Morris v. Social Security Administration
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER reversing and remanding the decision of the Commissioner for action consistent with this opinion. This is a sentence four remand within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89 (1991). Signed by Magistrate Judge Beth Deere on 12/11/2013. (jak)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CASE NO.: 3:13CV00052 BD
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner,
Social Security Administration1
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Mica Morris appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social
Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying her claim for Supplemental
Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). For the
following reasons, the decision of the Commissioner must be REVERSED and
On September 12, 2008, Ms. Morris filed for SSI, alleging disability beginning on
January 1, 2006, due to high blood pressure, back problems, anxiety, and migraines. (Tr.
161-167, 197) Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. An
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on October 5, 2010, at which Ms.
Morris appeared with her attorney. (Tr. 51-68) The ALJ issued a decision on November
10, 2010, finding that Ms. Morris was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 74-83) On
On February 14, 2013, Carolyn W. Colvin became the Acting Commissioner of
the Social Security Administration. She has been substituted for named Defendant
Michael J. Astrue under Fed.R.Civ.P. 25.
February 24, 2012, the Appeals Council remanded the case for further proceedings. (Tr.
88-89) The ALJ held a second hearing on April 25, 2012. During the hearing, the ALJ
heard testimony from Ms. Morris and a vocational expert (“VE”). (Tr. 30-50)
The ALJ issued a second decision on May 16, 2012, finding that Ms. Morris was
not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 12-24) On January 3, 2013, the Appeals Council denied
Ms. Morris’s request for review, making the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final
decision. (Tr. 1-5)
Ms. Morris was thirty-four years old at the time of the hearing. (Tr. 33) She was
5'5" tall and weighed 280 pounds. (Tr. 33) She was in special education classes in school
and completed the ninth grade, but only after three years in that grade. (Tr. 34-35) Ms.
Morris did eventually earn a General Education Development certificate. (Tr. 34) She
also obtained a CNA license. (Tr. 37)
Ms. Morris lived with her four minor children and her boyfriend, who was the
father of her four children. (Tr. 36) She had previous work experience as a cashier and
as a home health worker. (Tr. 37)
Decision of the Administrative Law Judge
The ALJ analyzed this claim under the familiar five-step process.2 He found that
Ms. Morris had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability
onset date. (Tr. 14) And he found that Ms. Morris had the following severe impairments:
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. (Tr. 14) The ALJ also found, however, that Ms.
Morris did not have an impairment or combination of impairments meeting or equaling an
impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. § 416.926).
The ALJ determined that Ms. Morris had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
to perform sedentary work, except she would be limited to jobs that did not require
frequent bending and or exposure to concentrated amounts of respiratory irritants such as
dust, fumes, strong odors, or extreme changes in temperature or humidity. Ms. Morris
had the mental RFC to perform unskilled work, according to the ALJ’s findings, where
interpersonal contact would be incidental to the work performed and the complexity of
The ALJ followed the required sequential analysis to determine: (1) whether the
claimant was engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant had a
severe impairment; (3) if so, whether the impairment (or combination of impairments)
met or equaled a listed impairment; and (4) if not, whether the impairment (or
combination of impairments) prevented the claimant from performing past relevant work;
and (5) if so, whether the impairment (or combination of impairments) prevented the
claimant from performing any other jobs available in significant numbers in the national
economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(g) (2005).
tasks could be learned and performed by rote with few variables. She was further limited
to jobs that would require little independent judgment and simple, direct, and concrete
supervision. She would not be able to deal with the general public. (Tr. 19-23)
Ms. Morris was unable to perform her past relevant work. (Tr. 23) Using VE
testimony, the ALJ determined that Ms. Morris could perform the jobs of factory
assembler and factory inspector, which existed in significant numbers in the national
economy. (Tr. 23-24) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Ms. Morris was not disabled.
Plaintiff’s Arguments for Reversal
Ms. Morris claims that the ALJ’s decision was not supported by substantial
evidence because: (1) the ALJ did not properly assess the opinion of her treating
physician; (2) the ALJ erred in his mental RFC assessment; and (3) the ALJ erred in
failing to adequately consider her morbid obesity. (#13)
In reviewing the Commissioner’s decision, this Court must determine whether
there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the decision. Boettcher v.
Astrue, 652 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2011); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is
“less than a preponderance, but sufficient for reasonable minds to find it adequate to
support the decision.” Id. (citing Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir.
2005)). In reviewing the record as a whole, the Court must consider both evidence that
detracts from the Commissioner’s decision and evidence that supports the decision; but,
the decision cannot be reversed, “simply because some evidence may support the opposite
conclusion.” Id. (citing Pelkey v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 578 (8th Cir. 2006)).
Treating Physician’s Opinion
Ms. Morris had a long-standing treatment relationship with her psychiatrist, Larry
Felts, M.D. (Tr. 413-431, 452-453, 472-473) The ALJ acknowledged the relationship
and discussed the related records of treatment. (Tr. 14-17, 21-22) When discussing the
medical opinion evidence, the ALJ stated:
Notably, there is no probative, objective medical evidence to show the
claimant has ever been advised by any treating or examining physician of
symptoms of such severity as to completely preclude involvement in substantial gainful
activity at every exertional level. There is also no objective medical evidence to show
that the claimant has ever been medically advised by a treating physician to permanently
limit activities secondary to any medically determinable impairment or combination of
impairments. Dr. Felts also never opined that the claimant was unable to work due to her
mental health impairments. (Tr. 22)
Dr. Felts, however, did opine that Ms. Morris was unable to work due to her mental
impairments. (Tr. 418) Dr. Felts stated:
[Ms. Morris] has paranoid delusions, mood swings, problems [with]
memory [and] concentration, anxiety [and] panic attacks. She isn’t able to
function well enough to work at any job for long. (Tr. 418)
Dr. Felts also mentioned Ms. Morris’s ability to work in another note, though his
comment in this note is mostly illegible. (Tr. 415)
As noted by the Commissioner, a treating physician’s opinion that a claimant is
disabled or unable to work is not entitled to deference. The ALJ’s comment about the
lack of an opinion, however, shows that he did not adequately assess the records of Ms.
Morris’s treating psychiatrist.
This Court cannot determine the degree to which the ALJ relied on this error in
finding Ms. Morris’s mental RFC. Ms. Morris had several severe mental impairments,
but the record does not contain other medical opinions such as a mental RFC assessment,
a psychiatric review technique, or a consultative mental evaluation. For these reasons, the
record does not contain substantial evidence regarding Ms. Morris’s mental RFC.
Accordingly, the Court must remand this case. On remand, the Commissioner
should clarify Dr. Felts’s opinion by asking him to complete a mental RFC assessment. If
this is not possible, the Commissioner should order a consultative mental evaluation that
addresses Ms. Morris’s mental RFC.
Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment
The ALJ bears the primary responsibility for assessing a claimant’s RFC.
Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 969 (8th Cir. 2010). It is the claimant’s burden,
however, to prove RFC. Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2003).
In this case, the ALJ did not properly assess the opinion of Ms. Morris’s
psychiatrist, Dr. Felts. The record also does not contain a mental RFC assessment, a
psychiatric review technique, or a consultative mental evaluation. Because the
assessment of Dr. Felts’s opinion and the lack of other evidence could affect Ms. Morris’s
mental RFC, the ALJ should reassess Ms. Morris’s mental RFC.
As the ALJ acknowledged, Ms. Morris was morbidly obese. (Tr. 14, 16, 17, 18,
20, 22) The ALJ adequately considered Ms. Morris’s obesity when determining her RFC.
This part of the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record.
After consideration of the record as a whole, the Court concludes that the ALJ
erred when considering the opinion of Ms. Morris’s treating physician. Due to a lack of
other mental health evidence, the Commissioner’s decision is not supported by substantial
evidence. Therefore, the Commissioner’s decision is reversed and remanded for action
consistent with this opinion. This is a “sentence four” remand within the meaning of 42
U.S.C. § 405(g) and Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89 (1991).
IT IS SO ORDERED this 11th day of December, 2013.
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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