United States District Court, D. Kansas
MEMORANDUM & ORDER
JOHN W. LUNGSTRUM, District Judge.
Plaintiff Valerie Jameson brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the decision of defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security, to deny her application for social security disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. According to plaintiff, the ALJ erroneously evaluated two medical opinions-giving too much weight to the opinion of state agency psychologists and too little weight to the opinion of an examining psychologist-and, as a result, the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment is not supported by substantial evidence. As explained in more detail below, the court rejects plaintiff's argument and affirms defendant's decision.
I. Procedural Background
On December 6, 2010, plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits alleging disability beginning on October 1, 1997 based on depression, bipolar disorder and concentration and memory problems. The application was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. At plaintiff's request, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") held a hearing on November 8, 2011, at which both plaintiff and her counsel were present via video. On November 29, 2011, the ALJ rendered a decision in which he determined that plaintiff was not under a "disability" as defined by the Social Security Act from October 1, 1997 through the date of the decision. Consequently, the ALJ denied all benefits to plaintiff. After the ALJ's unfavorable decision, plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of defendant.
II. Standard of Review
Judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is limited to whether defendant's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and whether defendant applied the correct legal standards. See Wells v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 1061, 1067 (10th Cir. 2013) (citing Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010)). The Tenth Circuit has defined "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (quoting Wilson, 602 F.3d at 1140). In the course of its review, the court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of defendant. Cowan v. Astrue, 552 F.3d 1182, 1185 (10th Cir. 2008).
III. Relevant Framework for Analyzing Claim of Disability and the ALJ's Findings
A "disability" for purposes of the Social Security Act requires both the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity" and "a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." Bussell v. Astrue, 463 Fed.Appx. 779, 781 (10th Cir. 2012) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). The Social Security Act further provides that an individual "shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Wilson, 602 F.3d at 1140 (quoting Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 21-22 (2003) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B))).
The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled, see id. at 1139, and the ALJ in this case followed the five-step process. 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. Id. Step one requires the claimant to show that he or she is not presently engaged in substantial gainful activity. Id. Here, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not engaged in substantial gainful activity and, thus, properly proceeded to the second step. The second step of the evaluation process involves a determination of whether "the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments" that significantly limits his or her ability to perform basic work activities. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521). The ALJ in this case concluded that plaintiff's bipolar disorder constituted a severe impairment for purposes of the regulations but determined at step three that plaintiff's impairment was not listed or medically "equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Best-Willie v. Colvin, 514 Fed.Appx. 728, 733 (10th Cir. 2013). Thus, the evaluation proceeded to the fourth step, where the claimant must show that the impairment prevents her from performing past work. Wilson, 602 F.3d at 1139 (quoting Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007)).
At the fourth step, the ALJ determined that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with certain nonexertional limitations to simple routine tasks; only superficial contact with others; and only occasional changes in the work place setting. Based on evidence adduced at the hearing from a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ concluded that plaintiff, with those limitations, could perform her past relevant work as a housekeeper and fast food worker such that she was not disabled. Continuing to step five, the ALJ concluded in the alternative that even if plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work, she was not disabled because she possessed the RFC to perform other work that exists in the regional and national economy, see id. (quoting Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084), including work as a dishwasher, cafeteria attendant and semi-conductor assembler.
IV. Analysis of Plaintiff's Specific Argument
In her motion, plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when he concluded that she was capable of performing work. According to plaintiff, the ALJ did not give enough weight to an examining psychologist's opinion that plaintiff cannot sustain full-time employment at any functional level in light of her depression and bipolar disorder. Plaintiff further asserts that the ALJ afforded too much weight to the opinion of state agency psychologists who opined that plaintiff was capable of performing work in a competitive setting. As will be explained, the court rejects both arguments.
"Medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of [a claimant's] impairment(s) including [the claimant's] symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2). Such opinions may not be ignored and, unless a treating source opinion is given controlling weight, all medical opinions will be evaluated by the Commissioner in accordance with factors contained in the regulations. Id. § 404.1527(d); SSR 96-5p, West's Soc. Sec. Reporting Serv., Rulings 123-24 (Supp. 2012). A physician who has treated a patient frequently over an extended period of time (a treating source) 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). "[T]he 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 examining 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). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ in this case erred by rejecting the opinion of an examining psychologist in favor of the opinion of non-examining, consultant psychologists.
An examining psychologist examined plaintiff on one occasion in September 2011. He opined that plaintiff was not capable of sustaining full-time employment. The ALJ expressly provided "limited weight" to this opinion and he did so for several reasons. First, the ALJ observed that substantial evidence in the record supported the conclusion that plaintiff's depression and bipolar disorder were not as limiting as opined by the examining psychologist or as alleged by plaintiff. The ALJ observed that plaintiff received inpatient treatment for her mental health in 1998 but then did not seek treatment again until November 2010-and only then at the suggestion of a law firm in connection with her desire to apply for disability benefits. The ALJ further noted that plaintiffs mental health had improved with treatment in that she was taking medication, was experiencing "bad days" less frequently, was goal-directed and that her judgment and insight were intact. As the ALJ stated in his written decision, nothing in plaintiff's treatment notes indicated that plaintiff's mental ...