Shelton v. Commissioner of Social Security
ORDER re 3 Complaint: The 18 objections are overruled. The 17 Report and Recommendation is adopted and the final decision of the Commissioner is affirmed. The Complaint is dismissed with prejudice. Signed by Judge Linda R Reade on 09/08/2017. (jjh)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF IOWA
CEDAR RAPIDS DIVISION
LISA NAYDENE SHELTON,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
The matter before the court is Plaintiff Lisa Naydene Shelton’s Objections (docket
no. 18) to United States Magistrate Judge Kelly K.E. Mahoney’s Report and
Recommendation (docket no. 17), which recommends that the court affirm Defendant
Commissioner of Social Security’s (“Commissioner”) final decision to deny disability
benefits to Shelton.
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On August 1, 2016, Shelton filed a Complaint (docket no. 3), seeking judicial
review of the Commissioner’s final decision denying Shelton’s application for Title XVI
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). On October 3, 2016, the Commissioner filed an
Answer (docket no. 8). On December 29, 2016, Shelton filed the Plaintiff’s Brief (docket
no. 12). On February 2, 2017, the Commissioner filed the Defendant’s Brief (docket no.
13). On February 8, 2017, Shelton filed a Reply (docket no. 14). On February 9, 2017,
the matter was referred to Judge Mahoney for issuance of a report and recommendation.
On June 29, 2017, Judge Mahoney issued the Report and Recommendation. On July 12,
2017, Shelton filed the Objections. On July 20, 2017, the Commissioner filed a Response
(docket no. 19) to the Objections. The matter is fully submitted and ready for decision.
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
A. Review of Final Decision
When the Commissioner adopts an Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) findings
and conclusions as its final decision, the final decision is subject to judicial review. See
42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The court “will affirm the Commissioner’s decision if supported by
substantial evidence on the record as a whole.” Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 793
(8th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence is ‘less than a preponderance but enough that a
reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the conclusion.’” Id. (alteration
omitted) (quoting Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 968 (8th Cir. 2010)). In determining
whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner’s decision, the court “consider[s]
the evidence that supports the Commissioner’s decision as well as the evidence that detracts
from it.” Jones, 619 F.3d at 968 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Kluesner v. Astrue, 607 F.3d
533, 536 (8th Cir. 2010)). A court “will not disturb the denial of benefits so long as the
ALJ’s decision falls within the available ‘zone of choice.’” Casey v. Astrue, 503 F.3d
687, 691 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting Nicola v. Astrue, 480 F.3d 885, 886 (8th Cir. 2007)).
“If, after reviewing the entire record, it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions, and
the Commissioner has adopted one of those positions,” the court must affirm the
Commissioner’s decision. Anderson, 696 F.3d at 793.
When reviewing the Commissioner’s decision, the court “must judge the propriety
of such action solely by the grounds invoked by the agency” and may not affirm the
decision based on a post hoc rationale that “it considers to be a more adequate or proper
basis.” Sec. & Exch. Comm’n v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 (1947); see also,
e.g., Hanson v. Colvin, 760 F.3d 759, 762 (7th Cir. 2014) (applying Chenery analysis in
context of social security benefits); Haga v. Astrue, 482 F.3d 1205, 1207-08 (10th Cir.
2007) (same); Strom v. Astrue, Civil No. 07-150, 2008 WL 583690, at *27 (D. Minn.
Mar. 3, 2008) (same). In other words, “‘a reviewing court may not uphold an agency
decision based on reasons not articulated by the agency,’ when ‘the agency has failed to
make a necessary determination of fact or policy’ upon which the court’s alternative basis
is premised.” Banks v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 820, 824 (8th Cir. 2001) (alterations omitted)
(quoting Healtheast Bethesda Lutheran Hosp. & Rehab. Ctr. v. Shalala, 164 F.3d 415,
418 (8th Cir. 1998)).
B. Review of Report and Recommendation
The standard of review to be applied by the court to a report and recommendation
of a magistrate judge is established by statute:
A judge of the court shall make a de novo determination of
those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or
recommendations to which objection is made. A judge of the
court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the
findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.
28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3) (providing that, when a party
properly objects to a report and recommendation on a dispositive motion, a district court
must review de novo the magistrate judge’s recommendation). The Eighth Circuit has
repeatedly held that it is reversible error for a district court to fail to conduct a de novo
review of a magistrate judge’s report and recommendation when such review is required.
See, e.g., United States v. Lothridge, 324 F.3d 599, 600 (8th Cir. 2003); Hosna v.
Groose, 80 F.3d 298, 306 (8th Cir. 1996); Hudson v. Gammon, 46 F.3d 785, 786 (8th
Cir. 1995); Belk v. Purkett, 15 F.3d 803, 815 (8th Cir. 1994). The statute governing
review provides only for de novo review of “those portions of the report or specified
proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.”
§ 636(b)(1). The court reviews the unobjected-to portions of the proposed findings or
recommendations for “plain error.” See United States v. Rodriguez, 484 F.3d 1006, 101011 (8th Cir. 2007) (noting that, where a party does not file objections to a magistrate’s
report and recommendation, the party waives the right to de novo review and the court will
review the decision for plain error).
In the Objections, Shelton argues that: (1) Judge Mahoney mischaracterized the
record in recounting a state agency physician’s opinion; (2) the ALJ improperly relied on
his personal observations of Shelton during the hearing held on her application for
disability benefits; (3) the ALJ was too conclusory in his determination that Shelton’s
subjective allegations were inconsistent with the record and failed to tie specific
inconsistencies in Shelton’s statements to the record; (4) the ALJ inappropriately
discounted Shelton’s reports of her own mental state as “subjective” but then credited
medical records reporting that Shelton had appropriate mental function as “objective” in
making his disability determination and that there were subjective statements that were both
supportive of and contrary to Shelton’s allegations in the record; and (5) Judge Mahoney
failed to properly evaluate the ALJ’s refusal to discount certain medical sources’ opinions
based on their supposed reliance on Shelton’s subjective complaints because the ALJ, and
Judge Mahoney, used equivocal language in describing the basis for those opinions. See
After conducting a de novo review of the objected-to portions of the Report and
Recommendation and the Administrative Record (“AR”) (docket nos. 9-1 through 9-14),
the court overrules the Objections. Judge Mahoney properly discussed the impact that the
state agency physician’s opinion had on the ALJ’s decision. First, Judge Mahoney merely
recounted the allegedly erroneous information in her recitation of the procedural history
of the case—thus, any error would be nonsubstantive and immaterial. See Report and
Recommendation at 2. Furthermore, Judge Mahoney did not mischaracterize the weight
the ALJ ultimately gave to this doctor’s opinion—she correctly stated that the ALJ gave
it “partial” weight. Id. at 5; see also AR 20. The court shall overrule the first objection.
The ALJ properly considered, but did not rely entirely on, his personal observations
of Shelton in rendering the residual functioning capacity and his ultimate disability
determination. See Lamp v. Astrue, 531 F.3d 629, 632 (8th Cir. 2008) (“While the ALJ’s
observations cannot be the sole basis of his decision, it is not an error to include his
observations as one of several factors.”). Shelton’s criticism of the quality of the video
conference or the fact that no recording was made of the hearing is not well taken. The
ALJ’s observation was not one which would have been obscured by a poor quality video
recording. Rather, it had to do with her testimony and ability to stay focused an engaged
throughout the hour-long hearing. See AR 20 (“[T]he claimant had little, if any, trouble
staying focused and engaged throughout the hour-long hearing proceeding. She was able
to follow along and answer all questions appropriately from both her attorney and the
administrative law judge.”). The court shall overrule the second objection.
The ALJ also appropriately tied the inconsistencies in Shelton’s subjective
statements to the record.
Contrary to Shelton’s complaint that the ALJ relied on
“illogically circular” reasoning, see Objections at 3, the ALJ’s decision appropriately
discussed the medical evidence supporting his findings. In particular, the ALJ tied
Shelton’s allegations of “significant difficulty with standing, walking, and sitting,” her
“difficulty with memory, concentration, and being off task ‘all the time,’” as well as her
inability “to take her bladder medication because it counteracts with her blood pressure
medication” to specific medical sources contrary to Shelton’s allegations. See AR 20.
Such analysis provides a substantial basis for the ALJ’s decision. The court shall overrule
the third objection.
The ALJ appropriately relied on the medical opinions to discount Shelton’s
subjective complaints regarding her mental status. See, e.g., 20 C.F.R. § 416.929 (noting
that “statements about [a claimant’s] pain or other symptoms will not alone establish that
[a claimant is] disabled” and that “[m]edical signs and laboratory findings, established by
medically acceptable clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques, must show the existence
of a medical impairment(s)”). That the ALJ gave such opinions little weight is of no
consequence. While the ALJ ultimately disagreed with the sources’ conclusions and
diagnoses, the ALJ found the objective medical findings made by the sources to be reliable
and, accordingly, relied on them when making his decision. Furthermore, the ALJ
referred to these objective medical findings in rejecting Shelton’s subjective statements
regarding her mental state. See AR 18 (“[M]ental status findings have been generally
unremarkable, including full alertness and orientation, adequate hygiene and grooming,
good eye contact, normal speech and through content, adequate memory function, fair to
good judgment/insight, and fair concentration.”). Any intimation that the court should
reverse the ALJ’s decision merely because of conflicting evidence in the record below is
clearly without merit. See Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005)
(“[E]ven if inconsistent conclusions may be drawn from the evidence, the agency’s
decision will be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a
whole.”). The court shall overrule the fourth objection.
Finally, it is clear from the record that the ALJ properly evaluated all medical
sources. The ALJ properly considered the weight to give each medical opinion, alongside
and in light of all other evidence in the record. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c) (describing
how the Commissioner evaluates medial opinions). The record is clear that the ALJ
properly discussed each medical opinion and provided reasoned bases for the weight he
gave such opinion, along with citations to the record. See AR 17-19. The ALJ is entitled
to discount medical opinions based upon a claimant’s subjective complaints. See, e.g.,
Cline v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 1098, 1104 (8th Cir. 2014) (“The [commissioner] was entitled
to give less weight to [a treating physician’s] opinion, because it was based largely on
[Shelton’s] subjective complaints rather than on objective medical evidence.”) (first
alteration in original) (quoting Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 709 (8th Cir. 2007))). An
ALJ is not required to use perfect prose or render his or her decision in language that suits
Shelton’s specific desires. All the ALJ is required to do is properly weigh medical
opinions and consider them alongside the other relevant evidence. Upon a de novo review,
the court is satisfied that the ALJ did so here. Accordingly, the court shall overrule the
Objections in their entirety.
In light of the foregoing, it is hereby ORDERED:
The Objections (docket no. 18) are OVERRULED;
The Report and Recommendation (docket no. 17) is ADOPTED and the
final decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED; and
The Complaint (docket no. 3) is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
DATED this 8th day of September, 2017.
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