United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
H. RITTER U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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”),
Court grants Ms. Rees' Motion, for the
reasons set forth below
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
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
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.
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
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.
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).
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. §§
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].
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 ...