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White v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 5, 2019

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Social Security Administrative Record (Doc. 17) filed February 25, 2019, in support of Plaintiff Jessica Lynn White's Complaint (Doc. 1) seeking review of the decision of Defendant Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying Plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. On April 29, 2019, Plaintiff filed her Motion to Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing With Supporting Memorandum (“Motion”). Doc. 19. The Commissioner filed a Response on July 9, 2019 (Doc. 22), and Plaintiff filed a Reply on July 22, 2019 (Doc. 23). The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the applicable law and being fully advised in the premises, the Court finds the Motion is not well taken and is DENIED.

         Background and Procedural Record

         Claimant Jessica Lynn White suffers from the following severe impairments: post-traumatic stress disorder; bipolar disorder; major depressive disorder; and anxiety. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 512. Plaintiff graduated from high school. AR 263. She attended vocational college and obtained certifications in: automotive fundamentals (tune-ups, oil changes, brake changes); office management (clerical work), which she obtained online; and, as reported to a psychologist, phlebotomy. AR 263, 576, 588, 806. She has past relevant work as an office manager. AR 602.

         On June 18, 2012, Ms. White filed concurrent claims of disability under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging disability beginning May 25, 2008. AR 72, 84. Her applications were initially denied on December 3, 2012 (AR 96-97), and upon reconsideration on July 10 & 12, 2013 (AR 124-25). Ms. White requested a hearing on September 6, 2013. AR 155-58. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) John W. Rolph conducted a hearing on October 3, 2014. AR 36-70. Ms. White appeared in person at the hearing with attorney representative Michael Armstrong. AR 36. The ALJ took testimony from Ms. White and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Nicole King. AR 36.

         On January 21, 2015, ALJ Rolph issued an unfavorable decision. AR 18-30. On February 6, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Ms. White's request for review. AR 1-4. Ms. White filed a timely appeal with this Court on June 14, 2016. AR 566-67. On May 24, 2017, Magistrate Judge Carmen E. Garza reversed and remanded for a rehearing. 545-63. Judge Garza found that ALJ Rolph's discussion of the medical opinions was confusing and left the Court unable to perform a meaningful review. AR 555-62. “On remand, ” she concluded, “the ALJ should properly weigh all medical opinions in the record.” AR 562.

         The Appeals Council then issued an order remanding the case to an ALJ to offer Ms. White the opportunity for a hearing, to complete the administrative record, and to issue a new decision consistent with the order of the court. AR 537. On September 7, 2018, Ms. White appeared for a second hearing, this time before ALJ Stephen Gontis with attorney representative Laura Johnson. AR 570. ALJ Gontis also heard from VE Kristi Wilson. AR 571.

         ALJ Gontis issued an unfavorable decision on September 21, 2018. AR 508-26. In that decision, ALJ Gontis recognized that Ms. White amended her alleged onset date to June 18, 2011 and again to May 15, 2012. AR 511. But Ms. White's date last insured was June 20, 2010. Id. Therefore, ALJ Gontis found that Ms. White waived her Title II claim. Id. He also noted that Ms. White “requested a closed period as she returned to work on April 29, 2017.” Id. Therefore, the remainder of his decision addressed the timeframe of May 15, 2012 to April 29, 2017 for the purpose of Title XVI benefits. Id. Ms. White does not appeal this holding, as the Commissioner notes. Doc 22 at 2 n.2.

         ALJ Gontis' decision is the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.984, 416.1484. On December 11, 2018, Ms. White timely filed a Complaint seeking judicial review. Doc. 1. The Court reserves discussion of the medical records relevant to this appeal for its analysis.

         Applicable Law

         A. Disability Determination Process

         An individual is considered disabled if 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) (pertaining to disability insurance benefits); see also Id. § 1382(a)(3)(A) (pertaining to supplemental security income disability benefits for adult individuals). The Social Security Commissioner has adopted the familiar five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”) to determine whether a person satisfies the statutory criteria as follows:

(1) At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity” (“SGA”).[3] If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled regardless of her medical condition.
(2) At step two, the ALJ must determine the severity of the claimed physical or mental impairment(s). If the claimant does not have an impairment(s) or combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, she is not disabled.
(3) At step three, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant's impairment(s) meets or equals in severity one of the listings described in Appendix 1 of the regulations and meets the duration requirement. If so, a claimant is presumed disabled.
(4) If, however, the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal in severity one of the listings described in Appendix 1 of the regulations, the ALJ must determine at step four whether the claimant can perform her “past relevant work.” Answering this question involves three phases. Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1023 (10th Cir. 1996). First, the ALJ considers all of the relevant medical and other evidence and determines what is “the most [the claimant] can still do despite [her physical and mental] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). This is called the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Id. §§ 404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a)(3). Second, the ALJ determines the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past work. Third, the ALJ determines whether, given the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of meeting those demands. A claimant who is capable of returning to past relevant work is not disabled.
(5) If the claimant does not have the RFC to perform her past relevant work, the Commissioner, at step five, must show that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. If the Commissioner is unable to make that showing, the claimant is deemed disabled. If, however, the Commissioner is able to make the required showing, the claimant is deemed not disabled.

See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (disability insurance benefits); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) (supplemental security income disability benefits); Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005).

         The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a disability in the first four steps of this analysis. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy. Id. A finding that the claimant is disabled or not disabled at any point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

         B. Standard of Review

         This Court must affirm the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits unless (1) the decision is not supported by “substantial evidence” or (2) the ALJ did not apply the proper legal standards in reaching the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); Casias, 933 F.2d at 800-01. In making these determinations, the Court “neither reweigh[s] the evidence nor substitute[s] [its] judgment for that of the agency.'” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008). “[W]hatever the meaning of ‘substantial' in other contexts, the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019). Substantial evidence “is ‘more than a mere scintilla.'” Id. (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). “It means-and means only-such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         A decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record, ” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118, or “constitutes mere conclusion, ” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992). The agency decision must “provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed.” Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005). Therefore, although an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence, “the record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence, ” and “the [ALJ's] reasons for finding a claimant not disabled” must be “articulated with sufficient particularity.” Clifton v. Chater, 79 F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996). But where the reviewing court “can follow the adjudicator's reasoning” in conducting its review, “and can determine that correct legal standards have been applied, merely technical omissions in the ALJ's reasoning do not dictate reversal.” Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1166 (10th Cir. 2012). The court “should, indeed must, exercise common sense.” Id. “The more comprehensive the ALJ's explanation, the easier [the] task; but [the court] cannot insist on technical perfection.” Id.


         In support of her Motion to Remand, Ms. White argues that ALJ Gontis failed to comply with the remand instructions of this Court as set forth in Judge Garza's 2017 memorandum opinion. Specifically, Ms. White argues that ALJ Gontis failed to follow Judge Garza's instructions when he evaluated the opinions of consultative examiner Dr. John Owen and treating counselor LPCC[4] Lisa Harvey. In addition, Ms. White argues that substantial evidence does not support ALJ Gontis' evaluation of the opinion of consultative examiner Steven K. Baum, PhD. The Court does not find these arguments compelling and affirms the ALJ's decision.

         I. ALJ Gontis Did Not Violate the Mandate Rule.

         Ms. White's main argument for remand concerns the “mandate rule.” Doc. 19 at 14. “Although primarily applicable between courts of different levels, the [law of the case] doctrine and the mandate rule apply to judicial review of administrative decisions, and require the administrative agency, on remand from a court, to conform its further proceedings in the case to the principles set forth in the judicial decision, unless there is a compelling reason to depart.” Grigsby v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1215, 1218 (10th Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). “Obviously, the court which drafted the mandate is normally in the best position to determine whether the [agency]'s subsequent order is consistent with the mandate . . . .” F.T.C. v. Colgate-Palmolive Co., 380 U.S. 374, 379 (1965); see also Patterson v. Apfel, 198 F.3d 258, 1999 WL 1032973, at *4 (10th Cir. 1999) (unpublished table decision) (“the court issuing a mandate governing further proceedings is in the best position to interpret the scope of that mandate”). The Court finds that ALJ Gontis did not violate the mandate rule with respect to the opinions of Dr. Owen and LPCC Harvey.

         A. Dr. Owen's Opinion

         In November 2012, consulting psychologist John P. Owen, Ph.D. performed an evaluation of Ms. White. AR 465-67. Dr. Owen found Ms. White cooperative and that she “understood simple questions and instructions.” AR 466. He estimated that she functions in at least the average range of mental ability. Id. Dr. Owen discussed at length Ms. Smith's history of trauma and found that “[s]he certainly has characteristics and symptoms consistent with the diagnosis of PTSD.” AR 465, 467. He stated that her “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder diagnosis seems to be accurate”; that she “is in therapy and takes medication for her ...

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