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Schafrick v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Kansas

January 8, 2015

CHRISTOPHER SCHAFRICK, 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 Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits under sections 216(i) and 223 of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423 (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 SSD benefits, alleging disability beginning October 3, 2009. (R. 21, 152). Plaintiff exhausted proceedings before the Commissioner, and now seeks judicial review of the final decision denying benefits. He alleges the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in weighing the medical opinions of Dr. LaMorgese, a physician who treated him, erred in assessing Plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity (RFC) because he never explained the weight accorded to Dr. Stientjes's medical opinion, and performed an inadequate credibility determination which is not supported by the record evidence.

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 relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also, 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. §§ 404.1520, 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 he has a severe impairment(s), and whether the severity of his 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. § 404.1520(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 his 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 finds no error in the Commissioner's decision. It addresses each alleged error in the order presented in Plaintiff's Brief.

II. The ALJ's Evaluation of Dr. LaMorgese's Opinions

The ALJ found that Dr. LaMorgese's examinations revealed normal findings in motor function, strength, reflexes, and sensation. (R. 27) (citing Exs. 6F/8-10, 7F/2-4, 9F/14 (R. 346-48, 352-54, 373)). He noted Dr. LaMorgese's statements that Plaintiff is "disabled, " and unable to "be gainfully employed, " and he accorded "no weight" to those opinions because they relate to issues reserved to the Commissioner, because they are vague, and because they do not correlate to specific functional limitations. (R. 29). The ALJ also noted that on August 30, 2010, Dr. LaMorgese opined that Plaintiff is limited in lifting, standing, walking, kneeling, climbing, and crawling. Id . (citing Ex. 8F (R. 357-58)). He accorded "little weight" to this opinion because it is vague, because it does not contain any modifiers regarding the amount of weight Plaintiff can lift or carry, and because it does not contain any modifiers regarding the time limits Plaintiff is able to stand, walk, kneel, climb, or crawl. Id.

Plaintiff acknowledges that the ALJ is correct that Dr. LaMorgese's opinions regarding disability and employment are on issues reserved to the Commissioner, but argues that they should nonetheless be weighed in accordance with the regulatory factors for weighing medical opinions. He argues that the reasons given by the ALJ to discount those opinions are not sufficient. (Pl. Br. 14) (citing Fuller v. Astrue, 766 F.Supp.2d 1149, 1160 (D. Kan. 2011). He then explains how that, in his view, the opinions should have been accorded greater weight, and that in any case the ALJ should have recontacted Dr. LaMorgese for clarification of his opinion.

The court finds no error in the ALJ's treatment of Dr. LaMorgese's opinions. As Plaintiff acknowledges, the opinions regarding disability and employment are opinions on issues reserved to the Commissioner. And, contrary to Plaintiff's view, the ALJ carefully considered Dr. LaMorgese's opinions on these issues, and weighed all of Dr. LaMorgese's opinions in accordance with the regulatory factors. He explained that the opinions regarding disability and employment are on issues reserved to the Commissioner (and, by implication, are unworthy of special significance or of controlling weight). He went on to explain that those opinions are vague and do not relate to specific functional limitations and are, therefore, worthy of no weight. Plaintiff makes no attempt to point to any specificity in those opinions or to suggest functional limitations which Dr. LaMorgese included or implied within the opinions. Moreover, the record supports the ALJ's findings.

The ALJ continued his consideration of Dr. LaMorgese's opinions and noted that Dr. LaMorgese had also opined that Plaintiff is limited in lifting, standing, walking, kneeling, climbing, and crawling. But, the ALJ found that Dr. LaMorgese had not quantified specific functional limitations regarding the quantity of lifting or carrying of which Plaintiff is capable, or regarding the time to which Plaintiff is limited in standing, walking, kneeling, climbing, or crawling. Therefore, he concluded that Dr. LaMorgese's opinions in this regard are worthy of little weight. Again, Plaintiff does not attempt to suggest any ...


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