United States District Court, D. New Mexico
PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDED
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
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 (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.
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).
Applicable Law and the ALJ's Findings
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).
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),
One of the process,  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.
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. §§
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
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).
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
Dr. Scott Jeansonne, D.O.
argues that ALJ Leppala improperly rejected the opinions of
Dr. Scott Jeansonne, D.O., Plaintiff's treating
psychiatrist. Doc. 17 at 9-11.
The “treating physician ...