Gonzalez v. Commissioner of Social Security
ORDER by Senior District Judge James A. Parker adopting Magistrate Judge's Proposed Findings and Recommended Disposition re 32 , denying 22 Motion to Reverse and Remand to Agency, dismissing case with prejudice. (bap)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW MEXICO
Civ. No. 15-327 JAP/GJF
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting
Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration,
ORDER ADOPTING THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE’S
PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION
AND DISMISSING CASE WITH PREJUDICE
THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff’s objections [ECF No. 33] to the
Magistrate Judge’s Proposed Findings and Recommended Disposition (“PFRD”) [ECF No. 32]
on Plaintiff’s Motion to Reverse or Remand the Social Security Administration’s decision to
deny Plaintiff’s application for disability benefits [ECF No. 22]. Being fully advised and after de
novo review, the Court will overrule Plaintiff’s objections, adopt the PFRD, and deny Plaintiff’s
On November 9, 2015, Plaintiff filed a motion to reverse the Social Security
Administration’s decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income. Pl.’s Mot., ECF No. 22. In her motion, Plaintiff alleged that her
disability began on November 5, 2009, due to bipolar disorder, hypertension, and diabetes. Id.
On September 10, 2016, Magistrate Judge Gregory J. Fouratt issued his PFRD, recommending
that Plaintiff’s motion be denied and the Social Security Administration’s decision be affirmed.
PFRD, ECF No. 32. On September 23, 2016, Plaintiff filed objections to Judge Fouratt’s PFRD.
Objections, ECF No. 33.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
After a party objects to a magistrate judge’s proposed findings and recommendations, the
Court “shall make a de novo determination of those portions . . . to which objection is made.” 28
U.S.C. § 636(b). Objections must be made with specificity; general or conclusory objections are
insufficient. See United States v. 2121 E. 30th St., 73 F.3d 1057, 1060-61 (10th Cir. 1996) (“a
party’s objections to the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation must be both timely and
specific to preserve an issue for de novo review by the district court or for appellate review.”).
“[A]n objection must be sufficiently specific to focus the district court’s attention on the factual
and legal issues that are truly in dispute[.]” Id. at 1060. “Issues raised for the first time in
objections to the magistrate judge’s recommendation are deemed waived.” Marshall v. Chater,
75 F.3d 1421, 1426 (10th Cir. 1996).
Plaintiff’s objections to the PFRD are primarily two-fold. First, she argues that the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determined by the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) was
not supported by substantial evidence because it failed to incorporate all of Plaintiff’s mental
limitations. Objections at 3.
More specifically, she argues that the RFC failed to include
limitations identified by Dr. Schutte, the examining psychologist. Id. Second, she contends that
the ALJ did not properly weigh the opinions of Ray Leal, her treating nurse practitioner. Id. at 2.
A. The RFC Finding Was Supported by Substantial Evidence.
The ALJ assigned the following RFC to Plaintiff: “[T]he [Plaintiff] has the residual
functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following
nonexertional limitations: Work should involve primarily things rather than people.”
Administrative R. (“AR”) 19-20, ECF No. 13. In both her original motion and her objections to
the PFRD, Plaintiff asserts that “the ALJ’s RFC finding ‘is not supported by substantial evidence
because she failed to include all of [her] mental limitations in the RFC finding.’” Mem. in
Support of Pl.’s Mot. to Remand Commissioner’s Administrative Decision 6, ECF No. 22.
When assessing an individual’s RFC, “the ALJ must consider the combined effect of all
medically determinable impairments, whether severe or not.” Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061,
1069 (10th Cir. 2013) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(2), 416.945(a)(2)). Furthermore, “the
RFC assessment must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each
conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g., laboratory findings) and nonmedical evidence
(e.g., daily activities, observations).” See Hendron v. Colvin, 767 F.3d 951, 954 (10th Cir. 2014)
(citing SSR 96-8P, 1996 WL 374184 (July 2, 1996)).
After a meticulous review of the record and the parties’ briefing, Judge Fouratt found that
“[t]he record here reflects that the ALJ considered all of the relevant evidence, and Plaintiff fails
to demonstrate that the RFC finding is inconsistent with any medical findings or her mental
limitations.” PFRD 14. To reach this conclusion, Judge Fouratt noted that the ALJ reviewed all
of the medical evidence, medical opinions, and Plaintiff’s function reports. Id. at 14-15. Among
the medical evidence was evidence of Plaintiff’s past psychiatric hospitalizations, a point on
which Plaintiff relies now as evidence of her low mental functioning.
However, the first
hospitalization, dated October 1, 2008, was outside of the alleged disability period, and therefore,
beyond the ALJ’s and this Court’s scope of review. AR 20. The second hospitalization took
place from November 5, 2009, to November 24, 2009.
The ALJ addressed this
hospitalization and its aftermath, finding that:
At the time of her release from EPPC, the [Plaintiff] was alert, cooperative, and
pleasant. Her affect was bright, with good range and appropriate. She reported
her mood was good. Her thinking was clear, coherent and goal directed. She was
free of paranoia or delusional thought content or thoughts of hurting or killing
herself or others. The [Plaintiff] denied experiencing any hallucinations and no
impairment of orientation or memory was detected. Her insight and judgment
were both good. The [Plaintiff] was to attend follow-up treatment at Sun City
The record does not indicate the [Plaintiff] followed up on recommendations
regarding treatment at an outside clinic.
AR 20-21. The ALJ reasonably found that Plaintiff’s condition had dramatically improved
during her in-hospitalization treatment, so much so that she did not pursue follow-up treatment.
The last hospitalization which Plaintiff cites occurred on October 8, 2013. Objections at 1.
Plaintiff argues that this inpatient hospitalization for her mental impairments is relevant to her
disability claim. Id. However, this was not before the ALJ for review, nor was it before Judge
Fouratt for review. Consequently, the Court will not consider it now either.
Plaintiff further complains that the RFC is not supported by substantial evidence because
it did not include all of the mental limitations identified in Dr. Schutte’s report. Objections at 3.
Dr. Schutte served as Plaintiff’s examining psychologist and the ALJ afforded his opinions great
weight. AR 25. The ALJ wrote: “Dr. Schutte’s opinions indicated the claimant has some mild to
moderate impairments in her abilities to perform some work-related mental activities,
particularly in the area of dealing with other people.” Id. Judge Fouratt addressed the ALJ’s
treatment of Dr. Schutte’s report, finding:
While it is true that Dr. Schutte opined that Plaintiff had borderline attention and
concentration, moderately impaired reasoning ability, and mildly impaired ability
to make social, occupational, and personal adjustments, he also calculated that
Plaintiff had a relatively high GAF score of 65 and was “generally functioning
pretty well.” AR 22. The Court believes that the RFC implicitly contemplates
each of these limitations. Moreover, the unskilled job categories identified by the
vocational expert and the ALJ as ones that Plaintiff could hold (laundry sorter,
hand packer, hay sorter, see AR 26) certainly appear to the Court to be of the kind
that would accommodate workers with the Plaintiff’s limitations. A similar
approach to the one taken by the ALJ in this case was recently endorsed by the
Tenth Circuit. See Smith v. Colvin, __ F.3d __, No. 15-1224 (10th Cir. May 9,
2016) at 7-10. Consequently, the undersigned discerns no error by the ALJ in
omitting the limitations identified by Dr. Schutte.
PFRD at 15, n.9.
The Court finds Judge Fouratt’s reasoning based on Smith v. Colvin convincing. Faced
with a similar challenge in Smith, the Tenth Circuit endorsed the approach that “an
administrative law judge can account for moderate limitations by limiting the claimant to
particular kinds of work activity.” Smith v. Colvin, 821 F.3d 1264, 1269 (10th Cir. 2016). In
this case, the Court finds no reversible error on the part of the ALJ for not enumerating each of
Dr. Schutte’s recommended limitations because the ALJ limited Plaintiff to unskilled
occupations, including laundry sorter, hand packer, and hay sorter, which would accommodate
all of the limitations identified by Dr. Schutte.
For these reasons, the Court finds the RFC was supported by substantial evidence, and
Plaintiff’s objections on this point are overruled.
B. The ALJ Did Not Err in Her Treatment of Nurse Practitioner Leal’s Opinions.
Plaintiff’s second objection focuses on the ALJ’s review of Ray Leal’s opinions. She
argues that “the ALJ’s rejections of Mr. Leal’s opinions was [sic] unsupported by substantial
evidence” and “the ALJ here did not explain in what way the medical evidence does not support
(or is contrary to) Mr. Leal’s opinion.” Objections at 2-3. Mr. Leal is a nurse practitioner who
saw the Plaintiff a total of six times between 2010 and 2011. AR 391-401, 444-55. The ALJ
assigned Mr. Leal’s opinions “very little weight” because she did not find that his
recommendations about Plaintiff’s limitations were supported by other medical evidence in the
record. AR 25.
In the PFRD, Judge Fouratt found that the ALJ did not err in her assessment of Mr.
Leal’s opinions. He wrote:
In this case, the ALJ explained that she gave Leal’s opinions “very little weight”
because there were relatively few treatment records to document Plaintiff’s
history with Leal. Furthermore, she articulated that his opinion regarding
Plaintiff’s “marked” limitations is not consistent with either the other medical
evidence or evidence of Plaintiff’s activities of daily living.
Although the Court might have evaluated Leal’s opinions differently if it were
reviewing the evidence de novo, the Court is constrained to apply the deference
commanded by substantial evidence review. Plaintiff’s argument that Leal’s
opinions should be given “great weight” amounts to an invitation to re-weigh the
evidence that this Court must reject. It is not the proper role of this Court on
review to substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. “In reviewing the ALJ’s
decision, ‘we neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute our judgment for that of
the agency.’” See Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008)
(quoting Casias v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir.
1991)). It is the Court’s role, however, only to determine if the ALJ properly
explained her reasoning in regards to evidence from an “other source,” such as a
PFRD at 11-12.
The Court observes that Plaintiff’s objection on this point is not aimed at the analysis
applied in the PFRD regarding the Court’s role in reviewing how an ALJ treats opinions from
“other sources.” Instead, Plaintiff styles this objection as an invitation to the Court to re-weigh
this evidence and assign more weight to Mr. Leal’s opinions than the ALJ did. However, that is
not the proper role of the Court and it will not engage in such an exercise.
The Court finds that the proper legal analysis was applied in the PFRD regarding the
ALJ’s evaluation of Mr. Leal’s opinions. Therefore, Plaintiff’s objections on this point are
IT IS ORDERED THAT:
1. Judge Fouratt’s PFRD (ECF No. 32) is ADOPTED;
2. Plaintiff’s objections (ECF No. 33) are OVERRULED;
3. Plaintiff’s Motion to Reverse and Remand (ECF No. 22) is DENIED; and
4. This action is DISMISSED with prejudice.
THE HONORABLE JAMES A. PARKER
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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