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Baca v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

July 23, 2014

RAE BACA, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

JOHN W. LUNGSTRUM, District Judge.

Plaintiff seeks review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (hereinafter Commissioner) denying Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under sections 1602, and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381a, and 1382c(a)(3)(A) (hereinafter the Act). Finding no error in the Commissioner's decision, the court ORDERS that judgment shall be entered pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) AFFIRMING that decision.

I. Background

Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits, alleging disability beginning December 1, 2008. (R. 14, 152-58). In due course, Plaintiff exhausted proceedings before the Commissioner, and now seeks judicial review of the final decision denying benefits. She alleges the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in evaluating medical opinions in the record, and improperly discounted the credibility of Plaintiff's allegations of symptoms based upon perceived noncompliance with medical treatment, without applying the factors presented in Frey v. Bowen , 816 F.2d 508, 517 (10th Cir. 1987). The Commissioner argues that the ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinion evidence. She acknowledges that the ALJ erred in making his credibility determination, but argues that the error was harmless.

The court's review is guided by the Act. Wall v. Astrue , 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). Section 405(g) of the Act provides that in judicial review "[t]he findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The court must determine whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether he applied the correct legal standard. Lax v. Astrue , 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007); accord, White v. Barnhart , 287 F.3d 903, 905 (10th Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but it is less than a preponderance; it is such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Wall , 561 F.3d at 1052; Gossett v. Bowen , 862 F.2d 802, 804 (10th Cir. 1988).

The court may "neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency." 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)); accord, Hackett v. Barnhart , 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005). Nonetheless, the determination whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision is not simply a quantitative exercise, for evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence or if it constitutes mere conclusion. Gossett , 862 F.2d at 804-05; Ray v. Bowen , 865 F.2d 222, 224 (10th Cir. 1989).

The Commissioner uses the familiar five-step sequential process to evaluate a claim for disability. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; Wilson v. Astrue , 602 F.3d 1136, 1139 (10th Cir. 2010) (citing Williams v. Bowen , 844 F.2d 748, 750 (10th Cir. 1988)). "If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a claimant is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary." Wilson , 602 F.3d at 1139 (quoting Lax , 489 F.3d at 1084). In the first three steps, the Commissioner determines whether claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset, whether she has a severe impairment(s), and whether the severity of her impairment(s) meets or equals the severity of any impairment in the Listing of Impairments (20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1). Williams , 844 F.2d at 750-51. After evaluating step three, the Commissioner assesses claimant's RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). This assessment is used at both step four and step five of the sequential evaluation process. Id.

The Commissioner next evaluates steps four and five of the sequential process- determining at step four whether, in light of the RFC assessed, claimant can perform her past relevant work; and at step five whether, when also considering the vocational factors of age, education, and work experience, claimant is able to perform other work in the economy. Wilson , 602 F.3d at 1139 (quoting Lax , 489 F.3d at 1084). In steps one through four the burden is on Plaintiff to prove a disability that prevents performance of past relevant work. Blea v. Barnhart , 466 F.3d 903, 907 (10th Cir. 2006); accord, Dikeman v. Halter , 245 F.3d 1182, 1184 (10th Cir. 2001); Williams , 844 F.2d at 751 n.2. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there are jobs in the economy which are within the RFC assessed. Id .; Haddock v. Apfel , 196 F.3d 1084, 1088 (10th Cir. 1999).

The court agrees with the Commissioner that the decision in this case should be affirmed. It addresses the issues in the order presented in Plaintiff's brief.

II. Evaluation of the Medical Opinions

Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred by according "little weight" to-and thereby failing to give deference to-the treating source medical opinion of Dr. Hall, and by according excessive weight to the non-examining source medical opinions of the state agency medical consultants. (Pl. Br. 9-12). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erroneously found that Dr. Hall was not a treating physician because the doctor only saw Plaintiff two times before he expressed his opinion regarding her limitations. She argues that the ALJ discounted Dr. Hall's opinion because Dr. Hall only saw Plaintiff twice and because his clinical finding were unremarkable, and she argues that these reasons are insufficient to overcome the deference due a treating source opinion.

Plaintiff also claims it was error for the ALJ to accord "great weight" to the medical opinions of the state agency medical consultants. She acknowledges the reasons given by the ALJ to accord great weight to the opinions, but argues that the ALJ did not identify the evidence that is consistent with the opinions, and that the consultants' familiarity with the disability determination procedure "is hardly an acceptable basis for favoring the opinion of a non-examining physician over a treating physician who has actively serviced a claimant's medical needs over a number of years and whose opinion is supported by the record.'" (Pl. Br. 11) (quoting Lambert ex rel. Lambert v. Astrue, 886 F.Supp.2d 671, 686 (S.D. Ohio 2012)). Next, Plaintiff argues that although the state agency consultants had the opportunity to review the record before providing their opinions, additional evidence was entered into the record thereafter and the consultants did not review that evidence. She argues that these three factors are an insufficient basis to accord greater weight to the opinions of non-examining sources over that of a treating source.

A. Standard for Evaluating Medical Opinions

A physician or psychologist who has treated a patient frequently over an extended period of time (a treating source)[1] is expected to have greater insight into the patient's medical condition, and his opinion is generally entitled to "particular weight." Doyal v. Barnhart , 331 F.3d 758, 762 (10th Cir. 2003). But, "the opinion of an examining physician [(a nontreating source)] who only saw the claimant once is not entitled to the sort of deferential treatment accorded to a treating physician's opinion." Id. at 763 (citing Reid v. Chater , 71 F.3d 372, 374 (10th Cir. 1995)). However, opinions of nontreating sources are generally given more weight than the opinions of nonexamining sources who have merely reviewed the medical record. Robinson v. Barnhart , 366 F.3d 1078, 1084 (10th Cir. 2004); Talbot v. Heckler , 814 F.2d 1456, ...


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