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Garza v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 30, 2019

NORMA GARZA, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff Norma Jean Garza's “Motion to Reverse or Remand the Administrative Decision” [ECF 19] (“Motion”). The Motion is fully briefed. See ECFs 20 (Plaintiff's Supporting Memorandum), 24 (Commissioner's Response), 25 (Plaintiff's Reply). Having meticulously reviewed the entire record and the parties' briefing, the Court recommends that the Commissioner's final decision be AFFIRMED, that Plaintiff's Motion be DENIED, and that the instant cause be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.


         Plaintiff was born in 1959 and graduated from high school in 1978. Administrative Record (AR) 192, 204. She obtained a commercial driver's license and worked as a bus driver for the city of Albuquerque from January 1999 to February 2015. AR 46. She stopped working when, after asking a drunk man to leave the bus and the man began kicking the tires, she inadvertently ran over his legs-causing them to be amputated. AR 46, 163, 307. Approximately three months later, in May 2015, she applied for social security disability benefits, claiming that she suffered from disabling “Depression and Anxiety (PTSD).” AR 68, 72.[1]

         In November 2015, the Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Plaintiff's claim, concluding that, although she had “some limitations, ” such limitations “would not prevent [her] from performing past relevant work as [a] Bus driver.” AR 79. In May 2016, upon her request for reconsideration, the SSA again denied her claims, concluding that she could not perform her past work-but that she could nevertheless “perform work that is less demanding.” AR 96, 106. Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which was held in July 2017 before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Ann Farris. AR 41, 113. In December 2017, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 35.[2] In November 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision. AR 1. Plaintiff timely petitioned this Court for relief in December 2018. Compl. [ECF 1].


         Plaintiff asserts that, as a matter of law, the ALJ should have found her to be disabled. Compl. 2; Mem. 21-22. Specifically, she argues that the ALJ gave too little weight to those medical opinions that could have supported a finding of disability and too much weight to those that did not. Mem. 7-13, 21-22. Plaintiff further contends that the ALJ's factual findings that relied on such weights-i.e., the findings that Plaintiff had no “listed impairments, ” that she had the capacity to work, and that she was not disabled-were therefore erroneous. Mem. 13-23; AR 19-34.


         A. Standard of Review

         The Court's review of an ALJ's decision is both legal and factual. See Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th Cir. 2008) (“The standard of review in a social security appeal is whether the correct legal standards were applied and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence.” (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992))).

         In determining whether the correct legal standards were applied, the Court reviews “whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005)). The Court may reverse and remand if the ALJ failed to “apply correct legal standards” or “show . . . [he or she] has done so.” Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004) (citing Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996)).

         The Commissioner's findings “as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (emphasis added). “Under the substantial-evidence standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains ‘sufficien[t] evidence' to support the agency's factual determinations.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (brackets in original) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). “And . . . the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high. Substantial evidence, [the Supreme] Court has said, is more than a mere scintilla.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “It means-and means only-such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Under this standard, a court should still meticulously review the entire record, but it may not “reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Newbold v. Colvin, 718 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2013) (quoting Branum v. Barnhart, 385 F.3d 1268, 1270 (10th Cir. 2004)); Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. Indeed, a court is to “review only the sufficiency of the evidence, not its weight.” Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1257 (10th Cir. 2007) (emphasis in original). Therefore, “[t]he possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's findings from being supported by substantial evidence.” Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)). Furthermore, a court “may not displace the agency'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) (brackets omitted).

         Ultimately, if the correct legal standards were applied and substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings, the Commissioner's decision stands and Plaintiff is not entitled to relief. Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214.

         B. Sequential Evaluation Process

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he or 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) (emphasis added).

         The SSA has devised a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25 (2003). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 & n.5 (1987); Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005); Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-51, 751 n.2 (10th Cir. 1988). In the first four steps, the claimant must show (1) that she “is not presently engaged in substantial gainful activity, ” (2) that she “has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments, ” and either (3) that the impairment is equivalent to a listed impairment[3] or (4) that “the impairment or combination of impairments prevents [her] from performing [her] past work.” Williams, 844 F.2d at 750-51; Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.

         If the claimant has advanced through step four, the burden of proof then shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant nonetheless retains sufficient capacity “to perform other work in the national economy in view of [her] age, education, and work experience.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 142, 146, n.5.


         In her December 2017 written decision, the ALJ affirmed that she carefully considered “all the evidence” and “the entire record.” AR 15, 17, 24.

         A. Steps One through Three

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since February 2015, the alleged onset date of her disability. AR 17-18.[4] At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following “severe” impairments: “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] and a mild neurocognitive disorder with anxiety.” AR 18-19. The ALJ also considered Plaintiff's other impairments[5] but found them to be non-severe. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that no impairment or combination thereof satisfied the criteria of a listed impairment. AR 19-24.

         B. Residual Functional Capacity

         Before performing the step four analysis, in which the ALJ considers whether a claimant can perform past work, the ALJ must first determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (RFC).[6] Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to “perform a full range of work at all exertional levels” with the following “nonexertional” limitations:

[Plaintiff] should not be required to drive as part of her job duties; she is limited to medium work because of her age category; she is limited to making simple work-related decisions, and a workplace with few workplace changes; no interaction with the general public; only occasional and superficial interactions with coworkers.

AR 24. In discussing the evidence and reasoning that led to this RFC finding, the ALJ began by reviewing Plaintiff's allegations that her “anxiety, PTSD, and depression” prevent her from working. AR 25-26, 49. As set forth below, however, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [her] symptoms [were] not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” AR 26.

         1. Medical Evidence and Dr. Bakhtiar's Opinions

         The ALJ observed that “[t]he medical evidence of record show[ed] that [Plaintiff] was diagnosed with these conditions [i.e., depression and anxiety (PTSD)], and evidence[d] her treatment.” AR 26. The evidence, however, “also show[ed] that [Plaintiff] was interested in leaving her position as a bus driver prior to the alleged [disability] onset date, and for different reasons.” AR 26-27 (citing Plaintiff's diagnoses, on separate occasions around mid-2014, of vertigo, “non-cardiac chest pain, ” and hypothyroidism and Plaintiff's representation to a nurse that her job “[would] not find her light duty, ” along with that nurse's (unelaborated) notation that Plaintiff “[was] not able to work as a bus driver”). The ALJ also noted that, in August 2014, “her depression was reported as ‘much better.'” AR 27.

         The ALJ also observed that, on the day of Plaintiff's alleged disability onset date in February 2015, she was “assessed with anxiety related to work, and the plan was no work for two weeks.” Id. The medical notes from two weeks later stated that she was still “scared of driving” and recommended “no work till seen by psych.” Id. The psychiatrist, Parvaneh Bakhtiar, M.D., saw Plaintiff in early April 2015 and completed a leave application form, noting that Plaintiff's “period of incapacity [would] last only two to three months.” Id. Approximately one month later, Dr. Bakhtiar also “completed what appear[ed] to be [a private] application for disability benefits . . ., stating that [Plaintiff] was ‘totally disabled' from April 1, 2015 through ‘ongoing.'” Id. (emphasis added). The ALJ, however, gave no weight to this “medical opinion” because “it [was] not sufficiently well-explained, contain[ed] no factual support for its assertions, contradict[ed] without explanation [Dr. Bakhtiar's previous] statements which estimated two to three months of incapacity and [was] based on three stated dates of treatment.” Id.[7]

         The ALJ also reviewed two subsequent opinions from Dr. Bakhtiar, from June 2015 and July 2016, that were completed to use as part of Plaintiff's SSA disability application. AR 31-32. These opinions consisted of a “questionnaire” form and a “mental residual functional capacity assessment” form and were “loosely based on outdated or misstated social security listing information.” AR 31, 351-57, 391-97. Dr. Bakhtiar checked boxes (or circled answers) on these forms that classified Plaintiff as having, inter alia, (1) a “complete inability to function outside the area of [her] home, ” (2) “marked” limitations in all four “areas of mental functioning” (“understanding and memory, ” social functioning, “concentration, persistence or pace, ” and ability to adapt or manage herself), and (3) “three [qualifying] episodes of deterioration or decompensation in work or work like settings.” AR 19-22, 31, 354-57, 394-97 (emphasis added).

         Although the ALJ acknowledged that Dr. Bakhtiar was a “treating acceptable medical source, ” she nevertheless gave her opinions “little weight” because they were inconsistent with the ...

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