leppala
concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id.).
The ALJ's decision became final when, on March 2, 2018,
the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for
review. (AR 1). See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103,
106-07 (2000) (explaining that if the Council denies a
request for a review, the ALJ's opinion becomes the final
decision). See also 20 C.F.R. §
now asks the Court to reverse the Commissioner's
decision, arguing that ALJ Leppala (1) improperly assessed
the opinion evidence submitted by Dr. Sadziene-Bessinger and
PA Limback, and (2) failed to consider her subjective
allegations of pain and other symptoms in accordance with
Luna v. Bowen, 843 F.2d 161 (10th Cir. 1987).