Garcia v. Colvin
ORDER: The SSA's decision is reversed, and this case is remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion, by Judge Lewis T. Babcock on 11/7/2017. (ebuch)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO
LEWIS T. BABCOCK, JUDGE
Civil Case No.: 16-cv-02797-LTB
HECTOR L. GARCIA, JR.,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
Plaintiff Hector Garcia Jr. appeals the final decision of the Acting
Commissioner of Social Security (“SSA”) denying his application for disability
insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq.
I have considered the parties’ briefs (ECF Nos. 17, 19–20) and the administrative
record (ECF No. 14) (“AR”). Oral argument would not materially assist me in
determining this appeal.
Mr. Garcia argues the administrative law judge (ALJ) erred when he
concluded Mr. Garcia did not meet the requirements of listing 1.04A (disorders of
the spine). He also argues the ALJ erred in evaluating Mr. Garcia’s residual
functional capacity (RFC) by improperly analyzing the opinion of a treating
phsycian and improperly weighing Mr. Garcia’s obesity and his subjective reports of
pain. I agree that the ALJ erred when he determined Mr. Garcia did not meet the
requirements of listing 1.04A and in evaluating Mr. Garcia’s RFC. Accordingly, I
REVERSE SSA’s decision and REMAND for proceedings consistent with this
Mr. Garcia filed his application for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental social security income with SSA in October 2013, alleging disability
beginning April 2, 2013. AR 130–38. After SSA initially denied his claim, AR 70,
Mr. Garcia requested a hearing, AR 90. The hearing took place on July 8, 2015,
before an ALJ. AR 28–58. On August 24, 2015, the ALJ denied Mr. Garcia’s claim,
concluding he was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. AR
7–23. Mr. Garcia asked SSA’s Appeals Council to review the ALJ’s decision. AR 6.
On October 21, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review, AR 1–5, making the ALJ’s
decision the final decision of SSA, see Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th
Cir. 2003). On November 17, 2016, Mr. Garcia timely filed this appeal. (ECF No. 1.)
I have jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Mr. Garcia is a 53 year–old man who most recently worked as a taxi driver
and dispatcher. He also has worked as a truck driver and a director for an adult
baseball association headquartered in Denver, Colorado.
On April 3, 2013, Mr. Garcia was hit head–on by a drunk driver while he was
driving his taxi. AR 258, 338. The airbags deployed, and immediately after the
accident, Mr. Garcia complained of neck, back, and abdominal pain. Id. At the
emergency room, x–rays and an ultrasound did not show any acute abnormality,
and Mr. Garcia was discharged. AR 259–69.
A few days later, Mr. Garcia went to see Dr. Annu Ramaswamy about a
worker’s compensation claim because he was experiencing head, back, neck, and
right leg pain, as well as some dizziness. AR 338. Mr. Garcia’s neck and back were
tender on palpitation, and a straight–leg test (a test used to detect whether a
patient with low back pain has an underlying herniated disk) was positive on the
right leg. AR 340. Dr. Ramaswamy also noted that Mr. Garcia had spasms in his
lumbar spine. Id. An MRI of his back showed “[s]evere foraminal stenosis on the
right L5 [lumber vertebrae 5]–S1 [sacral vertebrae 1]” level and “a focal
compressive deformity of the exiting right L5 nerve root.” AR 349. It also showed
“early facet arthritis and shallow minor disc bulge at L4–5.” Id. In early May and
April 2013, Mr. Garcia’s straight–leg tests continued to be positive on the right side.
AR 328 (positive on May 9, 2013), 334 (positive on April 15, 2013).
Mr. Garcia then saw a specialist, Dr. Michael Rauzzino, at the Front Range
Spine and Neurosurgery center. Dr. Rauzzino found decreased strength in Mr.
Garcia’s right leg and significant muscle tenderness in his lumbar spine, but a
straight–leg test was negative on the right. AR 345. Dr. Rauzzino recommended
conservative treatment, including physical therapy, anti–inflammatory
medications, and epidural steroid injections, “to try and get him some relief.” AR
345–46. He told Mr. Garcia to follow up with him after the epidural injections. AR
Mr. Garcia started conservative treatment soon afterward. In addition to
physical therapy, medication, and steroid injections, Mr. Garcia was treated with
radiofrequency ablation (a minimally invasive procedure designed to decrease pain
signals from a nerve). AR 298. Mr. Garcia reported some pain relief from the
treatments, e.g., AR 317, even though the relief was sometimes temporary, e.g., AR
310. During this period, Dr. Ramaswamy consistently noted spasms and
tenderness in Mr. Garcia’s lumbar spine. E.g., AR 283, 288, 318, 323, 328, 334. He
also observed that Mr. Garcia walked with antalgic gait (essentially a limp). AR
282, 288, 294, 318, 322, 327, 333. Results of the straight–leg test on the right side
were largely negative while Mr. Garcia was periodically receiving the steroid
injections and other treatments and for a few months afterward. AR 323 (negative
on May 24, 2013), 318 (negative on June 17, 2013); 311 (negative on July 22, 2013),
306 (negative on August 5, 2013), 300 (negative on September 5, 2013), 283
(negative on November 4, 2013), 279 (positive on December 2, 2013), AR 273
(negative on December 17, 2013), 294 (negative on September 26, 2013); 358
(negative on January 2, 2014).
Mr. Garcia followed up with Dr. Rauzzino in October 2013. Mr. Garcia said
his leg pain had decreased since he started treatment in May 2013, but his back
pain remained significant. AR 347. Mr. Garcia reported he was able to function
and drive, but he complained about some problems with his neck and upper
extremity. Id. Because those problems were not part of the worker’s compensation
claim and Mr. Garcia lacked health insurance, he didn’t receive treatment for them.
Id. Dr. Rauzzino did not think Mr. Garcia was a good candidate for spinal surgery
since he had shown some improvement with conservative care. Id. Dr. Rauzzino
referred Mr. Garcia back to Dr. Ramaswamy for further evaluation. Id.
By January 2014, Mr. Garcia had returned to work on modified duty,
working four hours a day. AR 460. However, he was struggling to sit and was still
experiencing low back pain. AR 461. In early 2014, Mr. Garcia went to a few
sessions with a psychologist to work on strategies for coping with pain. AR 466–75.
In April 2014, Dr. Anselmo Mamaril, an agency phsycian, reviewed Mr.
Garcia’s medical records and evaluated his physical impairments. AR 62–67. He
assessed limitations that are broadly consistent with the ability to perform light
work. Id. He also opined that Mr. Garcia did not meet the requirements of any
listing, but he did not elaborate on this conclusion. AR 65.
Dr. Ramaswamy continued to treat Mr. Garcia after Dr. Mamaril’s
evaluation. Mr. Garcia consistently complained of pain, and Dr. Ramaswamy
consistently found muscle weakness and spasms. AR 405, 399–400, 394, 388.
Straight–leg tests were consistently positive on the right. AR 405, 399–400, 394,
388. In late 2014 or early 2015, Mr. Garcia stopped working completely. AR 12,
35–38, 153–54. In March 2015, the most recent treatment record from Dr.
Ramaswamy in the file, Mr. Garcia’s straight–leg test was positive on the right, and
he had an antalgic gait. AR 373. He complained of “constant lower back pain along
with right extremity weakness and numbness/tingling.” AR 372. Dr. Ramaswamy
concluded Mr. Garcia’s back issues were “stable” at that point. AR 374.
In May 2015, Dr. Ramaswamy opined on Mr. Garcia’s limitations. He opined
he could occasionally lift and carry up to ten pounds, could sit continuously for an
hour for up to five hours in an eight–hour work day, and could stand and walk
15–20 minutes continuously for up to three hours in eight–hour work day. AR 492.
He explained that Mr. Garcia “needs to alternate standing/walking with sitting as
much as possible. AR 493. He also opined that Mr. Garcia could never climb
ladders or scaffolds, crouch, kneel, or crawl, but he could occasionally climb stairs.
AR 494. Many of these limitations are more restrictive than those endorsed by Dr.
Standard for Reviewing SSA’s Decision
My review is limited to determining whether SSA applied the correct legal
standards and whether its decision is supported by substantial evidence in the
record. Williamson v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1097, 1098 (10th Cir. 2003). With regard
to the law, reversal may be appropriate when SSA either applies an incorrect legal
standard or fails to demonstrate reliance on the correct legal standards. See
Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017, 1019 (10th Cir. 1996). With regard to the
evidence, I must “determine whether the findings of fact . . . are based upon
substantial evidence, and inferences reasonably drawn therefrom. If they are so
supported, they are conclusive upon the reviewing court and may not be disturbed.”
Trujillo v. Richardson, 429 F.2d 1149, 1150 (10th Cir. 1970). “Substantial evidence
is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such evidence that a
reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion.” Campbell v. Bowen, 822
F.2d 1518, 1521 (10th Cir. 1987) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401
(1971)). The record must demonstrate that the ALJ considered all of the evidence,
but an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence. Clifton v. Chater, 79
F.3d 1007, 1009-10 (10th Cir. 1996). I may not reweigh the evidence or substitute
my judgment for that of the ALJ. Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs.,
933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991).
III. The ALJ’s Decision
The ALJ followed the five-step analysis outlined above. At step one, the ALJ
found that Mr. Garcia had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his
alleged onset date of April 2, 2013, and met the insured requirements of the Social
Security Act through December 31, 2017. AR 12. At step two, the ALJ found Mr.
Garcia had two severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and obesity. AR 13.
At step three, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Garcia’s impairments did not meet or
equal any of the “listed impairments” that mandate a conclusive finding of disability
under the social security regulations. AR 13–14. At step four, the ALJ found that
Mr. Garcia had the following RFC:
[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to
perform a light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b)
except that the claimant cannot climb ladders or scaffolds
and cannot crouch, crawl, or kneel. He can occasionally
stoop and climb stairs and can frequently reach, handle,
and finger. In addition, the claimant needs the option of
alternating sitting and standing every 30 minutes.
AR 14. The ALJ determined that Mr. Garcia could return to his past relevant work
as a program director. AR 18–19. The ALJ accordingly concluded that Mr. Garcia
was not disabled under the Social Security Act. AR 19.
Listing1.04A (Disorders of the Spine)
Mr. Garcia argues the ALJ erred when he determined that Mr. Garcia did
not meet the requirements for Listing 1.04A, a listing characterized by a
compromised nerve root or spinal cord.
The listings at 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 are examples of medical
conditions that ordinarily prevent an individual from engaging in any gainful
activity. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a) (stating that the listings “describes for each of
the major body systems impairments that we consider to be severe enough to
prevent an individual from doing any gainful activity, regardless of his or her age,
education, or work experience”). Each impairment is defined in terms of several
specific medical signs, symptoms, or laboratory test results. See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404,
subpt. P, app. 1. § 1.04A. Listing 1.04A provides:
Disorders of the spine (e.g., herniated nucleus pulposus, spinal
arachnoiditis, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease,
facet arthritis, vertebral fracture) resulting in compromise of a nerve
root (including cauda equine) or the spinal cord. With:
Evidence of nerve root compression characterized by
neuro-anatomic distribution of pain, limitation of motion of the
spine, motor loss (atrophy with associated muscle weakness or
muscle weakness) accompanied by sensory or reflex loss and, if
there is involvement of the lower back, positive straight-leg
raising test (sitting and supine)
“To show that an impairment or combination of impairments meets the
requirements of a listing, a claimant must provide specific medical findings that
support each of the various requisite criteria for the impairment.” Lax v. Astrue,
489 F.3d 1080, 1085 (10th Cir. 2007). “An impairment that manifests only some of
those criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493
U.S. 521, 530 (1990). A claimant has the burden to present evidence establishing
his impairments meet or equal listed impairments. Fischer–Ross v. Barnhart, 431
F.3d 729, 733 (10th Cir. 2005).
The ALJ concluded that Mr. Garcia did not meet Listing 1.04A because
“there does not appear to be any atrophy (although there is documentation of motor
loss).” AR 13 (citing AR 22, 28). The ALJ also concluded he did not meet the
Listing’s requirements because even though some of the straight–leg tests were
positive, others were negative. Id.
Mr. Garcia challenges the AL’s first reason—that the medical records do not
reflect atrophy—as inconsistent with requirements of the listing. Listing 1.04A
requires “motor loss,” which can be evidenced by “atrophy with associated muscle
weakness” or “muscle weakness.” 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. § 1.04A
(Listing 1.04A). As the ALJ recognized, “there is documentation of motor loss” in
the record. AR 13. Yet contrary to the plain language of the listing, the ALJ
required the motor loss to be evidenced by atrophy. See id. Because there was
evidence of motor loss through muscle weakness (e.g., AR 341, 334,345, 388, 481),
the ALJ should not have also required evidence of atrophy. See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404,
subpt. P, app. 1 § 1.04A.
Mr. Garcia challenges the ALJ’s second reason—that some of the straight–leg
tests were positive—because the positive tests largely occurred during the short
period of time while he was receiving spinal steroid injections and other treatments
and before he exacerbated his injury when he tried to return to work. The listing
introduction acknowledges that abnormal findings, such as positive straight–leg
tests, “may be intermittent,” and therefore “their presence over a period of time
must be established by a record of ongoing management and evaluation.” 20 C.F.R.
Pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, part A, § 1.00(D). The record in this case shows that aside
from a few months in 2013 while he was receiving treatment, most of Mr. Garcia’s
straight–leg tests were positive on the right, including all the most recent ones.
See, e.g., AR 405 (positive on September 2, 2014), 399–400 (positive on September
30, 2014), 394 (positive on November 4, 2014), 388 (positive on December 2, 2014),
372–74 (positive on March 4, 2015). However, the ALJ provided no reason for
rejecting all of these positive tests in favor of the negative ones. See Olechna v.
Astrue, No. 08-CV-398, 2010 WL 786256, at *5 (N.D.N.Y. Mar. 3, 2010) (reversing
where the ALJ provided “no rationale for rejecting the majority of positive
[straight–leg test] results in favor of the . . . negative result”). By summarily
rejecting the numerous positive tests, the ALJ erred.
The Commissioner’s brief largely glosses over both of these mistakes, and
instead offers two alterative bases for affirmance: Mr. Garcia’s part–time work
history, which the Commissioner suggests demonstrates his impairment is not so
severe that it precludes any gainful activity, and the opinion of a state agency
physician, who reviewed Mr. Garcia’s file and opined (without explanation) that he
did not meet any listing. These reasons were never contemplated by the ALJ and
are not appropriate grounds for affirming his decision. See Robinson v. Barnhart,
366 F.3d 1078, 1084 (10th Cir. 2004) (reversing and remanding where lower court
improperly “supply[ed] possible reasons for giving less weight to or rejecting the
treating physician’s opinion”; holding the “ALJ’s decision should have been
evaluated based solely on the reasons stated in the decision”); Russ v. Colvin, 67 F.
Supp. 3d 1274, 1279 (D. Colo. 2014) (“[T]he Commissioner’s attempts, post hoc, to
fill in the blanks on the ALJ’s behalf are improper . . . .”). And even if I considered
them, I would reject them on their merits.
First, the Commissioner’s argument regarding the impact of Mr. Garcia’s
part–time work history is based on a misreading of the relevant law. Citing the
Supreme Court’s decision in Sullivan v. Zebley, the Commissioner argues that Mr.
Garcia cannot meet the requirements of any listing because he performed some
part–time work during the disability period. In Zebley, the Supreme Court
invalidated the Commissioner’s regulations for determining whether a child is
disabled. Under the then-existing regulations, a child could only be disabled if she
met the requirements for a listing and could not qualify for benefits based on RFC.
493 U.S. at 535–39. The Court reasoned that the listings generally define
impairments that preclude “any gainful activity,” not just “substantial gainful
activity,” as required in the statute. Id. at 532 (emphasis in original). The listings
are therefore essentially a shortcut to finding disability because they are more
severe than the statutory standard. See id.
Based on the Supreme Court’s explanation in Zelby that the listings
generally preclude any gainful activity, the Commissioner argues that because Mr.
Garcia worked part–time for part of the disability, he cannot meet the listing. This
reasoning is backward; it would negate the conclusive presumptions set forth in the
listings. As the Supreme Court said in Zelby, “the listings were designed to operate
as a presumption of disability that makes further inquiry unnecessary.” Id. at 532.
Therefore, “if an adult is not actually working and his impairment matches or is
equivalent to a listed impairment, he is presumed unable to work and is awarded
benefits without a determination whether he actually can perform his own prior
work or other work.” Id. Mr. Garcia’s part–time work history is relevant to
whether he meets the listing only to the extent it bears on whether he is “actually
working.” See id.; Davidson v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 912 F.2d 1246,
1252 (10th Cir. 1990) (“[T]he function of the listings is to establish a description of
impairments so severe as to constitute an automatic conclusive presumption of
Second, the fact that an agency physician opined that Mr. Garcia did not
meet Listing 1.04A cannot save the ALJ’s decision because, as I describe below, the
ALJ improperly discounted the opinion of Mr. Garcia’s treating physician, Dr.
Ramaswamy, which imposed more restrictive limitations than the agency
physician’s. Cf. Maron v. Berryhill, No. 16-CV-02943-MEH, 2017 WL 2333102, at
*7 (D. Colo. May 30, 2017) (rejecting argument that ALJ’s failure to analyze
whether claimant met a listing was harmless where ALJ also erred in assessing
Thus, neither the ALJ’s stated reasons nor those supplied by the
Commissioner are valid reasons for concluding that Mr. Garcia does not meet the
requirements of Listing 1.04A. Remand is necessary for the ALJ to reassess this
Mr. Garcia also argues the ALJ erred in assessing his RFC because he
improperly weighed the opinion of a treating physician, Dr. Ramaswamy, and failed
to adequately account for his pain and his obesity.
RFC represents “the most [the claimant] can still do despite [his]
limitations,” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1), and must include “all of [the claimant’s]
medically determinable impairments,” id. § 404.1545(a)(2). An RFC determination
is an administrative assessment based on all the evidence of how the claimant’s
impairments and related symptoms affect his or her ability to perform work-related
activities. Young v. Barnhart, 146 Fed. App’x 952, 955 (10th Cir. 2005)
(unpublished). The final responsibility for determining the claimant’s RFC rests
with the Commissioner and is based upon all the evidence in the record. Id.; see
also Titles II & XVI: Assessing Residual Functional Capacity in Initial Claims, SSR
96-8P, 1996 WL 374184, at *7 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996) (indicating that the RFC
assessment by the ALJ must include a discussion of why reported symptom–related
functional limitations and restrictions can or cannot reasonably be accepted as
consistent with the medical and other evidence).
Dr. Ramaswamy’s Opinion
Dr. Ramaswamy gave multiple opinions over the course of several years,
including many that imposed only temporary restrictions. I limit my analysis here
to the ALJ’s rejection of Dr. Ramaswamy’s 2015 opinion.
The amount of deference due to an opinion about a claimant’s impairments
varies depending on its source. An ALJ should “[g]enerally . . . give more weight to
opinions from [a claimant’s] treating sources.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). In
deciding how much weight to give a treating source opinion, an ALJ must complete
a two-step inquiry. Krauser v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1330 (10th Cir. 2011). An
ALJ must first determine whether the opinion qualifies for “controlling weight.” Id.
An opinion from a treating source is entitled to controlling weight if it is both
“well–supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic
techniques” and consistent with other substantial evidence in the record. Id.; Titles
II & XVI: Giving Controlling Weight to Treating Source Medical Opinions, SSR
96-2P, 1996 WL 374188, at *1 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996). Even if not entitled to
controlling weight, a treating source’s opinion “may still be entitled to deference.”
Id. The amount of deference due depends on weighing several factors:
(1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of
examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship,
including the treatment provided and the kind of examination or
testing performed; (3) the degree to which the physician’s opinion is
supported by relevant evidence; (4) consistency between the opinion
and the record as a whole; (5) whether or not the physician is a
specialist in the area upon which an opinion is rendered; and (6) other
factors brought to the ALJ’s attention which tend to support or
contradict the opinion.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c). “It is the ALJ’s duty to give consideration to
all the medical opinions in the record. He must also discuss the weight he assigns
to such opinions.” Keyes–Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161 (10th Cir. 2012)
(citation omitted). An ALJ may dismiss or discount an opinion from a treating
source only if he provides “specific, legitimate reasons” for the rejection. Chapo v.
Astrue, 682 F.3d 1285, 1291 (10th Cir. 2012) (quotation omitted).
In May 2015, Dr. Ramaswamy opined that Mr. Garcia could occasionally lift
and carry up to ten pounds, could sit continuously for an hour at a time for up to
five hours in an eight–hour work day, and could stand and walk continuously 15–20
minutes at a time for up to three hours in eight–hour work day. AR 492. He
explained that Mr. Garcia “needs to alternate standing/walking with sitting as
much as possible.” AR 493. He also opined that Mr. Garcia could never climb
ladders or scaffolds, crouch, kneel, or crawl, but could occasionally climb stairs. AR
The ALJ largely rejected Dr. Ramaswamy’s opinion, largely with a
non–specific platitude. Without citing any evidence in the record, the ALJ
concluded Dr. Ramaswamy’s opinion was “inconsistent with his examination notes,
each other, and the record as a whole.” AR 17. These boilerplate phrases,
unconnected to any evidence in the record, fall short of the “specific, legitimate
reasons” required to reject treating physician’s opinion. See Chapo, 682 F.3d at
1291; see also Russ, 67 F. Supp. 3d at 1279 (“The court is neither inclined nor,
indeed, authorized, to search through the administrative record in an attempt to
pinpoint evidence that might support the ALJ’s findings . . .”).
While the ALJ did provide two specific reasons for rejecting Dr.
Ramaswamy’s opinion, neither are legitimate. First, the ALJ speculated about the
basis of Dr. Ramaswamy’s opinion, observing that his opinions “appear to be based
on the claimant’s subjective allegations rather than the objective evidence.” AR 17.
An ALJ may not reject a treating physician’s opinions based on speculation.
McGoffin v. Barnhart, 288 F.3d 1248, 1252 (10th Cir. 2002) (“In choosing to reject
the treating physician’s assessment, an ALJ may not make speculative inferences
from medical reports and may reject a treating physician’s opinion outright only on
the basis of contradictory medical evidence and not due to his or her own credibility
judgments, speculation or lay opinion.” (emphasis and quotation omitted)). But
even if Dr. Ramaswamy had based his opinion on Mr. Garcia’s subjective
complaints, that would not be a valid reason for rejecting it:
[A] medical finding of disability is not based solely on objective test
results. It includes an evaluation of the patient’s medical history and
the physician's observations of the patient, and necessarily involves an
evaluation of the credibility of the patient's subjective complaints of
pain. A medical opinion based on all of these factors is medical
evidence supporting a claim of disabling pain, even if the objective test
results, taken alone, do not fully substantiate the claim.
Nieto v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 59, 60–61 (10th Cir. 1984); see also Russ, 67 F. Supp. at
1278–79 (“The ALJ’s own obvious disbelief of plaintiff’s reports regarding her own
limitations provides no basis for rejecting an otherwise properly substantiated
medical source opinion.”).
Second, the ALJ discounted Dr. Ramaswamy’s 2015 opinion because it was
inconsistent with his opinion from a year earlier. Given that Dr. Ramaswamy
treated and evaluated Mr. Garcia multiple times between the two opinions, it was
inappropriate for the ALJ to summarily reject his opinion simply because it differed
from an opinion from a year earlier. See Chapo, 682 F.3d at 1291.
The Commissioner argues that even if the ALJ said he gave “little weight” to
Dr. Ramaswamy’s opinion, he actually adopted many of the limitations Dr.
Ramaswamy imposed, making any weighing error inconsequential. While the ALJ
did adopt the postural limitations endorsed Dr. Ramaswamy despite indicating he
gave the opinion “little weight,” he rejected other limitations. For instance, the ALJ
concluded that Mr. Garcia could perform light work, which involves lifting up to 20
pounds and frequently lifting up to 10 pounds. AR 14; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b)
(defining light work). Dr. Ramaswamy opined that Mr. Garcia could never lift 20
pounds and could only occasionally lift up to 10 pounds. AR 492. Thus, the ALJ
plainly rejected some of the limitations Dr. Ramaswamy imposed.
Because the ALJ failed to provide specific, legitimate reasons for discounting
Dr. Ramaswamy’s opinion, remand is warranted. If the ALJ again rejects Dr.
Ramaswamy’s opinion, he should provide specific and legitimate reasons, with
citations to the record, to support his decision.
Pain and Obesity
Mr. Garcia argues the ALJ’s RFC determination fails to adequately account
for all his impairments. First, he argues that the ALJ conflated Mr. Garcia’s
depression diagnosis with his pain disorder diagnosis and therefore failed to
adequately consider his persistent complaints of pain. Second, Mr. Garcia argues
that the ALJ’s RFC analysis failed to adequately address Mr. Garcia’s obesity,
despite recognizing it was a severe impairment.
Because I already determined that the ALJ erred in his RFC analysis, I do
not reach this argument. However, I note that on remand, the ALJ will need to
reassess Mr. Garcia’s RFC, and his conclusions with respect to Mr. Garcia’s pain
and obesity may change.
For the above reasons, the SSA’s decision is REVERSED, and this case is
REMANDED for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
7 , 2017 in Denver, Colorado.
BY THE COURT:
s/Lewis T. Babcock
LEWIS T. BABCOCK, JUDGE
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