Knight v. Commissioner of Social Security
ORDER: Accepting 20 Report and Recommendation: The Commissioner's determination that Plaintiff was not disabled is affirmed: Judgment shall enter in favor of the Defendant and against the Plaintiff. Signed by Chief Judge Leonard T Strand on 03/08/18. (kfs)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF IOWA
CEDAR RAPIDS DIVISION
RANDALL E. KNIGHT,
ORDER ON REPORT AND
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
This case is before me on a Report & Recommendation (R&R) by the Honorable
Kelly K.E. Mahoney, United States Magistrate Judge. Doc. No. 20. Judge Mahoney
recommends that I affirm the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the
Commissioner) denying plaintiff Randall Knight’s application for supplemental security
income (SSI) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et
seq. (Act). Neither party has objected to the R&R. The deadline for such objections has
Judicial Review of the Commissioner’s Decision
The Commissioner’s decision must be affirmed “if it is supported by substantial
evidence on the record as a whole.” Pelkey v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 577 (8th Cir.
2006); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as
to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”).
“Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind
might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642,
645 (8th Cir. 2003). The Eighth Circuit explains the standard as “something less than
the weight of the evidence and [that] allows for the possibility of drawing two inconsistent
conclusions, thus it embodies a zone of choice within which the [Commissioner] may
decide to grant or deny benefits without being subject to reversal on appeal.” Culbertson
v. Shalala, 30 F.3d 934, 939 (8th Cir. 1994).
To determine whether the Commissioner’s decision meets this standard, the court
considers “all of the evidence that was before the ALJ, but it [does] not re-weigh the
evidence.” Vester v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 886, 889 (8th Cir. 2005). The court considers
both evidence which supports the Commissioner’s decision and evidence that detracts
from it. Kluesner v. Astrue, 607 F.3d 533, 536 (8th Cir. 2010). The court “must search
the record for evidence contradicting the [Commissioner’s] decision and give that
evidence appropriate weight when determining whether the overall evidence in support
is substantial.” Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 549, 555 (8th Cir. 2003) (citing Cline v.
Sullivan, 939 F.2d 560, 564 (8th Cir. 1991)).
To evaluate the evidence in an appeal of a denial of benefits, the court must apply
a balancing test to assess any contradictory evidence. Sobania v. Sec’y of Health &
Human Servs., 879 F.2d 441, 444 (8th Cir. 1989). The court, however, does not
“reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ,” Baldwin, 349 F.3d at 555 (citing Bates v.
Chater, 54 F.3d 529, 532 (8th Cir. 1995)), or “review the factual record de novo.” Roe
v. Chater, 92 F.3d 672, 675 (8th Cir. 1996) (citing Naber v. Shalala, 22 F.3d 186, 188
(8th Cir. 1994)). Instead, if, after reviewing the evidence, the court “find[s] it possible
to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents
the Commissioner’s findings, [the court] must affirm the [Commissioner’s] denial of
benefits.” Kluesner, 607 F.3d at 536 (quoting Finch v. Astrue, 547 F.3d 933, 935 (8th
Cir. 2008)). This is true even if the court “might have weighed the evidence differently.”
Culbertson, 30 F.3d at 939 (quoting Browning v. Sullivan, 958 F.2d 817, 822 (8th Cir.
The court may not reverse the Commissioner’s decision “merely because
substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.” Baker v. Heckler, 730
F.2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir. 1984); see also Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 789 (8th Cir.
2005) (“[A]n administrative decision is not subject to reversal simply because some
evidence may support the opposite conclusion.”).
Review of Report and Recommendation
A district judge must review a magistrate judge’s R&R under the following
Within fourteen days after being served with a copy, any party may serve
and file written objections to such proposed findings and recommendations
as provided by rules of court. 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. The judge may also
receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with
28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). Thus, when a party objects to
any portion of an R&R, the district judge must undertake a de novo review of that portion.
Any portions of an R&R to which no objections have been made must be reviewed
under at least a “clearly erroneous” standard. See, e.g., Grinder v. Gammon, 73 F.3d
793, 795 (8th Cir. 1996) (noting that when no objections are filed “[the district court
judge] would only have to review the findings of the magistrate judge for clear error”).
As the Supreme Court has explained, “[a] finding is ‘clearly erroneous’ when although
there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the
definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Anderson v. City of
Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573 (1985) (quoting United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co.,
333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948)). However, a district judge may elect to review an R&R under
a more-exacting standard even if no objections are filed:
Any party that desires plenary consideration by the Article III judge of any
issue need only ask. Moreover, while the statute does not require the judge
to review an issue de novo if no objections are filed, it does not preclude
further review by the district judge, sua sponte or at the request of a party,
under a de novo or any other standard.
Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985).
Knight sought disability benefits, alleging an onset date of April 30, 2001, due to
coronary artery disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), high blood
pressure, past heart attacks, anxiety, depression, social phobia, schizoid and avoidant
personality. AR 17. He later amended the alleged onset date to August 15, 2013. AR
254. In an October 2015 decision, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) concluded that
Knight had severe impairments due to emphysema, coronary artery disease, status post
remote myocardial infarction and interventions, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,
status post hernia surgery, depression and anxiety. AR 19. However, the ALJ found
that Knight was not disabled and there were jobs that existed in significant numbers that
he could perform even with his limitations. AR 21, 30. Knight’s request for review was
denied on November 2, 2016. AR 1. He filed a complaint in this court on December
30, 2016, and Judge Mahoney filed her R&R on February 15, 2018.
Knight argues that the ALJ (1) improperly discounted Knight’s subjective
allegations, (2) failed to properly evaluate the opinion of his therapist, Tamara TaylorHillyer and (3) failed to order consultative examinations. Doc. No. 14. Judge Mahoney
first noted generally that Knight challenged only the ALJ’s evaluation of his mental
limitations, not his physical limitations. Doc. No. 20 at 4 n. 5. She then addressed the
ALJ’s evaluation of Knight’s subjective complaints:
Knight testified that he is disabled “mostly” because of his physical
problems. AR 53. He stated that he was forced to resign his job in 2001
after missing work due to his depression. AR 47-48, 304. He reported
continuing to suffer from depression and having trouble leaving his house
some days. AR 22, 51-53. He also testified that he suffers from anxiety
and does not like being around crowds, although he does well one-on-one.
AR 52-53. He stated that he has trouble concentrating due to his mental
impairments. AR 22, 51.
The ALJ found Knight’s subjective complaints inconsistent with his
activities of daily living. AR 29. Substantial evidence supports that Knight
is able to pay bills, handle money, do the dishes and other housework, make
dinner daily, care for his houseplants and pet cats, garden, and read the
news on his computer. AR 29, 51, 57-58, 284-87, 339, 730. He reported
watching television in the evenings and going for walks in parks or on trails
two to four times a week. AR 51, 287, 733, 990. He is teaching himself
to play guitar. AR 58, 730. He goes grocery shopping once a week at a
large grocery store during the morning (when it is less crowded), and he
also occasionally shops for clothes. AR 51, 286, 372. He volunteers once
a week at the Raptor Center, where he feeds birds, changes their water, and
cleans. AR 65, 287, 990. Occasionally, visitors are around, but he does
not interact with them unless they initiate conversation. AR 65. He also
goes out to dinner every once in a while. AR 58. Substantial evidence
supports the ALJ’s determination that Knight’s activities of daily living are
inconsistent with a complete inability to concentrate or to be around crowds;
rather, Knight’s activities of daily living support that he can work on
“simple, routine tasks” with “only short-lived superficial contact” with
people, as found by the ALJ (AR 21).
Id. at 5–6 (footnotes omitted). Judge Mahoney also concluded that the ALJ sufficiently
reviewed Knight’s mental health treatment records and found that substantial evidence
supports the ALJ’s conclusion that the record does not support the severity of Knight’s
allegations. Id. at 7-8.
As for the weight given to Taylor-Hillyer’s RFC opinion, Judge Mahoney stated:
Contrary to Knight’s argument otherwise, the ALJ “consider[ed]”
Therapist Taylor-Hillyer’s RFC opinion “with respect to [the] severity” of
Knight’s mental impairments and their “effect on function.” AR 28. The
ALJ assigned it little weight, however, because the ALJ found the extreme
limitations opined by Therapist Taylor-Hillyer “contrast[ed] with other
evidence in the record.” AR 28. As the evidence outlined in the preceding
section demonstrates, substantial evidence supports this determination: for
example, substantial evidence supports that Knight suffered from only mild
limitations in his activities of his daily living, as found by the ALJ (AR 20),
not marked limitations as found by Therapist Taylor-Hillyer. The ALJ did
not err in affording Therapist Taylor-Hillyer’s RFC opinion little weight
based on a finding (supported by substantial evidence) that the marked and
extreme limitations opined by Therapist Taylor-Hillyer were inconsistent
with the record as a whole.
Id. at 9–10 (footnotes omitted).
Finally, Knight argues that because there was no mental RFC opinion from a
treating or examining source in the record and the ALJ assigned little weight to TaylorHillyer’s opinion, the ALJ should have ordered consultative examinations. Doc. No. 20
at 10; Doc. No. 14 at 8. He also argues that the ALJ should have ordered consultative
evaluations for the physical limitations because he experienced significant changes after
the last state agency consultant’s examination but before the ALJ’s decision. Doc. No.
20 at 12; Doc. No. 14 at 10. Judge Mahoney concluded:
[T]he record as a whole does not reflect greater mental limitations than
those found by the ALJ: the mental-health treatment records reflect that
Knight occasionally reported suffering from moderate depression and
anxiety, but he just as often reported that he was doing well, and the
treatment records for both his mental and physical ailments often reflect a
normal mental status examination. Moreover, the ALJ’s RFC opinion is
consistent with Knight’s activities of daily living and the RFC opinions of
Drs. Lark and Westra, the state agency consultants. AR 101-03, 131-33.
The ALJ did not need to order a consultative examination to determine
Knight’s mental RFC.
Doc. No. 20 at 11. She further stated:
[T]he record reflects that he recovered well from hernia surgery, and his
COPD exacerbation improved from February to March and March to June
2015. Although the state agency consultants did not have the opportunity
to review all the treatment records before forming their opinions, “there is
always some time lapse between the [state agency] consultant[s’] report[s]
and the ALJ’s hearing and decision,” and “[t]he Social Security regulations
impose no limit on how much time may pass between a report and the ALJ’s
decision in reliance on it.” Mangrich v. Colvin, No. C15-2002-LTS, 2016
WL 593621, at *8 (N.D. Iowa Feb. 12, 2016) (quoting Chandler v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d 356, 361 (3d Cir. 2011)). Knight’s
condition did not deteriorate such that the ALJ could not rely on the state
agency opinions, and a consultative examination was not required for the
ALJ to make an informed decision.
Id. at 13–14.
Because the parties did not object to the R&R, I have reviewed it for clear error.
Judge Mahoney applied the appropriate legal standards for evaluating the credibility of
Knight’s subjective complaints, the weight assigned to Taylor-Hillyer’s opinion and
whether the ALJ should have ordered consultative examinations. Based on my review of
the record, I find no error – clear or otherwise – in Judge Mahoney’s recommendation.
As such, I adopt the R&R in its entirety.
For the reasons set forth herein:
I accept Judge Mahoney’s R&R (Doc. No. 20) without modification. See
28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
Pursuant to Judge Mahoney’s recommendation, the Commissioner’s
determination that Knight was not disabled is affirmed.
Judgment shall enter in favor of the defendant and against the plaintiff.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
DATED this 8th day of March, 2018.
Leonard T. Strand, Chief Judge
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