Barnett v. Commissioner of Social Security
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER Accepting Report and Recommendation re 14 Report and Recommendations. I accept Judge Williams R&R (Doc. No. 14) with the minor modification described in footnote 2, supra. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Pursuant to Judge Williams' recommendation, the Commissioner's determination that Barnett was not disabled is affirmed. Judgment shall enter in favor of the Commissioner. Signed by Chief Judge Leonard T Strand on 4/10/2018. (src)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF IOWA
CEDAR RAPIDS DIVISION
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND
ORDER ON REPORT AND
This case is before me on a Report and Recommendation (R&R) filed by the
Honorable C.J. Williams, Chief United States Magistrate Judge. See Doc. No. 14. Judge
Williams recommends that I affirm the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security
(the Commissioner) denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title
II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. (the Act). Neither party has
objected to the R&R. The deadline for such objections has expired.
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).
In determining 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 that 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)).
In evaluating 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 finds 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 in cases where 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. 1992)). 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 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, 573-74 (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).
Barnett applied for disability insurance benefits on April 1, 2014, alleging
disability beginning September 17, 2013, due to arthritis, asthma, attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, borderline personality disorder, depression,
sleep apnea and wrist issues. See AR 159, 181. After a hearing, an Administrative Law
Judge (ALJ) applied the familiar five-step evaluation and found that Barnett was not
disabled as defined in the Act. Barnett argues the ALJ erred in determining that she was
not disabled because:
The ALJ’s finding of no severe mental impairment is not supported
by substantial evidence.
The ALJ’s physical residential functional capacity
determination is not supported by substantial evidence.
See Doc. No. 11. Judge Williams addressed each argument separately.
With regard to Barnett’s mental impairments, Barnett argues the ALJ should have
relied on the opinions of her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Frank Babcock, M.D., consultative
examiner Dr. Harlan Stientjes, Ph.D. and state agency examiner, Dr. Dee Wright, Ph.D.
She also argues the ALJ erroneously interpreted her global assessment of functioning
(GAF) score of 57 as indicative of mild, rather than moderate limitations.
In considering the ALJ’s determination that Barnett’s mental impairments were
non-severe at Step Two, Judge Williams noted the ALJ found that Barnett admitted she
had no problem with activities of daily living, could pay attention for an unlimited period
of time, could finish what she started and could follow spoken instructions “well.” Doc.
No. 14 at 8 (citing AR 24). Barnett admitted having these abilities less than a year after
the date of Dr. Babcock’s opinion. Moreover, Dr. Babcock’s opinion was provided in
checkbox form, which is considered of little evidentiary value. Id. at 9. Judge Williams
concluded the ALJ did not err in discounting Dr. Babcock’s opinions based on Barnett’s
self-professed ability to successfully complete work-related functions after Dr. Babcock
provided his opinion.
With regard to Dr. Stientjes’s opinion, the ALJ noted that it was provided six
weeks after Barnett claimed she could perform the aforementioned work-related functions
and was consistent with Barnett’s statements. Id. Judge Williams noted that while Dr.
Stientjes assessed a GAF score of 57, such scores “have no direct correlation to the
severity standard used by Commissioner.” Id. at 10 (quoting Wright v. Colvin, 789 F.3d
847, 855 (8th Cir. 2015)). Therefore, Judge Williams concluded the ALJ appropriately
relied on Dr. Stientjes’s opinion, including the GAF score.
Finally, with regard to Dr. Wright’s opinions, Judge Williams found no error with
the ALJ’s assessment. He noted that Dr. Wright found that Barnett suffered from certain
mental deficits but nonetheless was able to handle daily responsibilities, was “not
significantly limited socially,” and had attention and concentration that were “adequate
for at least non-complex tasks.” Id. Judge Williams concluded that nothing in Dr.
Wright’s analysis was contrary to the ALJ’s opinion and the ALJ did not err in evaluating
Judge Williams concluded that the ALJ’s decision to categorize Barnett’s mental
impairments as “non-severe” at Step Two was supported by substantial evidence,
including medical evidence and statements from Barnett. He also noted that much of the
evidence Barnett identified as inconsistent with the ALJ’s decision was actually
consistent. Thus, he recommends I affirm this aspect of the ALJ’s decision.
Judge Williams then considered Barnett’s arguments related to her physical RFC.
Barnett primarily argues that the ALJ should have given greater weight to her subjective
complaints and the opinions of Dr. Lusczyck. The ALJ provided the following RFC:
In summary, based on a review of the medical evidence of record, as well
as the claimant’s testimony at the hearing and the record as a whole, the
undersigned finds that the claimant has failed to build a logical bridge from
the evidence contained in the record that would support . . . her allegations
of totally incapacitating symptoms. The undersigned further finds that the
claimant has failed to build a logical bridge from the evidence contained in
the record that would support a finding of a more [restricted] residual
functional capacity than the residual functional capacity . . . found herein.
Id. at 11 (quoting AR 33).
With regard to Barnett’s subjective complaints, Judge Williams concluded the ALJ
properly discredited them. He noted that the evidence supported the ALJ’s determination
that Barnett’s pain was manageable with medication and “relatively effective” in
controlling her symptoms. Id. He found the ALJ considered all of the evidence,
including the objective medical evidence, in concluding Barnett experienced pain, but not
at a disabling level as Barnett alleged. Judge Williams concluded that because substantial
evidence supported the ALJ’s decision to discount Barnett’s subjective allegations without
considering her behavior at the hearing, he did not need to analyze that additional reason
the ALJ provided for discounting Barnett’s subjective complaints. Id.
Judge Williams next considered the ALJ’s analysis of Dr. Luszcyk’s opinions.
The ALJ found the medical evidence did not support Dr. Luszcyk’s opinion that Barnett
“may have difficulty performing any type of functional job.” Id. at 12 (citing AR 427).
Judge Williams concluded this determination was supported by substantial evidence on
the record as a whole.
Judge Williams also considered the ALJ’s analysis of Dr. Mark Iltis’ opinions.
He noted that Dr. Iltis completed a physical RFC questionnaire that did not contain
greater limitations than the ones identified by the ALJ. Id. He also agreed with the
ALJ’s finding that Dr. Iltis applied a questionable methodology in completing the
questionnaire and did not maintain internal consistency.1 Id. (citing AR 31-32). Barnett
admitted that Dr. Iltis completed the questionnaire in her presence and that some of his
responses were based on Barnett’s subjective complaints. Id. at 13-14 (citing AR 69).
Judge Williams concluded the ALJ properly discounted Dr. Iltis’ opinions based on
internal inconsistencies. Overall, he found the ALJ’s physical RFC assessment was
supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and recommends I affirm this
aspect of the ALJ’s decision as well. Id. at 14.
Because the parties did not object to the R&R, I have reviewed it for clear error.
Judge Williams applied the appropriate legal standards in concluding that the ALJ’s
analysis of Barnett’s mental impairments and her physical RFC were supported by
substantial evidence in the record as a whole. While I may have analyzed some aspects
of the ALJ’s decision differently,2 I agree that the ALJ’s decision is supported by
substantial evidence in the record as a whole and therefore, adopt Judge Williams’
recommendation, with the modification explained in footnote 2.
As an example, the ALJ noted it was inconsistent for Dr. Iltis to state that Barnett needed to
walk 10 minutes every 20 minutes, but could only stand/walk less than 2 hours in an 8-hour
workday. See AR 31.
For instance, I do not agree with the ALJ’s determination that it was inconsistent for Dr. Iltis
to state that Barnett needed to walk 10 minutes every 20 minutes, but could only stand/walk less
than 2 hours in an 8-hour workday. I interpret these two limitations, taken together, to mean
that Barnett needed to walk 10 minutes every 20 minutes, but could only do that for a total of 2
hours in an 8-hour workday. In other words, the latter is a condition of the former. However,
because the ALJ provided other good reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record as
a whole for discounting Dr. Iltis’ opinion, I do not find this issue to be a basis for reversal or
For the reasons set forth herein:
I accept Judge Williams’ R&R (Doc. No. 14) with the minor modification
described in footnote 2, supra. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
Pursuant to Judge Williams’ recommendation, the Commissioner’s
determination that Barnett was not disabled is affirmed. Judgment shall
enter in favor of the Commissioner.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
DATED this 10th day of April, 2018.
Leonard T. Strand, Chief Judge
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