United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE
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
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).
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).
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.
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.
Standard of Review
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.
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)).
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
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.
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” 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.
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
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).
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).
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 ...