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Maurice W. v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Kansas

March 11, 2019

MAURICE W.,[1] Plaintiff,


          Sam A. Crow, U.S. District Senior Judge

         On March 13, 2015, plaintiff filed an application for social security disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of July 6, 2012. The application was denied initially and on reconsideration. An administrative hearing was conducted on May 16, 2017. The administrative law judge (ALJ) considered the evidence and decided on September 8, 2017 that plaintiff was not qualified to receive benefits. This decision has been adopted by defendant. This case is now before the court upon plaintiff's request to reverse and remand the decision to deny plaintiff's application for benefits. I. STANDARD OF REVIEW To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he or she was “disabled” under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E), during the time when the claimant had “insured status” under the Social Security program. See Potter v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 905 F.2d 1346, 1347 (10th Cir. 1990); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.130, 404.131. To be “disabled” means that the claimant is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and if the ALJ applied the proper legal standards. See Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009). “Substantial evidence” is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010)(internal quotation marks omitted). “It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). The court must examine the record as a whole, including whatever in the record fairly detracts from the weight of the defendant's decision, and on that basis decide if substantial evidence supports the defendant's decision. Glenn v. Shalala, 21 F.3d 983, 984 (10th Cir. 1994) (quoting Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 933 F.2d 799, 800-01 (10th Cir. 1991)). The court may not reverse the defendant's choice between two reasonable but conflicting views, even if the court would have made a different choice if the matter were referred to the court de novo. Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quoting Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372 F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)). The court reviews “only the sufficiency of the evidence, not its weight.” Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1257 (10th Cir. 2007). II. THE ALJ'S DECISION (Tr. 13-29).

         There is a five-step evaluation process followed in these cases which is described in the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 14-15). First, it is determined whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. Second, the ALJ decides whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment that is “severe” or a combination of impairments which are “severe.” At step three, the ALJ decides whether the claimant's impairments or combination of impairments meet or medically equal the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Next, the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity and then decides whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform the requirements of his or her past relevant work. Finally, at the last step of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is able to do any other work considering his or her residual functional capacity, age, education and work experience.

         In steps one through four the burden is on the claimant to prove a disability that prevents performance of past relevant work. Blea v. Barnhart, 466 F.3d 903, 907 (10th Cir. 2006). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there are jobs in the economy with the claimant's residual functional capacity. Id. In this case, the ALJ decided plaintiff's application should be denied at the fifth step of the evaluation process.

         The ALJ made the following specific findings in his decision. First, plaintiff meets the insured status requirements for Social Security benefits through March 31, 2018. Second, plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 6, 2012. Third, plaintiff has the following severe impairments: anxiety; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); adjustment disorder; paranoid personality disorder traits; and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Fourth, plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Fifth, plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: plaintiff is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks with occasional interaction with coworkers and no interaction with the general public, but plaintiff retains the ability to accept supervision on a basic level. Finally, the ALJ determined that, although plaintiff cannot perform any past relevant work, he could perform such jobs as laboratory equipment cleaner, order filler, and laundry worker. The ALJ further found that these jobs exist in significant numbers in the national and state economy. III. TREATING SOURCE OPINIONS Plaintiff's claim for benefits is based upon his mental health and his irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) which seems connected to his mental health. Plaintiff alleges that the mental or emotional stress of work causes his IBS symptoms and that his IBS symptoms exacerbate the mental or emotional stress of work. The record contains opinions from treating sources who discuss the functional limitations caused by plaintiff's IBS. The ALJ mostly agreed with the psychological diagnoses of these sources, but he disagreed with their conclusions regarding the work limitations caused by plaintiff's IBS and mental health conditions. In fact, the ALJ concluded, based upon his review of the medical evidence, that IBS was not a severe impairment for plaintiff and he referenced this conclusion in giving only partial weight to the treating sources' opinions. Plaintiff contends that this conclusion is not supported by substantial evidence.

         A. IBS as a severe impairment

         Plaintiff's first argument to reverse the decision to deny benefits concerns the ALJ's analysis of two treating sources: Dr.

         Elizabeth Hatcher, plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, and Tyrus Petty, plaintiff's therapist. Part of the ALJ's critique of their opinions was based upon his determination that plaintiff's alleged IBS was not a severe impairment. Plaintiff contends that this conclusion is not supported by substantial evidence.

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ's analysis of the evidence ignores the interplay between plaintiff's mental or emotional status and his IBS symptoms, i.e., that job stress or anxiety cause his IBS symptoms and his IBS symptoms cause plaintiff job stress and anxiety, and that the combination creates a severe work impairment. Instead of ignoring this possibility, the ALJ's decision addresses it as follows:

The . . . evidence supports a finding that the claimant did not suffer from any severe physical impairments. Even if the undersigned found the claimant's alleged IBS to be severe, there is no objective evidence that it gave rise to debilitating limitations, either singly or in combination with the mental health impairments.

(Tr. 17). Before stating this conclusion, the ALJ reviewed the findings contained in numerous medical records and noted plaintiff's testimony that plaintiff does not take medication for IBS and that, after plaintiff stopped working, his IBS symptoms did not improve. (Tr. 16).

         So, the court rejects the claim that the ALJ did not consider the combination or interplay of mental and physical impairments in his analysis. The ALJ concluded that he would reject plaintiff's claim for benefits even if he had found that plaintiff's IBS was a “severe” physical impairment. And, as discussed below, the court finds that the ALJ reasonably discounted treating source opinions of plaintiff's functional limitations based upon his consideration of the record, including the severity of plaintiff's IBS symptoms.

         B. Standards for considering treating source opinions

         In considering a treating physician's opinion, an ALJ must either give it controlling weight or “'articulate[] specific, legitimate reasons for his decision, finding, for example, the opinion unsupported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques or inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record.'” Arterberry v. Berryhill, 743 Fed.Appx. 227, 229 (10th Cir. 2018)(quoting Raymond v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 1269, 1272 (10th Cir. 2009)). The ALJ must consider other factors including: the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination; the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, including the treatment provided and the kind of examination and testing performed; whether the physician is a specialist in the area upon which an opinion is rendered; and other ...

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