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Brown v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 18, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         THIS 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.

         With 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).


         On 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).

         Per the 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, [1] first finding that Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity until October 6, 2012.[2] (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.).

         ALJ Leppala next assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), [3] finding that Plaintiff had the RFC to:

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 people.

(AR 964).

         With 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 933, 939-949).

         On 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).

         II. STANDARD

         Judicial 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).

         III. ...

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