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Martinez v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 12, 2019

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


         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 17), filed May 8, 2019. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the parties have consented to me serving as the presiding judge and entering final judgment. See Docs. 5, 9, 10. Having considered the record, submissions of counsel, and the relevant law, the Court finds Plaintiff's motion is well-taken and will be granted.

         I. Procedural History

         On June 16, 2015, Chris Samuel Martinez (“Plaintiff”) filed concurrent applications with the Social Security Administration for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“SSA”) and for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the SSA. Administrative Record[2] (AR) at 258-65. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of April 1, 2015. AR at 258-65. Plaintiff's date last insured was September 30, 2015. AR at 127. Disability Determination Services (“DDS”) determined that Plaintiff was not disabled both initially (AR at 133, 140) and on reconsideration (AR at 156, 168). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on the merits of his applications. AR at 211.

         On October 16, 2017, ALJ Michael Leppala held a hearing at which Plaintiff, his sister, and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. See AR at 30-41, 50-106. ALJ Leppala issued an unfavorable decision on April 18, 2018. AR at 30-41. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council, which the Council denied on October 30, 2018. AR at 1-6. Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003).

         II. Applicable Law and the ALJ's Findings

         A claimant seeking disability benefits must establish that he 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); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a). The Commissioner must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine eligibility for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); see also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).

         The claimant has the burden at the first four steps of the process to show: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; (2) he 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 (3) his impairment(s) meet or equal one of the listings in Appendix 1, Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404; or (4) pursuant to the assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), he 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) (citations omitted). “RFC is a multidimensional description of the work-related abilities [a claimant] retain[s] in spite of [his] medical impairments.” Ryan v. Colvin, Civ. 15-0740 KBM, 2016 WL 8230660, at *2 (D.N.M. Sept. 29, 2016) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(B); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)). If the claimant meets “the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability[, ] . . . the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that” Plaintiff retains sufficient RFC “to perform work in the national economy, given his age, education, and work experience.” Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261 (citing Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 & n.2 (10th Cir. 1988)); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         At Step One of the process, ALJ Leppala found that Plaintiff met “the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2015.” AR at 32. He also determined that Plaintiff did “not engage[] in substantial gainful activity since April 1, 2015, the alleged onset date.” AR at 32 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576, 416.971-976). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “Disease of the Aortic Valve and Obesity.” AR at 32 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c)). The ALJ indicated that Plaintiff's impairment of “Affective Disorders” was non-severe, as it did “not cause more than minimal limitation in [his] ability to perform basic mental work activities.” AR at 33.

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did “not have an impairment or combination of impairments that [met] or medically equal[ed] the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” AR at 34 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926). At Step Four, he found that while Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, ” his “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms [were] not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record . . . .” AR at 39. Considering the evidence of record, he found as follows:

[Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 [C.F.R. §§] 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). In addition, [Plaintiff] is capable of occasionally lifting and/or carrying 20 pounds, frequently lifting and/or carrying ten pounds, standing and/or walking for about six hours in an eight-hour workday, and sitting for about six hours in an eight-hour workday, all with normal breaks. He is further limited to occasionally climbing ramps or stairs, never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, frequently balancing, frequently stooping, frequently kneeling, frequently crouching, and frequently crawling. [Plaintiff] must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and heat, and atmospheric conditions, and even moderate exposure to hazards.

AR at 35. The ALJ went on to find that Plaintiff was “unable to perform any past relevant work.” AR at 40 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565, 416.965). But at Step Five, he found that “[c]onsidering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and [RFC], there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [he] can perform.” AR at 40 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, 416.969(a)). More particularly, the ALJ found Plaintiff able to perform the positions of Housekeeping cleaner (DOT Code 323.687-014) and Cafeteria attendant (DOT Code 311.677-010). Consequently, he determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability from April 1, 2015, through the date of the decision. AR at 41 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g)).

         III. Legal Standard

         The Court must “review the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005)). A deficiency in either area is grounds for remand. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161, 1166 (10th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172). “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)). The Court will “consider whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, but [it] will not reweigh the evidence or substitute [its] judgment for the Commissioner's.” Id. (quoting Hackett, 395 F.3d at 1172 (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         “The possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Id. (quoting Zoltanski, 372 F.3d at 1200). The Court “may not ‘displace the agenc[y's] choice between two fairly conflicting views, even though the court would justifiably have made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo.'” Id. (quoting Zoltanski, 372 F.3d at 1200).

         IV. Discussion

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's mental impairments did not “cause more than minimal limitation in [his] ability to perform basic mental work activities and [were] therefore non-severe.” AR at 33. He did not include any mental limitations in his RFC. See AR at 34-35. Plaintiff now raises a single issue in his motion with regard to his mental impairments. He argues that the ALJ improperly weighed the opinions of his treating psychiatrist, Anthony Umpierre, M.D. (“Dr. Umpierre”), and his treating social worker, Toribio M. Garcia, LCSW (“LCSW Garcia”). Docs. 17 at 10; 22 at 1.

         A. The ALJ erred in his evaluation of Dr. Umpierre's opinions.

         Dr. Umpierre completed a Medical Assessment of Ability to do Work-Related Activities (Mental) on September 21, 2017. AR at 493-94. In the “comments” section of the assessment form, Dr. Umpierre wrote: “Difficulty retaining information and processing information.” AR at 493. Dr. Umpierre found Plaintiff to have marked limitations in the following areas: understanding and remembering detailed as well as very short and simple instructions, carrying out detailed instructions, maintaining attention and concentration for extended periods of time, performing activities within a schedule, maintaining regular attendance and being punctual, sustaining an ordinary routine without special supervision, working in coordination with and in proximity to others, completing a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically-based symptoms, performing at a consistent pace without unreasonable rest periods, interacting appropriately with the general public, asking simple questions or requesting assistance, accepting instructions and responding appropriately to criticism from supervisors, responding appropriately to changes in the work place, traveling to unfamiliar places or using public transportation, and setting realistic goals or making plans independently of others. AR at 493-94. The assessment form defined a “marked” limitation as “[a] severe limitation which precludes the individual's ability usefully to perform the designated activity on a regular and sustained basis . . . . The individual cannot be expected to function independently, appropriately, and effectively on a regular and sustained basis.” AR at 497.

         The ALJ effectively rejected Dr. Umpierre's opinions when he assigned them “[l]ittle weight.” See AR at 39; see also Chapo v. Astrue, 682 F.3d 1285, 1288-89 (10th Cir. 2012) (according a medical opinion “little weight” is “effectively rejecting” that opinion). The ALJ offered the following explanation for this rejection: “Little weight was afforded to the check-box medical source statements, as they are inadequately explained and not consistent with the other medical evidence of record.” AR 39. Plaintiff submits that ...

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