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Christanelli v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 13, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Steven Roy Christanelli's Motion to Reverse for Payment of Benefits, or in the Alternative, to Remand for a Rehearing (“Motion”), (Doc. 19), filed April 29, 2019; Defendant Commissioner Andrew Saul's Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse or Remand for Rehearing (“Response”), (Doc. 21), filed June 28, 2019; and Mr. Christanelli's Reply to Defendant's Response to Motion to Reverse or Remand for Rehearing (“Reply”), (Doc. 22), filed July 11, 2019.

         Mr. Christanelli filed an application for supplemental security income on June 21, 2012, alleging disability beginning August 25, 2011. (Administrative Record “AR” 19). Mr. Christanelli claimed he was limited in his ability to work due to bipolar disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), a learning disability, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”). (AR 184). Mr. Christanelli's application was denied initially on February 14, 2013, and upon reconsideration on July 1, 2013. (AR 19). A request for a hearing was filed, and a hearing was held on June 11, 2014, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Ann Farris. (AR 34). At the hearing, Mr. Christanelli and Mary Diane Weber, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”), testified, and attorney Michelle Baca represented Mr. Christanelli. (AR 34-67).

         On September 26, 2014, ALJ Farris issued her decision, finding Mr. Christanelli has not been disabled at any time since June 21, 2012, the date the application was filed. (AR 27). Mr. Christanelli requested review by the Appeals Council, (AR 7), which was denied, (AR 1-6). Mr. Christanelli then appealed the Commissioner's decision to the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico. Christanelli v. Social Security Administration, No. CV 16-291 SMV. On August 24, 2017, the Court granted Mr. Christanelli's Motion to Remand the case to the Commissioner, finding that ALJ Farris failed to apply the correct legal standards in evaluating medical opinion evidence. Christanelli, No. CV 16-291 SMV, (Doc. 23).

         On remand, the Appeals Council issued an order vacating the Commissioner's prior decision and remanding the case to an ALJ for further proceedings consistent with the Court's Order. (AR 911-13). A second hearing was held on May 8, 2018, before ALJ Farris. (AR 846). Mr. Christanelli and VE Shelly K. Eike testified at the hearing, and attorney Michelle Baca represented Mr. Christanelli at the hearing. (AR 846-873). On June 14, 2018, ALJ Farris issued a decision again finding that Mr. Christanelli has not been disabled since June 21, 2012, the date the application was filed. (AR 838). Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.984, this decision by ALJ Farris is the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of this appeal.[1]

         Mr. Christanelli now raises the following arguments on appeal of ALJ Farris' second decision: (1) ALJ Farris failed to properly consider opinions from the following medical providers: examining psychologist Clifford Morgan, Ph.D., treating psychiatrist Gregory M. Gillette, M.D., treating Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Robert K. Becher, and non-examining psychiatrists Jill Blacharsh, M.D., and Paul Cherry, Ph.D.; (2) ALJ Farris failed to properly weigh the evidence and Mr. Christanelli's limitations in formulating his residual functional capacity (“RFC”); and (3) the Appeals Council should have remanded this case pursuant to Lucia v. SEC, 138 S.Ct. 2044 (2018). (Doc. 19 at 5-26). The Court has reviewed the Motion, the Response, the Reply, and the relevant law. Additionally, the Court has meticulously reviewed the Administrative Record. (Doc. 13). Because ALJ Farris erred in her consideration of the opinions of Dr. Morgan, Mr. Becher, Dr. Gillette, Dr. Blacharsh, and Dr. Cherry, the Court finds that Mr. Christanelli's Motion is well-taken and should be GRANTED and this case REMANDED for further proceedings.

         I. Standard of Review

         The standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008) (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)). If substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings and the correct legal standards were applied, the Commissioner's decision stands and the plaintiff is not entitled to relief. Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). The Commissioner's “failure to apply the correct legal standards, or to show . . . that she has done so, are also grounds for reversal.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Washington v. Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). A court should meticulously review the entire record but should neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. A court's review is limited to the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which is generally the ALJ's decision, rather than the Appeals Council's denial of review. O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (10th Cir. 1994).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. An ALJ's decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or if there is a mere scintilla of evidence supporting it.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. While the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try the issues de novo, its examination of the record must include “anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2005). “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the ALJ]'s findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).

         II. Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process

         For purposes of disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income claims, a claimant establishes a disability when 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), 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A), 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”). Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         At the first four steps of the SEP, the claimant bears the burden of showing: (1) she is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) she has a “severe medically determinable . . . impairment . . . or a combination of impairments” that has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year; and either (3) her impairment(s) meet or equal one of the “Listings”[2] of presumptively disabling impairments; or (4) she is unable to perform his “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv), 416.920(a)(4)(i-iv); see also Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). If the ALJ determines the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, the ALJ will proceed to step five of the evaluation process. At step five the Commissioner bears the burden of showing that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         III. Background

         Mr. Christanelli applied for supplemental security income due to: bipolar disorder, anxiety, PTSD, a learning disability, and COPD. (AR 184). At step one, ALJ Farris determined that Mr. Christanelli had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 21, 2012, the application date. (AR 830). At step two, ALJ Farris concluded that Mr. Christanelli has the following severe impairments: COPD with asthma, obesity, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, antisocial personality disorder, learning disabilities in math and written expression, PTSD, and polysubstance dependence. Id. At step three, ALJ Farris determined that none of Mr. Christanelli's impairments, solely or in combination, equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926. (AR 831-33).

         At step four, ALJ Farris found that Mr. Christanelli has the RFC to perform less than a full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), with the following limitations: he must avoid exposure to pulmonary irritants, including dusts, fumes, odors, and gases; he should not be required to interact with the public; he can have only superficial interactions with coworkers, and only occasional, limited interactions with supervisors; he is unable to work in close proximity with others, meaning within about two feet, unless there is a barrier between them; and he should not be required to perform math calculations, work at a production pace, or perform tandem tasks. (AR 833).

         In formulating Mr. Christanelli's RFC, ALJ Farris stated that she considered Mr. Christanelli's symptoms and the extent to which those symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with objective medical and other evidence, as required by 20 C.F.R. § 416.929 and Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 16-3p. Id. ALJ Farris also stated that she considered opinion evidence in accordance with 20 C.F.R. § 416.927. Id. ALJ Farris found that Mr. Christanelli's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of his symptoms are not fully supported by the evidence in the record. (AR 834).

         In considering the medical opinion evidence, ALJ Farris gave little weight to consultative psychological examiner Dr. Morgan's opinions regarding Mr. Christanelli's ability to work and legal problems, and gave great weight to his opinions regarding Mr. Christanelli's learning difficulties and social limitations. (AR 835). She reasoned that Dr. Morgan's opinions are “from before the relevant period and the extent of the functional limitations are somewhat unclear.” Id. ALJ Farris then gave partial weight to the opinions of consultative psychological examiner Dr. Brimberg, stating the ...

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