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Edgmon v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

April 11, 2017

MINDY EDGMON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          J. THOMAS MARTEN, JUDGE.

         Mindy Edgmon applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., alleging a disability beginning March 12, 2011. After her claim was denied by the Commissioner initially and upon reconsideration, Edgmon requested an evidentiary hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Edgmon appeared and testified at a hearing on October 6, 2014, in Wichita, Kansas, before ALJ Edward E. Evans. The ALJ issued a written ruling finding that Edgmon was not disabled within the meaning of the Act because she retains the ability to perform certain sedentary jobs. Tr. at 18-28. The decision of the Commissioner became final when the Appeals Council denied Edgmon's request for review.

         Edgmon brings this appeal challenging the ALJ's decision on four grounds. First, she contends the ALJ ignored evidence of Edgmon's worsening impairments. Second, she contends the ALJ failed to consider evidence that Edgmon suffered episodic flare- ups of her impairments. Third, she argues the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinion of her treating physician. And fourth, Edgmon argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating her credibility. For the reasons stated herein, the court agrees that the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinions of plaintiff's treating doctor. Accordingly, the matter will be remanded to the ALJ for further consideration.

         I. Legal standard

         Under the Act, the court takes as conclusive the factual findings of the Commissioner so long as they are “supported by substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The court accordingly looks to whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard. Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence” means “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; in short, it is such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion.” Barkley v. Astrue, 2010 WL 3001753, *1 (D. Kan. July 28, 2010) (citing Castellano v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 26 F.3d 1027, 1028 (10th Cir. 1994)). In making this determination, the court must “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.3d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991)).

         A claimant is disabled if she suffers from a physical or mental impairment which stops the claimant “from engaging in substantial gainful activity and is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months.” Brennan v. Astrue, 501 F.Supp.2d 1303, 1306-07 (D. Kan. 2007) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)). This impairment “must be severe enough that she is unable to perform her past relevant work, and further cannot engage in other substantial gainful work existing in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience.” Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753, *2 (citing Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 217-22 (2002)).

         Pursuant to the Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled. Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1139 (10th Cir. 2010); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The steps are designed to be followed in order. If it is determined at any step of the evaluation process that the claimant is or is not disabled, further evaluation is unnecessary. Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753, at *2.

         The first three steps require the Commissioner to assess: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset of the alleged disability; (2) whether the claimant has a severe, or combination of severe, impairments; and (3) whether the severity of those impairments meets or equals a designated list of impairments. Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007); see also Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753, *2 (citing Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 (10th Cir. 1988)). If the impairment does not meet or equal a designated impairment, the ALJ must then determine the claimant's residual functional capacity, which is the claimant's ability “to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from her impairments.” Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753, *2; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545.

         Upon assessing the claimant's residual functional capacity, the Commissioner moves on to steps four and five, which require a determination of whether the claimant can either perform her past relevant work or can generally perform other work that exists in the national economy. Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753, *2 (citing Williams, 844 F.2d at 751). The claimant bears the burden in steps one through four to prove a disability that prevents performance of her past relevant work. Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084. The burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that, despite the impairments, the claimant can perform other work in the national economy. Id. See Weir v. Colvin, No. 15-1300-JTM, 2016 WL 6164313, at *1-2 (D. Kan. Oct. 24, 2016).

         II. Analysis

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's ruling in four respects. But only one of those will be addressed here - the ALJ's assessment of the treating physician's opinion - because that issue requires a remand for further consideration by the ALJ, and such reconsideration may affect or render the other arguments moot.

         An ALJ has an obligation to weigh the medical opinion of a treating physician under specified factors. See 20 CFR § 404.1527. The factors include the examining relationship (with more weight ordinarily given to the opinion of an examiner than a non-examiner), the treatment relationship (with more weigh ordinarily given to a treating source), the supportability of the opinion and underlying explanation (with more weight given to an opinion supported by relevant evidence such as medical signs and laboratory findings), the consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole, the specialization of the source (with more weight given to a specialist in the field), and other factors tending to support or contradict the opinion. § 404.1527(c)(1)-(6).

         If the ALJ finds a treating source's medial opinion on the nature and severity of an impairment is well-supported by acceptable clinical and laboratory techniques and is not inconsistent with other evidence, the opinion must be given controlling weight. § 404.1527(c)(2). When the ALJ does not give the opinion controlling weight, the remaining factors (paragraphs (c)(2)(i) and (ii) and (c)(3)-(c)(6)) must still be considered in determining the weight to be given the opinion. § 404.1527(c)(2); Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1119 (10th Cir. 2004) (even if not given controlling weight, treating physician opinion is entitled to deference and must be weighed using the factors in § 404.1527). “[A]djudicators must remember that a finding that a treating source medical opinion is not well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques or is inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record means only that the opinion is not entitled to ‘controlling weight, ' not that the opinion should be rejected.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1120 (quoting SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *4).

         The regulations require the ALJ to “always give good reasons in our notice of determination for the weight we give your treating source's medical opinion.” § 404.1527(c). When a claim is denied, the ALJ's opinion “must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the treating source's medical opinion, supported by the evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the ...


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