United States District Court, D. Kansas
ROSA B. ALUMBAUGH, Plaintiff,
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 Disability Insurance benefits (SSD) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under sections 216(i), 223, 1602, and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423, 1381a, and 1382c(a)(3)(A) (hereinafter the Act). Finding no error, the court ORDERS that judgment shall be entered pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) AFFIRMING the Commissioner's decision.
Plaintiff applied for SSD and SSI, alleging disability beginning January 11, 2010. (R. 22, 125-26). She exhausted proceedings before the Commissioner, and now seeks judicial review of the final decision denying benefits. Plaintiff claims the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in evaluating the medical opinion of Dr. White-Blakesley, made a credibility determination which is unsupported by record evidence, and provided a step five determination which is also unsupported by the 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 she 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 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. § 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 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 finds no error in the decision. It will address each alleged error in the order presented in Plaintiff's Brief.
II. The Medical Opinion of Dr. White-Blakesley
Plaintiff argues that the rationale relied upon by the ALJ in discounting Dr. White-Blakesley's opinion is inadequate, is based upon contradictory analysis, and is not grounded in fact. Plaintiff recognizes that the ALJ discounted Dr. White-Blakesley's opinion because it was "completed after only one visit, with no ongoing treatment relationship, and [with] no explanation of the evidence upon which she relied in rendering her opinion." (Pl. Br. 12) (quoting R. 31-32). But, she argues that these bases are "patently inadequate" for three reasons. First, because the ALJ accorded significant weight to the medical opinion of Dr. Mintz, another psychologist who had only examined Plaintiff once, and significant weight to the medical opinions of several other physicians and psychologists who had not examined Plaintiff at all. Second, she argues that the Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center,  where Dr. White-Blakesley works, had treated Plaintiff for years before she was seen by Dr. White-Blakesley and that the ALJ failed to consider that fact in weighing Dr. White-Blakesley's opinion (thereby implying that Dr. White-Blakesley had reviewed all of the prior treatment records and had based her opinions, at least in part, on that review). Finally, she argues that despite the ALJ's contrary finding, Dr. White-Blakesley provided an explanation for her opinions. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ reasonably discounted the medical opinion of Dr. White-Blakesley. She explains how, in her view the record evidence supports that determination. And, she argues that the alleged "explanation" given by Dr. White-Blakesley for her findings is nothing more than a rehash of Plaintiff's symptoms. She argues that Plaintiff's argument merely asks the court to reweigh the evidence.
The court finds no error in the ALJ's evaluation of Dr. White-Blakesley's opinion. 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c) (effective March 26, 2012); Soc. Sec. Ruling (SSR) 96-5p, West's Soc. Sec. Reporting Serv., Rulings 123-24 (Supp. 2014). Those factors are: (1) length of treatment relationship and frequency of examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, including the treatment provided and the kind of examination or testing performed; (3) the degree to which the physician's opinion is supported by relevant evidence; (4) consistency between the opinion and the record as a whole; (5) whether or not the physician is a specialist in the area upon which an opinion is rendered; and (6) other factors brought to the ALJ's attention which tend to support or contradict the opinion. Id. at 1301; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2-6), 416.927(d)(2-6); see also Drapeau v. Massanari, 255 F.3d 1211, 1213 (10th Cir. 2001) (citing Goatcher v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 52 F.3d 288, 290 (10th Cir. 1995)).
After considering the factors, the ALJ must give reasons in the decision for the weight he gives the opinions. Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1301 (10th Cir. 2003). "Finally, if the ALJ rejects the opinion completely, he must then give specific, legitimate reasons' for doing so." Id. (citing Miller v. Chater, 99 F.3d 972, 976 (10th Cir. 1996) (quoting Frey v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 508, 513 (10th Cir. 1987)).
As Plaintiff points out, the ALJ accorded Dr. White-Blakesley's opinion "little weight" because it was "completed after only one visit, with no ongoing treatment relationship, and [with] no explanation of the evidence upon which she relied in rendering her opinion." (Pl. Br. 12) (quoting R. 31-32). Despite Plaintiff's contrary assertions, each of these is a valid reason to discount the opinion.
Plaintiff admits that Dr. White-Blakesley saw Plaintiff only once, but argues that it is contradictory for the ALJ to accord her opinion "little weight" when she accorded "significant weight" to the opinion of Dr. Mintz, who also saw Plaintiff only once, and to the opinions of other physicians and psychologists who did not see her at all, but only reviewed the record. Plaintiff makes this argument in a vacuum. Although this individual factor is arguably the same for both Dr. Mintz, and Dr. White-Blakesley, and tends to favor Dr. White-Blakesley over the non-examining doctors, the ALJ specified differences in each case. She noted that Dr. White-Blakesley provided no explanation of the evidence upon which she relied (R. 31-32), and she noted that Dr. Mintz's opinion is well-supported by his examination findings, and is consistent with the other medical evidence. Moreover, in according significant weight to the opinions of the ...