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Valdez v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 20, 2019

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



         Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's determination that she is not entitled to disability benefits. 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 Plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and Remand for Rehearing with Supporting Memorandum (Doc. 17), filed February 11, 2019, the Commissioner's response in opposition (Doc. 19), filed April 10, 2019, and Plaintiff's reply (Doc. 20), filed June 6, 2019. Having so considered, the Court hereby GRANTS Plaintiff's motion and REMANDS this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


         On June 15, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income benefits, alleging that she had been disabled since November 17, 2008, due to manic depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and mental impairments. (AR 183, 204). After denials at both the initial and reconsideration levels of review (AR 68, 106), Plaintiff was granted a hearing before administrative law judge (“ALJ”) Cole Gerstner.

         In the written decision that followed, ALJ Gerstner engaged in the required five-step disability analysis, [1] first finding that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 6, 2015. (AR 19). At step two, ALJ Gerstner found that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of bipolar affective disorder and substance abuse disorder in early remission. (AR 20). 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. (AR 21). ALJ Gerstner next assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), [2] finding that Plaintiff has the RFC to:

perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: The claimant is limited to performing simple, routine tasks. She is limited to making simple, routine work-related decisions. The claimant is limited to superficial contact with supervisors, coworkers, and the general public.

(AR 23).

         Based on this assessment, ALJ Gerstner determined, at steps four and five, that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work, but that she was capable of performing the requirements of representative occupations such as packager, automobile detailer, cleaner, and marker. (AR 26-27). Accordingly, ALJ Gerstner concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 28). The ALJ's decision became final when, on July 24, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1). See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000) (explaining that if the Council denies a request for a review, the ALJ's opinion becomes the final decision). Plaintiff now asks the Court to assign error to ALJ Gerstner's decision.

         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. “Failure 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. ANALYSIS

         ALJ Gerstner's unfavorable decision was based, in part, on opinion evidence provided by a variety of health care professionals. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ mistreated the opinions of three of these professionals-non-examining agency psychological consultants Jill Blacharsh, M.D. and Ellen Gara Psy.D, and examining psychologist Shari Spies, Psy.D-resulting in a flawed RFC determination.[3] Specifically, Plaintiff contends that ALJ Gerstner (1) improperly weighed the opinions of Dr. Blacharsh and Dr. Gara, and (2) failed to provide adequate reasons for rejecting the findings of Dr. Spies. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds merit in Plaintiff's first argument and remands on this basis. 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).

         State agency psychologists Dr. Blacharsh and Dr. Gara reviewed Plaintiff's medical records at the initial and reconsideration levels of review, respectively. As part of their review, both doctors completed a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment (“MRFCA”). In Section I of their assessments, the doctors noted that Plaintiff was moderately limited in her abilities to understand and remember detailed instructions; carry out detailed instructions; maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual; sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision; work in coordination with/in proximity to others; complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without unreasonable rest periods; ask simple questions or request assistance; accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors; get along with coworkers or peers; maintain socially appropriate behavior and adhere to basic standards of neatness and cleanliness; respond appropriately to changes in the work setting; be aware of normal hazards; and set realistic goals. (AR 76-77, 90-91). Dr. Gara also noted that Plaintiff was moderately limited in her ability to remember locations and work-like procedures, and both doctors found that Plaintiff was markedly limited in her ability to interact appropriately with the general public. (AR 77, 90).

         In Section III of their assessments, both doctors concluded that Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform unskilled work, with Dr. Gara adding that Plaintiff is best suited for work not involving contact with the general public. (AR 79, 91). Here, Dr. Blacharsh explained that Plaintiff was able to shop in stores, read, and use public transportation, that Plaintiff had not applied for a job because she was a convicted felon, not due to a ...

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