United States District Court, D. Colorado
VINCENT P. VIALPANDO, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
WILEY Y. DANIEL, Senior District Judge.
THIS MATTER is before the Court on review of the Commissioner's decision that denied Plaintiff's application for supplemental security income. For the reasons stated below, this case is reversed and remanded to the Commissioner for further fact finding.
In December 2010, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for supplemental security income claiming he was disabled by breathing impairments, depression, a congenital heart defect, and left knee problems. (Administrative Record ["AR"] 12, 95-100, 137.) Following the initial denial of his application, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ["ALJ"], which was held in June 2012. ( Id. 27-39.) On July 18, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled. ( Id. 9-23.)
In the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 1, 2010, the application date. (AR 14.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe impairments of bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and degenerative changes of the knees. ( Id. ) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments. ( Id. 15.) He found, however, that Plaintiff has moderate difficulties in social functioning and with regard to concentration, persistence or pace. ( Id. 16.)
The ALJ then addressed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ["RFC"]. He found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b) except that he "cannot squat or kneel; cannot climb ladders or scaffolds; cannot perform complex tasks, such that he should be limited to jobs with an svp of 2 or less; and can only occasionally deal with the general public." (AR 17.) He further found that Plaintiff's "medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent" with the RFC assessment. ( Id. )
At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has no past relevant work. (AR 22.) At step five, the ALJ relied on vocational expert testimony in finding that Plaintiff could perform other work existing in significant numbers. ( Id. 22-23). This included work in representative occupations such as assembler of small products, mail sorter, and housekeeper. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. ( Id. 23.)
The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision (AR 1-3), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a). Plaintiff timely requested judicial review, and this appeal followed.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's assessment of his social functioning capacity is contrary to the record, and that he failed to properly account for Plaintiff's deficits in concentration and memory. He also asserts that the ALJ improperly gave more weight to the opinion of the nonexamining physician than he gave to the opinion of the examining physician as to Plaintiff's mental impairments. Plaintiff does not dispute the ALJ's treatment of his knee problem or the physical RFC.
II. The Medical Evidence Regarding Plaintiff's Mental Impairments
Three physicians issued opinions concerning Plaintiff's mental impairments, including his limited ability to interact with others and deficits in concentration and memory. Thus, examining psychologist Dr. Madsen concluded that Plaintiff would have difficulty completing a regular work schedule, difficulty focusing and concentrating on work, and difficulty relating to peers, coworkers, supervisors, and the general public. (AR 231.) The ALJ noted these findings but gave "little weight" to Dr. Madsen's opinion, stating that the opinion was rendered after a single examination and that:
[t]he opinion is not particularly consistent with those exam finding [sic] or the exam findings of other providers. The opinion is also imprecise. Stating that one has "difficulties" or is "impaired" in an area of functioning gives little insight into the severity or frequency of such difficulties or impairment. One may infer from the GAF score assigned by Dr. Madsen that those limitations are moderate, but the failure to elucidate with detail detracts considerably from the persuasiveness of Dr. Madsen's opinion. Overall, the opinion is not well supported by a persuasive rationale and is not particularly consistent with the record as a whole.
( Id. 21.)
Examining psychologist Dr. Rodriguez opined that Plaintiff had marked and extreme impairments in most areas of mental functioning, including understanding and memory, sustained concentration and persistence. (AR 309-10.) As to social functioning, Dr. Rodriguez opined that Plaintiff would be markedly limited in the ability to interact appropriately with the general public, extremely limited in the ability to accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, and markedly limited in the ability to get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes. ( Id. 310.) Dr. Rodriguez also stated that Plaintiff had a GAF score of 35-40 (with 45 as the highest GAF the past year). ( Id. 308).
The ALJ noted Dr. Rodriguez's findings that Plaintiff was incapable of maintaining employment and had marked and extreme limitations in several areas of mental and social functioning. (AR 19, 21.) However, he gave "little weight" to the opinion, stating that it was "not consistent with the claimant's treatment or history or his exam findings". ( Id. 21.) He also noted that the opinion "was rendered after a single examination" and "is not explained in any significant detail." ( Id. ) He then stated:
It is not a function-by-function analysis of the claimant's ability to perform work activities, but rather a conclusory statement that the claimant cannot work. This lack of detail significantly detracts from the persuasiveness of the opinion. The undersigned also notes that a statement that one is unable to work - i.e. that he is disabled - is a medical-vocational determination reserved for the Commissioner... The opinion does not appear consistent with the exam findings of Dr. Rodriguez, nor those of other examining physicians. The opinion is also not consistent with the claimant's rather conservative treatment history for his mental health problems.
( Id. )
Finally, nonexamining state agency psychologist Dr. Sexton opined that Plaintiff was moderately limited in the ability to interact appropriately with the general public, to accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, and to get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes. (AR 51.) She stated that Plaintiff must not have ...