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Waldron v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 2, 2019

ANDREW SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff 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.


         On 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).

         In making his decision, ALJ Leppala engaged in the required five-step disability analysis, [2] first finding that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of October 1, 2014.[3] (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).

         ALJ Leppala next assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), [4] finding that Plaintiff had the RFC to:

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.

(AR 20-21).

         At the 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.[5]

         In this 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).

         Dr. 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).

         PA 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 659).

         In 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.”[6] (AR 23).

         With 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. § 404.900(a)(1)-(5).

         Plaintiff 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). ...

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