United States District Court, D. Colorado
LEONA C. VALDEZ, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Social Security Commissioner, Defendant.
ORDER REVERSING ALJ'S DECISION DENYING DISABILITY BENEFITS
CHRISTINE M. ARGUELLO, District Judge.
This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Leona C. Valdez's appeal of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for disability benefits. Exercising jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reverses the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").
Plaintiff suffers from fibromyalgia, a diffuse neuromuscular disorder often characterized by severe pain. She alleges that her fibromyalgia causes her, among other things, debilitating back pain and depression. She alleged an onset date for her disability of January 15, 2010. (AR at 140-43.) The agency initially denied her claim (AR at 81-83), and she then appeared before an ALJ at an administrative hearing in November 2011, (AR at 40-69).
To support her claim of disability, Plaintiff relied on the testimony of her primary care physician, Dr. Michael Rendler, who had treated her for a little over two years. Prior to the hearing, Plaintiff was also examined by two other medical professionals, Dr. Patrick Timms, a rheumatologist, and Dr. Brett Valette, a psychologist. These doctors reached somewhat differing conclusions about how Plaintiff's fibromyalgia caused her physical and mental impairments. As is explained in greater detail below, the ALJ considered the opinions provided by all three of these medical professionals.
On December 1, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. In particular, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with a sit/stand option and that her RFC did not preclude her from performing her past work as a telemarketer, order taker, or property manager. (AR at 30, 34-35.)
The Appeals Counsel declined to review the ALJ's decision (AR at 1-6), making it final for purposes of review by this Court, see, e.g., Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 759 (10th Cir. 2003). Plaintiff now appeals the ALJ's determination to this Court.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
This Court's review of the ALJ's determination is limited to determining whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner-through the ALJ-applied the correct legal standards. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).
Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Wall, 561 F.3d at 1084. In reviewing the record and the arguments of counsel, the Court does not reexamine the issues de novo, Sisco v. United States Department of Health and Human Services, 10 F.3d 739, 741 (10th Cir. 1993), nor does it re-weigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, Salazar v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 615, 621 (10th Cir. 2006). Thus, even when some evidence may have supported contrary findings, the Court "may not displace the agency's choice between two fairly conflicting views, " even if the Court may have "made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo." Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1257-58 (10th Cir. 2007).
Plaintiff advances three principal claims on appeal. First, she argues that the ALJ erred in the manner in which he discounted Dr. Rendler's opinions about her impairments. Second, she argues that, as a consequence of the way the ALJ misinterpreted Dr. Rendler's opinions, the ALJ's RFC assessment is not supported by substantial evidence. Third, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred in finding her not credible.
The Court largely agrees with Plaintiff on all three counts. As is explained in greater detail below, the ALJ improperly discounted Dr. Rendler's opinions about Plaintiff's physical and mental limitations. In turn, this error infects the ALJ's RFC assessment. Further, this Court finds that the ALJ has provided an insufficient basis for his adverse credibility finding, though not for the precise reasons Plaintiff advanced in her briefing. The Court considers each of Plaintiff's claims in turn.
A. DR. RENDLER'S OPINIONS
Plaintiff's first claim is that the ALJ erred in according "no weight" to opinions provided by Dr. Rendler in his responses to two questionnaires about Plaintiff's fibromyalgia. In the first questionnaire, Dr. Rendler primarily discussed Plaintiff's physical limitations; in the second, he discussed her mental limitations.
The Court largely concurs in Plaintiff's assessment that the ALJ erred in how he considered each questionnaire. First, the ALJ applied the incorrect legal standard in considering Dr. Rendler's opinion in both questionnaires. Second, he provided insufficient or improper bases for discounting each of Dr. Rendler's opinions.
1. Correct Standard
As an initial matter, the ALJ failed to apply the proper legal standard in considering Dr. Rendler's opinions. Because Dr. Rendler was Plaintiff's treating physician, his opinion generally should receive "more weight" than other sources. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). Further, in accord with the Tenth Circuit's decision in Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1301 (10th Cir. 2003), the ALJ ...