United States District Court, D. New Mexico
PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDED
HONORABLE GREGORY J. FOURATT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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.
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.
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. 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].
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.
Standard of Review
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.
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
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).
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).
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
Sequential Evaluation Process
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
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 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.
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.
ALJ'S FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
December 2017 written decision, the ALJ affirmed that she
carefully considered “all the evidence” and
“the entire record.” AR 15, 17, 24.
Steps One through Three
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. 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 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.
Residual Functional Capacity
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). Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the
RFC to “perform a full range of work at all exertional
levels” with the following “nonexertional”
[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.
Medical Evidence and Dr. Bakhtiar's Opinions
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.
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.
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).
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 ...