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Martinez v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 19, 2019

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


         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency for Rehearing, with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 20) filed on July 12, 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. 3; 10; 11. Having considered the record, submissions of counsel, and relevant law, the Court finds Plaintiff's motion is well-taken and will be granted in part.

         I. Procedural History

         On January 13, 2015, Ms. Nancy Beatriz Martinez (Plaintiff) protectively filed applications with the Social Security Administration for a period of disability and 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[1] (AR) at 224, 231. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of January 8, 2015. AR at 224, 231. Disability Determination Services (DDS) determined that Plaintiff was not disabled both initially (AR at 65-96) and on reconsideration (AR at 97-124). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on the merits of her applications. AR at 143-44.

         Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified during the de novo hearing. See AR at 34-64. ALJ Lillian Richter issued an unfavorable decision on March 23, 2018. AR at 12-33. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council (AR at 166), which the council denied on November 5, 2018 (AR at 1-7). 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 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); see also 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(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) 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 (3) her 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), she is unable to perform her 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 her 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 [her] 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, [2] ALJ Richter found that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 8, 2015, the alleged onset date.” AR at 20 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576, 416.971-976). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: diabetes with polyneuropathy, obesity, chronic chest pain, calcaneal spurs of the left hand, major depressive disorder, borderline intellectual functioning, mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, right plantar fasciitis post fasciotomy, bilateral ankle/foot arthrosis, and moderate obstructive sleep apnea.” AR at 20 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c)). The ALJ noted that Plaintiff has the following non-severe impairments: hepatomegaly, gastritis, hiatal hernia, dyslipidemia, vitamin-D deficiency, hypertension, TMJ, and a sebaceous cyst. AR at 21.

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 [C.F.R.] Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” AR at 21 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926). At Step Four, the ALJ considered the evidence of record and found that Plaintiff

has the [RFC] to perform work at the sedentary exertional level as defined by 20 [C.F.R. §] 404.156[7], 20 [C.F.R §] 416.967 and SSR 83-10. She can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ramps or stairs, but she can never balance or climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She should avoid exposure to unprotected heights, hazardous machinery, dust, odors, fumes and other pulmonary irritants. She cannot operate a motor vehicle. She can frequently handle and finger bilaterally. [She] is limited to simple, routine and repetitive work and can make simple, work-related decisions in a workplace with few changes in [a] routine setting. She can have incidental interaction with the general public. [She] can hear, understand and communicate simple information. She may require the use of a handheld assistive device for purposes of ambulation.

AR at 23. ALJ Richter found that Plaintiff “is unable to perform any past relevant work.” AR at 26 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565, 416.965). The ALJ found that Plaintiff can perform the jobs of stuffer, touch-up screener, and table worker. ALJ at 27. The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 8, 2015, through the date of [the ALJ's] decision.” AR at 28 (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

         Plaintiff raises three issues in her motion. She argues that the ALJ erred in: (1) failing to properly evaluate her RFC; (2) failing to fully consider the impact of her obesity in combination with her other impairments; and (3) failing to evaluate whether a significant number of jobs exists in the national economy. See Doc. 20 at 5.

         A. The ALJ adequately evaluated Plaintiff's RFC.

         Plaintiff argues that ALJ Richter erred in evaluating the RFC, because she failed to properly consider the opinions of Eligio Padilla, Ph.D. and Jorge Sedas, M.D., as well as Plaintiff's own statements. Id. at 14-18.

         1. The ALJ adequately evaluated Dr. Padilla's opinion.

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion of Dr. Padilla, who is a psychologist and an acceptable medical source under the regulations. See Doc. 20 at 14-15. Plaintiff saw Dr. Padilla one time in connection with her application for DIB and SSI. See AR at 577-83. Dr. Padilla completed a Psychological Source Statement of Ability to do Work-Related Activities, where he opined that Plaintiff had marked limitations in her abilities to understand and remember detailed or complex instructions, carry out instructions, attend and concentrate, work without supervision, interact with the public or her supervisors, and adapt to changes in the workplace; a moderate limitation in her abilities to interact with coworkers; and mild limitations in her abilities to understand and remember short and simple instructions, be aware of normal hazards and react appropriately, and use public transportation or travel to unfamiliar places. AR at 581.

         When considering the opinions of medical sources, the Tenth Circuit has expressly noted that

an ALJ must consider the opinion of every medical source and provide specific, legitimate reasons for rejecting it. Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 764 (10th Cir.2003); see also SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at * 1 (“opinions from any medical source about issues reserved to the Commissioner must never be ignored”). . . . When deciding what weight to assign to an opinion, an ALJ must consider the factors set forth at 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d) and 416.927(d).

Lauxman v. Astrue, 321 Fed.Appx. 766, 769 n.2 (10th Cir. 2009) (emphasis added) (citing Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1215 (10th Cir. 2004)). Thus, the factors for otherwise assessing the weight to be given to a medical opinion are the same, whether given by a treating or non-treating source, and include:

(1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, including the treatment provided and the kind of examination or testing performed; (3) the degree to which the physician's opinion is supported by relevant evidence; (4) consistency between the opinion and the record as a whole; (5) whether or not the physician is a specialist in the area upon which an opinion is rendered; and (6) other factors brought to the ALJ's attention which tend to support or contradict the opinion.

Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1301 (10th Cir. 2003) (quotations omitted).[3]

         With respect to the first and fifth factors, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff saw Dr. Padilla for a consultative examination. AR at 22. With respect to the second factor, ALJ Richter summarized Dr. Padilla's examination of Plaintiff and his findings. AR at 22 (citing AR at 577-83). With respect to the third and fourth factors, the ALJ made specific findings (discussed below) regarding how ...

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