Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Meek v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

April 20, 2017

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

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JOHN W. LUNGSTRUM, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks review of a decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (hereinafter Commissioner) denying Disability Insurance benefits (DIB) under sections 216(i) and 223 of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), and 423 (hereinafter the Act). Finding the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision is not supported by the record evidence and is inadequately explained, the court ORDERS that the decision shall be REVERSED and that judgment shall be entered pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) REMANDING the case for further proceedings consistent herewith.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2005. (R. 227).[2]Plaintiff exhausted proceedings before the Commissioner, and now seeks judicial review of the final decision denying benefits. Plaintiff claims numerous errors in the ALJ's consideration of her medically determinable severe impairments and in her assessment of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC).

         The court's review is guided by the Act. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). 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 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; 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 that remand is necessary here because the ALJ's stated basis for according substantial weight to the medical opinion of Dr. Byrd, the state agency medical consultant, is nothing more than boilerplate which is unreviewable by the court without impermissibly weighing that opinion in the first instance. Although the court finds little support for Plaintiff's remaining allegations of error, it has determined that remand is necessary because of the error in weighing Dr. Byrd's opinion. The court may not provide an advisory opinion, and therefore it will not address the remaining issues.

         II. Discussion

         Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred in weighing the non-examining source medical opinion of Dr. Byrd. She argues this is so because Dr. Byrd's opinion regarding exertional limitations is inconsistent with Plaintiff's testimony and with Dr. Johnson's opinion (Pl. Br. 28), her opinion regarding manipulative limitations is inconsistent with Plaintiff's activities of daily living and with Dr. Johnson's opinion, and her opinion regarding environmental limitations is inconsistent with the fact Plaintiff has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Id. at 30. Plaintiff then argues that a state agency consultant's opinion “may be given weight only to the extent [her] opinions are supported by evidence in the record and the ALJ must explain the weight given to such opinions.” Id. at 31 (citing Soc. Sec. Ruling (SSR) 96-6p). She argues that a boilerplate recitation without a “thorough analysis linking the conclusions to record evidence is improper.” Id. (citing Hardman v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 676, 679 (10th Cir. 2004)). The Commissioner argues that the ALJ “reasonably explained that she gave substantial weight to Dr. Byrd's opinion (that Plaintiff could perform medium work with some manipulative limitations) because it was well-explained and grounded in the medical and nonmedical evidence of record.” (Comm'r Br. 12-13).

         A. Standard for Evaluating Medical Opinions

         Medical opinions may not be ignored and, unless a treating source opinion is given controlling weight, they will be evaluated in accordance with factors contained in the regulations. 20 C.F.R § 404.1527(c); SSR 96-5p, West's Soc. Sec. Reporting Serv., Rulings 123-24 (Supp. 2016). 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. Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1301 (10th Cir. 2003); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(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 she gives the opinion. Id. 350 F.3d at 1301. “Finally, if the ALJ rejects the opinion completely, [s]he must then give ‘specific, legitimate reasons' for doing so.” Id. (citing Miller v. Chater, 99 F.3d ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.