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Gonzales v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 5, 2019

KRYSTAL GONZALES, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse or Remand the Administrative Decision (Doc. 16) and memorandum in support (Doc. 17) filed on May 20, 2019. Having carefully reviewed the parties' positions and the material portions of the record, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's motion be GRANTED.[2]

         I. Procedural History

         On February 25, 2015, Ms. Krystal Gonzales (Plaintiff) filed applications with the Social Security Administration for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (SSA), and for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the SSA. Administrative Record[3] (AR) at 223, 232. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of March 30, 2009. AR at 223, 232. Disability Determination Services (DDS) determined that Plaintiff was not disabled both initially (AR at 71-72) and on reconsideration (AR at 124-25). Plaintiff requested a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on the merits of her applications. AR at 151.

         Both Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified during the de novo hearing. See AR at 33-70. ALJ Michael Leppala issued an unfavorable decision on December 27, 2017. AR at 9-27. Plaintiff submitted a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order to the Appeals Council (AR at 217-22), which the council denied on December 7, 2018 (AR at 1-8). 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 the claimant 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, [4] ALJ Leppala found that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 30, 2009, the alleged onset date.” AR at 14 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576, 416.971-976). At Step Two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “has the following severe impairments: affective disorder and polysubstance abuse disorder.” AR at 14 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c)). The ALJ noted that Plaintiff has the following non-severe impairments: headaches, hepatitis C, and obesity. AR at 15.

         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 15 (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 a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she is limited to completing simple tasks with routine supervision, can interact appropriately with others on an incidental basis, and can sustain effective attention to simple, repetitive tasks.

AR at 16. ALJ Leppala found that “[t]ransferability of job skills is not an issue in this case because [Plaintiff's] past relevant work is unskilled.” AR at 21 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1568, 416.968). The ALJ found that Plaintiff can perform the jobs of kitchen helper, hand packager, and commercial cleaner. ALJ at 22. The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from March 30, 2009, through the date of [the ALJ's] decision.” AR at 22 (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 five interrelated issues in her motion. She argues that the ALJ erred in: (1) failing to consider the impact of her schizophrenia diagnosis at all stages of the evaluation process; (2) failing to comply with the relevant regulations in weighing opinion evidence; (3) discounting her grandmother's testimony; (4) evaluating her mental impairments under the Listings; and (5) giving the state agency opinions greater weight than the treating provider opinions and failing to support his findings with substantial evidence. See Doc. 17 at 8-22. The Court agrees that ALJ Leppala gave short shrift to the record evidence that supports Plaintiff's diagnosis of a psychotic disorder and turns first to the ALJ's treatment of Plaintiff's treating providers.

         A. Dr. Scott Jeansonne, D.O.

         Plaintiff argues that ALJ Leppala improperly rejected the opinions of Dr. Scott Jeansonne, D.O., Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist. Doc. 17 at 9-11.

         1. The ‚Äútreating physician ...


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