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Scott v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

September 4, 2014

PATRICIA SCOTT, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

DANIEL D. CRABTREE, District Judge.

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, as amended. Plaintiff has filed a brief (Doc. 7) seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. The Commissioner has filed a brief in opposition (Doc. 12) and submitted the administrative record (Doc. 6) contemporaneously with her Answer (Doc. 5). When plaintiff filed her reply brief (Doc. 13), this matter became ripe for determination. Having reviewed the administrative record and the briefs of the parties, the Court reverses the decision of the Commissioner, orders that judgment shall be entered pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and remands the case to the agency for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

Plaintiff applied for Social Security Disability ("SSD") benefits alleging disability beginning December 15, 2006. (R. 9) The Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's application on October 18, 2010 (R. 53-61), and again denied it upon reconsideration on May 17, 2011 (R. 62-68). Plaintiff requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") (R. 69-70), who held a hearing on April 20, 2012 (R. 9). During that hearing, plaintiff amended the date of her disability onset to October 6, 2010. (R. 9) On May 7, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's application for SSD benefits because the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled on or before December 31, 2011 (the last date insured) under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act (R. 16). 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d).

Plaintiff filed an appeal with the Appeals Council on May 21, 2012. (R. 5) The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's appeal on June 19, 2013. (R. 1-3) Plaintiff has exhausted the proceedings before the Commissioner and now seeks judicial review of the final decision denying her SSD benefits.

II. Legal Standard

A. Standard of Review

Section 405(g) of Title 42 of the United States Code grants federal courts authority to conduct judicial review of final decisions of the Commissioner and "enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision... with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." Judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits is limited to whether substantial evidence in the record supports the factual findings and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Mays v. Colvin, 739 F.3d 569, 571 (10th Cir. 2014); Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

"Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion" but it must be "more than a scintilla, " although it need not be a preponderance. Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). While the courts "consider whether the ALJ followed the specific rules of law that must be followed in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, " they neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute their judgment for the Commissioner's. Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). But they also do not accept "the findings of the Commissioner" mechanically or affirm those findings "by isolating facts and labeling them substantial evidence, as the court[s] must scrutinize the entire record in determining whether the Commissioner's conclusions are rational." Alfrey v. Astrue, 904 F.Supp.2d 1165, 1167 (D. Kan. 2012) (citation omitted). When determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, the courts "examine the record as a whole, including whatever in the record fairly detracts from the weight of the Commissioner's decision." Id. (citation omitted). "Evidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence, particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians) or if it really constitutes not evidence but mere conclusion." Lawton v. Barnhart, 121 F.App'x 364, 366 (10th Cir. 2005) (quoting Frey v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 508, 512 (10th Cir. 1987)).

A "failure to apply the proper legal standard may be sufficient grounds for reversal inde-pendent of the substantial evidence analysis." Brown ex rel. Brown v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 311 F.Supp.2d 1151, 1155 (D. Kan. 2004) (citing Glass v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994)). But such a failure justifies reversal only in "appropriate circumstances"-applying an improper legal standard does not require reversal in all cases. Glass, 43 F.3d at 1395; accord Lee v. Colvin, No. 12-2259-SAC, 2013 WL 4549211, at *5 (D. Kan. Aug. 28, 2013) (discussing the general rule set out in Glass ). Some errors are harmless and require no remand or further consideration. See, e.g., Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1161-63 (10th Cir. 2012); Howard v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 945, 947 (10th Cir. 2004); Allen v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1140, 1145 (10th Cir. 2004).

B. Disability Determination

Claimants seeking Social Security disability benefits carry the burden to show that they are disabled. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1062 (10th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). In general, [1] the Social Security Act defines "disability" as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

The Commissioner follows "a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disa-bility." Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003) (discussing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (govern-ing claims for disability insurance benefits) and § 416.920 (governing claims for supplemental security income)). As summarized by the Tenth Circuit, this familiar five-step process is as follows:

Step one requires the agency to determine whether a claimant is presently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If not, the agency proceeds to consider, at step two, whether a claimant has a medically severe impairment or impairments.... At step three, the ALJ considers whether a claimant's medically severe impairments are equivalent to a condition listed in the appendix of the relevant disability regulation. If a claimant's impairments are not equivalent to a listed impairment, the ALJ must consider, at step four, whether a claimant's impair-ments prevent [him or] her from performing [his or] her past relevant work. Even if a claimant is so impaired, the agency considers, at step five, whether [he or] she possesses the sufficient residual functional capability [RFC] to perform other work in the national economy.

Wall, 561 F.3d at 1052 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted); accord 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)-(g). The claimant has the "burden of proof on the first four steps, " but the burden shifts to the Commissioner "at step five to show that claimant retained the RFC to perform an alternative work activity and that this specific type of job exists in the national economy.'" Smith v. Barnhart, 61 F.App'x 647, 648 (10th Cir. 2003) (quoting Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 (10th Cir. 1988)). This analysis terminates if the Commissioner determines at any point that the claimant is or is not disabled. Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 801 (10th Cir. 1991).

III. Discussion

Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's findings in two ways. She argues that (1) the ALJ failed to state the weight given to the medical opinion of Dr. Steven Ruhlman and failed to explain the reasons for the weight given to the medical opinions of Dr. Kenneth Sonnenschein and Anne Schleicher, L.S.C.W., and (2) the ALJ erred by failing to conduct a proper credibility analysis of plaintiff's testimony about her limitations and thereby improperly disregarded that testimony in assessing plaintiff's ability to perform work at the light exertional level. The Court addresses each argument in turn.

A. Evaluation of the Medical Opinions

1. Standard for Evaluation of Medical Opinions

The applicable regulations require the ALJ to consider all medical opinions. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). The ALJ must also discuss the weight he or she assigns to such opinions. See id. § 404.1527(e)(2)(ii) ("[T]he administrative law judge must explain in the decision the weight given to the opinions of a State agency medical or psychological consultant or other program physician, psychologist, or other medical specialist, as the administrative law judge must do for any opinions from treating sources, nontreating sources, and other nonexamining sources who do not work for us.").

"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 [claimant's] symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what [a claimant] can still do despite impairment(s), and [a claimant's] physical or mental restrictions."[1] 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2). The regulations identify three types of "acceptable medical sources": (1) treating sources, i.e., medical sources who have treated or evaluated the claimant or have had "an ongoing treatment relationship" with the claimant; (2) nontreating sources, i.e., medical sources who have examined the claimant but lack an ongoing treatment relationship; and (3) nonexamining sources, i.e., medical sources who render an opinion without examining the claimant. See id. § 404.1502; Pratt v. Astrue, 803 F.Supp.2d 1277, 1282 n.2 (D. Kan. 2011). In general, the Commissioner gives more weight to opinions from examining sources than to opinions from nonexamining sources. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(1). And the Commissioner generally gives more weight to treating sources because

these sources are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [the claimant's] medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations or brief hospitalizations.

Id. § 404.1527(c)(2).

a. Treating Sources

The Commissioner will give a medical opinion of a treating source controlling weight when it is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record." Id. § 404.1527(c)(2). The ALJ must consider these two factors when determining whether a treating physician's medical opinion "is conclusive, i.e., is to be accorded controlling weight, ' on the matter to which it relates." Krauser v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1330 (10th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). First, the ALJ must consider whether such an opinion is well-supported. Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1300 (10th Cir. 2003). If it has adequate support, then next the ALJ must "confirm that the opinion is consistent with other substantial evidence in the record." Id. And an ALJ "may decline to give ...


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