United States District Court, D. New Mexico
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART PLAINTIFF'S
MOTION TO REVERSE AND REMAND
R. SWEAZEA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff's Motion to
Reverse and Remand for a Rehearing or for Immediate Payment
of Benefits (Doc. 15) (“Motion”), filed January
31, 2019. In his Motion, Plaintiff argues that the Appeals
Council improperly rejected new, material, and relevant
evidence, and that the administrative law judge
(“ALJ”) failed to properly assess the opinions of
his treating psychiatrist, Mario Cruz, M.D.
the consent of the parties to conduct dispositive proceedings
in this matter, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(c);
Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the Court has considered the parties'
briefings, meticulously combed the administrative record, and
determined that the ALJ improperly rejected Dr. Cruz's
opinions. Due to this error, the Court will remand this case
for further proceedings. The Court will not reach
Plaintiff's remaining argument as it “may be
affected by the ALJ's treatment of this case on
remand.” Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297,
1299 (10th Cir. 2003).
October 3, 2012, Plaintiff protectively filed applications
for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income, alleging that he had been disabled since February 10,
2012, due to vasovagal syncope, post-traumatic stress
disorder (“PTSD”), obsessive compulsive disorder,
panic disorder, impulse control disorder, anxiety, and back
spasms. (AR 204, 211, 299). Plaintiff's claims were
denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels of
review, and a subsequent hearing before ALJ Barry
O'Melinn again ended in a denial. (AR 2, 67-68).
Plaintiff challenged the ALJ's decision in the United
States District Court for the District of New Mexico and, on
July 6, 2016, Magistrate Judge Vidmar remanded the case for
further proceedings. (AR 1055-1065).
Court's order, ALJ Michael Leppala granted Plaintiff a
second hearing and issued a new decision. (AR 958, 972,
1069-70). In his decision, ALJ Leppala engaged in the
required five-step disability analysis,  first finding
that Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity
until October 6, 2012. (AR 961). At step two, ALJ Leppala found
that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of a depressive
disorder, an anxiety disorder, PTSD, vasovagal syncope, and a
possible seizure disorder. (AR 962). At step three, the ALJ
determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, whether
alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the
severity of a listed impairment. (Id.).
Leppala next assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional
Capacity (“RFC”),  finding that Plaintiff had the
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but
with the following nonexertional limitations. He is limited
to never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and must
avoid moderate exposure to heat and all exposure to hazards.
The Claimant can understand, carry out, and remember simple
instructions and make commensurate work-related decisions,
respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and work
situations, deal with routine changes in work setting,
maintain concentration persistence, and pace for up to and
including two hours at a time with normal breaks throughout a
normal workday. He is limited to superficial contact with
coworkers and supervisors and no contact with the general
public and is best suited to working with things and not
Plaintiff's RFC assessment in hand, the ALJ proceeded to
steps four and five where, with the help of a vocational
expert, he determined that Plaintiff could not perform his
past relevant work but that he could perform the requirements
of representative occupations such as hand packager and
janitor. (AR 972). Accordingly, ALJ Leppala concluded that
Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id.). In response to
the ALJ's unfavorable decision, Plaintiff filed written
exceptions with the Appeals Council and submitted additional
medical evidence for the Council's consideration. (AR
August 1, 2018, the Council denied Plaintiff's request
for review and determined that the evidence Plaintiff
submitted did “not show a reasonable probability that
it would change the outcome of the decision.” (AR
933-934). Now that the Commissioner's decision is final,
see Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000),
Plaintiff's request for review is properly before the
Court. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to
determining “whether substantial evidence supports the
factual findings and whether the ALJ applied the correct
legal standards.” Allman v. Colvin, 813 F.3d
1326, 1330 (10th Cir. 2016). See also 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). “Substantial evidence is such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Langley v. Barnhart,
373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004) (quotation omitted).
“Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by
other evidence in the record or constitutes mere
conclusion.” Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d
1257, 1261-62 (10th Cir. 2005) (quotation omitted). The Court
must examine the record as a whole, “including anything
that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in
order to determine if the substantiality test has been
met.” Id. at 1262. Additionally,
“[f]ailure to apply the correct legal standard or to
provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that
appropriate legal principles have been followed is grounds
for reversal.” Byron v. Heckler, 742 F.2d
1232, 1235 (10th Cir. 1984) (quotation omitted). Even so, it
is not the function of the Court to review Plaintiff's
claims de novo, and the Court may not reweigh the evidence or
substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Glass v.
Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994).