Maddox v. Social Security Administration
ORDER REMANDING TO THE COMMISSIONER. This case is reversed and remanded with instructions for the ALJ to further develop the record and to properly evaluate the opinion of Maddox's treating psychologist. Signed by Magistrate Judge J. Thomas Ray on 7/10/2017. (jak)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Social Security Administration
ORDER REMANDING TO THE COMMISSIONER
William Maddox (“Maddox”) applied for social security disability benefits
with an alleged disability onset date of May 31, 2015. (R. at 54). After a hearing, the
administrative law judge (“ALJ”) denied his application. (R. at 22). The Appeals
Council denied his request for review. (R. at 1). The ALJ’s decision now stands as
the Commissioner’s final decision, and Maddox has requested judicial review.1
For the reasons stated below, this Court reverses and remands the
The Commissioner’s Decision
The ALJ found that Maddox had the severe impairments of lumbar
degenerative disk disease, status post diskectomy; major depressive disorder; and
anxiety disorder. (R. at 12). The ALJ held that Maddox had the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work except that he: can never climb ladders,
The parties have consented in writing to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge.
ropes, or scaffolds; can frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel,
crouch, and crawl; must avoid unprotected heights; is limited to unskilled work
consisting of simple, routine, repetitive tasks where the supervision required is
simple, direct, and concrete, with SVP 1 or 2 jobs that can be learned within thirty
days; and can tolerate no more than occasional changes to the workplace setting. (R.
at 14–15). The ALJ determined that Maddox was unable to return to past relevant
work. (R. at 20). However, after hearing testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ
determined that Maddox could perform other jobs available in the national economy,
such as work as a marking clerk, hand bander, or meat stringer. (R. at 21). Therefore,
the ALJ held that Maddox was not disabled. (R. at 22).
The Court’s function on review is to determine whether the Commissioner’s
decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole and whether
it is based on legal error. Miller v. Colvin, 784 F.3d 472, 477 (8th Cir. 2015); see
also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). While “substantial evidence” is that which a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, “substantial evidence on the
record as a whole” requires a court to engage in a more scrutinizing analysis:
“[O]ur review is more than an examination of the record for the
existence of substantial evidence in support of the Commissioner’s
decision; we also take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts
from that decision.” Reversal is not warranted, however, “merely
because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite
Reed v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 917, 920 (8th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted).
Maddox maintains that the ALJ erred in failing to properly assess his mental
impairments. Specifically, Maddox contends that the ALJ improperly assessed the
opinion of his treating psychologist. He also contends that the ALJ failed to fully
and fairly develop the record. Because the Court finds that the ALJ failed to properly
assess the opinion of Maddox’s treating psychologist, it is unnecessary to reach his
Maddox notes a number of errors in the ALJ’s evaluation of the opinion of
Roger D. Morgan, M.D., a treating psychologist. He first contends that the ALJ
misread Dr. Morgan’s opinion. The ALJ stated that Dr. Morgan found “marked”
limitations in Maddox’s ability: to maintain attention and concentration for extended
periods; to make simple, work-related decisions; to interact appropriately with the
general public; to respond appropriately to changes in the work setting; and to set
realistic goals or make plans independently of others. (R. at 18). In fact, Dr.
Morgan’s opinion only notes marked limitations in Maddox’s ability to maintain
attention and concentration for extended periods and the ability to work in
coordination in proximity to others without being distracted by them. (R. at 640).
The photocopy of Dr. Morgan’s opinion regarding Maddox’s ability to make simple,
work-related decisions is “cut off,” so there is no way of knowing from the record
his opinion in that area. (R. at 640). Dr. Morgan also found moderate to marked
limitations in Maddox’s ability to complete a normal workday and workweek
without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a
consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods. (R. at
641). Notably, Dr. Morgan found only moderate limitations in the other areas that
the ALJ stated were listed as marked limitations. (R. at 640–41). The ALJ
specifically declined to give Dr. Morgan’s opinion great weight based on the
erroneous determination that he had assigned so many marked limitations to
Maddox. (R. at 18). The Commissioner argues that this error is harmless, a clearly
specious argument given the fact the ALJ discounted Dr. Morgan’s opinion based
on the erroneous determination he allegedly had evaluated “too many” of Maddox’s
limitations to be “marked.”
Maddox also observes that the ALJ regarded one of Dr. Morgan’s treatment
notes, that Maddox’s “[c]ognition is intact,” as contradictory to his opinion that
Maddox evidenced cognitive decline. (R. at 18, 641, 650). There is nothing to
suggest that these terms are mutually exclusive, i.e., a person suffering cognitive
decline can still have intact, albeit declining, cognition.
“Whether the ALJ gives great or small weight to the opinions of treating
physicians, the ALJ must give good reasons for giving the opinions that weight.”
Hamilton v. Astrue, 518 F.3d 607, 610 (8th Cir. 2008). In this instance, the ALJ’s
reasoning is based on an incorrect reading of the opinion. Because such mistakes
cannot constitute “good reason,” the ALJ’s decision must be reversed.
It is not the task of this Court to review the evidence and make an independent
decision. Neither is it to reverse the decision of the ALJ because there is evidence in
the record which contradicts his findings. The test is whether there is substantial
evidence in the record as a whole which supports the decision of the ALJ. Miller,
784 F.3d at 477. After reviewing the entire record, including the briefs, the ALJ's
decision, and the transcript of the hearing, the Court concludes that the record as a
whole does not contain ample evidence that "a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support [the] conclusion" of the ALJ in this case. Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Therefore, this case must be REVERSED and
REMANDED, with instructions for the ALJ to further develop the record and to
properly evaluate the opinion of Maddox’s treating psychologist.
It is so ordered this 10th day of July, 2017.
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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