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Rees v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 6, 2019

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



         This matter comes before the Court on Sandra Louisa Rees' Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum [Doc. 19], filed January 23, 2019. Having studied the parties' briefing and the relevant portions of the Administrative Record (“AR”), [2] the Court grants Ms. Rees' Motion, for the reasons set forth below


         It is the Commissioner's prerogative to weigh medical evidence and resolve evidentiary conflicts in the record. However, when faced with an uncontroverted medical opinion, the Commissioner may not “pick and choose” among the evidence to support a finding of nondisability. However, that is precisely what Ms. Rees accuses the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who denied her claim of doing in this case.

         The ALJ who denied Ms. Rees' claim afforded only “some” weight to the opinions of Drs. John R. Vigil, M.D., CIME, and Eligio R. Padilla, Ph.D., consultative examiners who interviewed and examined Ms. Rees. However, the ALJ gave insufficient reasons for detracting from the weight of these doctors' opinions as to Ms. Rees' mental impairments. As such, the ALJ was required to adopt their uncontroverted findings. These findings arguably could have rendered Ms. Rees' residual functional capacity (“RFC”) more restrictive, and precluded her from being able to work. The Court concludes that the Commissioner's Step Five finding is unsupported by substantial evidence, and that this case must be remanded for further proceedings.


         Ms. Rees filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on April 13, 2011. AR at 165-174. She alleged a disability onset date of January 19, 2007, due to Bi-polar, Depression, PTSD, lower back injury, knee injury, upper back injury, joint pain, headaches, and IBS. AR at 167, 207. The Administration denied Ms. Rees' claims initially and upon reconsideration, and she requested a de novo hearing before an ALJ. AR at 72-125.

         ALJ Myriam C. Fernandez Rice held a hearing at which Ms. Rees and a vocational expert testified on July 2, 2013. AR at 34-71. ALJ Rice issued a decision denying Ms. Rees' claims on February 14, 2014. See AR at 10-33. The Appeals Council declined to review ALJ Rice's decision, and it accordingly became the final decision of the Commissioner. AR at 1-4. Ms. Rees then filed a lawsuit challenging the Commissioner's decision in this Court, resulting in a remand on January 31, 2017. AR at 1048-1064.

         While her civil action was pending, Ms. Rees filed a subsequent claims for Title II and XVI benefits. See AR at 1122-1130. On March 31, 2017, the Appeals Council issued an order consolidating the claim files and remanding them to a new ALJ for further proceedings consistent with the order of the court. AR at 1066-1069.

         ALJ Raul C. Pardo held a second hearing on March 2, 2018. AR at 990-1025. After this hearing, ALJ Pardo denied Ms. Rees' claim on March 28, 2018. AR at 963-989. The Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction over the case, and so ALJ Pardo's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.984(d), 416.1484(d). This Court now has jurisdiction to review the decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a).

         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), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).[3]

         At Step One of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Rees has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. AR at 969. At Step Two, he determined that Ms. Rees has had the following severe impairments: “cervical spine disease, lumbar disc disease, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, hypertension, obesity, migraine headaches, bilateral shoulder tendonitis, status-post bilateral total knee replacement surgeries, osteopenia of the lumbar spine and hips, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, attention deficit disorder (“ADD”), and post-traumatic stress disorder (‘PTSD').” AR at 969. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Rees' impairments do not meet or medically equal the regulatory “listings.” AR at 969-971. Ms. Rees does not challenge these findings on appeal. [See generally Doc. 19].

         When a claimant does not meet a listed impairment, the ALJ must determine her residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). “RFC is not the least an individual can do despite his or her limitations or restrictions, but the most.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1. In this case, the ALJ determined that Ms. Rees retained the RFC to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that the claimant can occasionally reach overheard bilaterally, occasionally climb ramps and stairs, occasionally balance and stoop, and can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. In addition, the claimant is limited to performing simple and routine tasks, can have occasional contact with co-workers and ...

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