United States District Court, D. Kansas
CHAD E. LEWIS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
SAM A. CROW, Senior District Judge.
This is an action reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the plaintiff disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income payments. The matter has been fully briefed by the parties.
I. General legal standards
The court's standard of review is set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides that "the findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." The court should review the Commissioner's decision to determine only whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Glenn v. Shalala , 21 F.3d 983, 984 (10th Cir. 1994). Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, and is satisfied by such evidence that a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion. The determination of 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 really constitutes mere conclusion. Ray v. Bowen , 865 F.2d 222, 224 (10th Cir. 1989). Although the court is not to reweigh the evidence, the findings of the Commissioner will not be mechanically accepted. Nor will the findings be affirmed by isolating facts and labeling them substantial evidence, as the court must scrutinize the entire record in determining whether the Commissioner's conclusions are rational. Graham v. Sullivan , 794 F.Supp. 1045, 1047 (D. Kan. 1992). The court should examine the record as a whole, including whatever in the record fairly detracts from the weight of the Commissioner's decision and, on that basis, determine if the substantiality of the evidence test has been met. Glenn , 21 F.3d at 984.
The Social Security Act provides that an individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if the claimant can establish that they have a physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or last for a continuous period of twelve months which prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity (SGA). The claimant's physical or mental impairment or impairments must be of such severity that they are not only unable to perform their previous work but cannot, considering their age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d).
The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the Commissioner will not review the claim further. At step one, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant can show that he or she is not working at a "substantial gainful activity." At step two, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he or she has a "severe impairment, " which is defined as any "impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the agency assesses whether the claimant can do his or her previous work; unless the claimant shows that he or she cannot perform their previous work, they are determined not to be disabled. If the claimant survives step four, the fifth and final step requires the agency to consider vocational factors (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience) and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Barnhart v. Thomas , 124 S.Ct. 376, 379-380 (2003).
The claimant bears the burden of proof through step four of the analysis. Nielson v. Sullivan , 992 F.2d 1118, 1120 (10th Cir. 1993). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in the national economy. Nielson , 992 F.2d at 1120; Thompson v. Sullivan , 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993). The Commissioner meets this burden if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Thompson , 987 F.2d at 1487.
Before going from step three to step four, the agency will assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). This RFC assessment is used to evaluate the claim at both step four and step five. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 404.1520(e, f, g); 416.920(a)(4), 416.920(e, f, g).
II. History of case
On January 27, 2012, administrative law judge (ALJ) Timothy J. Christensen issued his decision (R. at 14-23). Plaintiff alleges that he had been disabled since February 26, 2010 (R. at 14). Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements for social security disability benefits through March 31, 2010 (R. at 16). At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date (R. at 16). At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, hypertension, asthma, status post-surgery for a left ankle fracture, and right knee disorder (R. at 16). At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment (R. at 17-19). After determining plaintiff's RFC (R. at 19), the ALJ determined at step four that plaintiff is unable to perform past relevant work (R. at 21). At step five, the ALJ found that plaintiff can perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy (R. at 21-22). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled (R. at 22-23).
III. Did the ALJ err in his RFC findings, including his assessment of the medical opinion evidence?
The ALJ found that plaintiff can perform sedentary work. Plaintiff must be able to "exercise a sit/stand option, " he cannot be required to operate foot controls, he must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures, wetness, humidity, and respiratory irritants, he cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, and he can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs (R. at 19).
Dr. Shaheen, a treating physician, wrote in September 2011 that plaintiff has severe congestive heart failure, class III, and can't do physical work (R. at 311). The ALJ found that Dr. Shaheen's statement did not provide sufficient explanation for a determination that plaintiff cannot perform sedentary work, and that his medical notes do not support such a finding. The ALJ noted that his only opinion was regarding the ultimate issue of disability, a matter which is reserved to the Commissioner (R. at 20).
The only opinion of Dr. Shaheen is on the ultimate issue of whether plaintiff is disabled, i.e., whether plaintiff can work. Dr. Shaheen provided no opinion regarding any physical or mental limitations for the plaintiff. The court finds no error by the ALJ in giving little weight to a conclusory opinion on the ultimate issue of disability. Treating source opinions on issues that are reserved to the Commissioner, including whether a claimant is disabled, should be carefully considered and must never be ignored, but they are never entitled to controlling weight or special significance. SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183 at *2-3. See Franklin v. Astrue , 450 Fed.Appx. 782, 785 (10th Cir. Dec. 16, 2011)(court held that other than conclusory statement of total disability, the doctor did not express any opinion concerning claimant's physical or mental capabilities; ALJ discounted opinion because it was ...