Watkins v. Social Security Administration
PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS that the final decision of the Commissioner be affirmed and Plaintiff's complaint be dismissed with prejudice 1 . Objections due no later than 14 days from the date of the findings and recommendations. Signed by Magistrate Judge Joe J. Volpe on 4/10/2018. (lej)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
MATTHEW TODD WATKINS
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Deputy Commissioner for Operations,
performing the duties and functions not
reserved to the Commissioner of Social Security
PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION
This recommended disposition has been submitted to United States District Judge Kristine
G. Baker. The parties may file specific objections to these findings and recommendations and
must provide the factual or legal basis for each objection. The objections must be filed with the
Clerk no later than fourteen (14) days from the date of the findings and recommendations. A copy
must be served on the opposing party. The district judge, even in the absence of objections, may
reject these proposed findings and recommendations in whole or in part.
Plaintiff, Matthew Watkins, appears pro se and has appealed the final decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration to deny his claim for disability insurance
benefits. Both parties have submitted appeal briefs and the case is now ready for a decision.
A 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 free of legal error. Slusser v.
Astrue, 557 F.3d 923, 925 (8th Cir. 2009); Long v. Chater, 108 F.3d 185, 187 (8th Cir. 1997); see
also 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
Substantial evidence 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); Reynolds v. Chater, 82 F.3d 254, 257 (8th Cir. 1996). In assessing the
substantiality of the evidence, courts must consider evidence that detracts from the
Commissioner’s decision as well as evidence that supports it; a court may not, however, reverse
the Commissioner’s decision merely because substantial evidence would have supported an
opposite decision. Sultan v. Barnhart, 368 F.3d 857, 863 (8th Cir. 2004); Woolf v. Shalala, 3 F.3d
1210, 1213 (8th Cir. 1993).
The history of the administrative proceedings and the statement of facts relevant to this
decision are contained in the respective briefs and are not in serious dispute. Therefore, they will
not be repeated in this opinion except as necessary. After careful consideration of the record as a
whole, I find the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff was thirty-three years old at the time of the administrative hearing. (Tr. 34.) He
testified that he earned a bachelor’s degree in construction management. (Id.) Mr. Watkins has
past relevant work as a security guard (including shift supervisor), carpenter, line worker, and
landscape worker. (Tr. 22.)
The Administrative Law Judge2 found Mr. Watkins has “severe” impairments in the form
of “dermatomyositis, adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood, and conversion
disorder, rule out.” (Tr. 11.) The ALJ further found Mr. Watkins did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments meeting or equaling an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart
P, Appendix 1.3 (Tr. 11-13.)
The ALJ determined Mr. Watkins had the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced
range of sedentary work. (Tr. 13-14.) Given this residual functional capacity, Mr. Watkins is no
longer able to perform his past relevant work. (Tr. 22.) Therefore, the ALJ employed the
services of a vocational expert to determine whether jobs existed that Mr. Watkins could perform
despite his impairments.
The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of
performing the jobs of document preparer and lamp shade assembler. (Tr. 23.) Accordingly, the
ALJ determined Mr. Watkins was not disabled. (Tr. 23-24.)
In support of his Complaint, Plaintiff argues the ALJ should have given “controlling
weight” to Tim Freyaldenhoven, M.D. (Doc. No. 13 at 2-13.) Plaintiff is correct that his treating
doctor should generally be given deference, but after a close review of the records, I find the ALJ
properly assessed the opinion of Dr. Freyaldenhoven.
Both ALJs 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) and 404.1520(a)-(g).
420 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926.
The ALJ actually gave “significant weight” to Dr. Freyaldenhoven’s Medical Assessment
The Assessment largely supports the ALJ’s determination that Mr.
Watkins is capable of performing sedentary work. The ALJ stated, “The undersigned has given
significant weight to this opinion based on Dr. [Freyaldenhoven’s] familiarity with the claimant’s
history and condition and his specialized experience in the field of neurology.” (Tr. 20.) The
ALJ also noted Dr. Freyaldenhoven’s opinion was generally consistent with the overall evidence
of record. (Id.) The point of contention is Dr. Freyaldenhoven’s statement that Plaintiff would
be required to miss work “more than four days a month.” (Tr. 659.) On that point, the ALJ
stated, “. . . this assessment is also based on a provisional diagnosis of dermatomyositis and the
provided allowance for work absences in excess of four time[s] a month is overly restrictive in
light of the claimant’s relatively benign presentation throughout the record.” (Tr. 20.)
The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has reiterated:
Generally, a treating physician’s opinion is given more weight than other sources
in a disability proceeding. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). Indeed, when the treating
physician’s opinion is supported by proper medical testing, and is not inconsistent
with other substantial evidence in the record, the ALJ must give the opinion
controlling weight. Id. “However, [a]n ALJ may discount or even disregard the
opinion of a treating physician where other medical assessments are supported by
better or more thorough medical evidence, or where a treating physician renders
inconsistent opinions that undermine the credibility of such opinions.” Wildman
v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 964 (8th Cir. 2010) (alteration in original) (internal
quotation omitted). Ultimately, the ALJ must “give good reasons” to explain the
weight given the treating physician's opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2).
Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 793 (8th Cir. 2012).
Here, the ALJ had fair reasons to discount Dr. Freyaldenhoven’s conclusion. While the
evidence reveals Plaintiff’s medical condition is “complicated” (Tr. 581-583), the objective
examinations routinely reveal nothing disabling. (Tr. 532-533, 541, 546, 551, 556, 563, 686, 692,
695, 701, 720, 761, 804-805, 824, 886-887, 891-892, 903, 910.) So the ALJ could properly
discount Dr. Freyaldenhoven’s opinion in this regard.
Treatment notes also state Plaintiff at least once failed to follow advice from his doctors
and “Only wants his Excuse Medical Note for his Supervisor at this time and nothing else. . . .”
(Tr. 538.) Not to be overly harsh, as this seems like an isolated incident, but failure to follow a
prescribed course of remedial treatment without good cause is grounds for denying an application
for benefits. Roth v. Shalala, 45 F.3d 279, 282 (8th Cir. 1995); Johnson v. Bowen, 866 F.2d 274,
275 (8th Cir. 1989).
Plaintiff’s arguments are largely based on his subjective complaints. And given the lack
of objective medical evidence in support of Plaintiff’s allegations, the conservative treatment
prescribed, and the lack of lasting restrictions placed on Plaintiff by his physicians, the ALJ could
correctly discount these subjective complaints. See Thomas v. Sullivan, 928 F.2d 255, 259-60
(8th Cir. 1991); Cabrnoch v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 561, 564 (8th Cir. 1989). The inconsistencies
between the medical evidence and Plaintiff’s subjective complaints gave reason to discount those
complaints. Matthews v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 422, 425 (8th Cir. 1989). The ALJ stated, “. . . the
claimant’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms
are not entirely persuasive. . . .” (Tr. 19.) In coming to this conclusion, the ALJ made specific
findings explaining his conclusions regarding Plaintiff’s subjective complaints. (Tr. 14-19); See
Baker v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 955 F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992). This Court
should not disturb the decision of any ALJ who seriously considers, but for good reasons, explicitly
discredits a claimant’s testimony of disabling symptoms. See Reed v. Sullivan, 988 F.2d 812, 815
(8th Cir. 1993).
For these same reasons, I find the ALJ did not err in his assessment that Plaintiff does not
have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the severity of a listed
impairment. The ALJ specifically considered Listings 14.05 (polymyositis and dermatomyositis
disorder), 12.04 (affective disorder), and 12.07 (somatoform disorder).
A claimant has the burden of proving his condition meets or equals an impairment listed in
Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.925(d) and 404.1525(d) (1997); Roth v. Shalala, 45 F.3d 279, 282
(8th Cir. 1995); see Marciniak v. Shalala, 49 F.3d 1350 (8th Cir. 1995). The claimant must
provide medical findings that support each of the criteria for the equivalent impairment
determination. Selders v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 614, 619 (5th Cir. 1990). For a claimant to show
that his impairment matches a listing, it must meet all of the specified medical criteria. Marciniak,
49 F.3d at 1353. An impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter how
severely, does not qualify. Id. The medical evidence simply fails to show Plaintiff’s medical
condition met or equaled a Listed impairment.
Plaintiff had the burden of proving his disability. E.g., Sykes v. Bowen, 854 F.2d 284, 285
(8th Cir. 1988). Thus, he bore the responsibility of presenting the strongest case possible.
Thomas v. Sullivan, 928 F.2d 255, 260 (8th Cir. 1991). Plaintiff has simply not met that burden.
The record contains ample support as a whole 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); see also, Robertson v. Sullivan, 925 F.2d 1124, 1126-27 (8th Cir. 1991).
I am sympathetic to Mr. Watkins’s claims. He is a young man. Many of his issues seem
mysterious and without medical explanation. I am certain he experiences pain, fatigue, and
limiting effects. But the overall medical evidence provides substantial support for the ALJ’s
determination that he could perform work at the sedentary exertional level.
Plaintiff has advanced other arguments that I have considered and find to be without merit.
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 on the record as a whole which
supports the decision of the ALJ. E.g., Mapes v. Chater, 82 F.3d 259, 262 (8th Cir. 1996); Pratt
v. Sullivan, 956 F.2d 830, 833 (8th Cir. 1992). I have reviewed the entire record, including the
briefs, the ALJ’s decision, the transcript of the hearing, and the medical and other evidence. There
is ample evidence on the record as a whole 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); see also Reutter ex rel. Reutter v. Barnhart, 372 F.3d 946, 950 (8th Cir. 2004). The
Commissioner’s decision is not based on legal error.
IT IS THEREFORE RECOMMENDED that the final decision of the Commissioner be
affirmed and Plaintiff’s Complaint be dismissed with prejudice.
DATED this 10th day of April, 2018.
JOE J. VOLPE
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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