Edgmon v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner of
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER. It is ordered that the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. Signed by Chief Judge J. Thomas Marten on 04/11/2017. (aa)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF KANSAS
Case No. 6:16-cv-01334-JTM
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,1
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Mindy Edgmon applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI
of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., alleging a disability beginning March
12, 2011. After her claim was denied by the Commissioner initially and upon
reconsideration, Edgmon requested an evidentiary hearing before an Administrative
Law Judge (ALJ). Edgmon appeared and testified at a hearing on October 6, 2014, in
Wichita, Kansas, before ALJ Edward E. Evans. The ALJ issued a written ruling finding
that Edgmon was not disabled within the meaning of the Act because she retains the
ability to perform certain sedentary jobs. Tr. at 18-28. The decision of the Commissioner
became final when the Appeals Council denied Edgmon’s request for review.
Edgmon brings this appeal challenging the ALJ’s decision on four grounds. First,
she contends the ALJ ignored evidence of Edgmon’s worsening impairments. Second,
she contends the ALJ failed to consider evidence that Edgmon suffered episodic flareNancy A. Berryhill became Acting Commissioner on January 23, 2017. She is substituted for previous
Acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 25(d).
ups of her impairments. Third, she argues the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the
opinion of her treating physician. And fourth, Edgmon argues that the ALJ erred in
evaluating her credibility. For the reasons stated herein, the court agrees that the ALJ
failed to properly consider the opinions of plaintiff’s treating doctor. Accordingly, the
matter will be remanded to the ALJ for further consideration.
I. Legal standard
Under the Act, the court takes as conclusive the factual findings of the
Commissioner so long as they are “supported by substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). The court accordingly looks to whether the factual findings are supported by
substantial evidence and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard. Lax v.
Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence” means “more than a
scintilla, but less than a preponderance; in short, it is such evidence as a reasonable
mind might accept to support the conclusion.” Barkley v. Astrue, 2010 WL 3001753, *1 (D.
Kan. July 28, 2010) (citing Castellano v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 26 F.3d 1027, 1028
(10th Cir. 1994)). In making this determination, the court must “neither reweigh the
evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Bowman v.
Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human
Servs., 933 F.3d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991)).
A claimant is disabled if she suffers from a physical or mental impairment which
stops the claimant “from engaging in substantial gainful activity and is expected to
result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months.” Brennan v.
Astrue, 501 F.Supp.2d 1303, 1306-07 (D. Kan. 2007) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)). This
impairment “must be severe enough that she is unable to perform her past relevant
work, and further cannot engage in other substantial gainful work existing in the
national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience.” Barkley, 2010
WL 3001753, *2 (citing Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 217-22 (2002)).
Pursuant to the Act, the Social Security Administration has established a fivestep sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled.
Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1139 (10th Cir. 2010); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The
steps are designed to be followed in order. If it is determined at any step of the
evaluation process that the claimant is or is not disabled, further evaluation is
unnecessary. Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753, at *2.
The first three steps require the Commissioner to assess: (1) whether the claimant
has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset of the alleged disability; (2)
whether the claimant has a severe, or combination of severe, impairments; and (3)
whether the severity of those impairments meets or equals a designated list of
impairments. Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007); see also Barkley, 2010 WL
3001753, *2 (citing Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 (10th Cir. 1988)). If the
impairment does not meet or equal a designated impairment, the ALJ must then
determine the claimant's residual functional capacity, which is the claimant's ability “to
do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from her
impairments.” Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753, *2; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545.
Upon assessing the claimant's residual functional capacity, the Commissioner
moves on to steps four and five, which require a determination of whether the claimant
can either perform her past relevant work or can generally perform other work that
exists in the national economy. Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753, *2 (citing Williams, 844 F.2d at
751). The claimant bears the burden in steps one through four to prove a disability that
prevents performance of her past relevant work. Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084. The burden then
shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that, despite the impairments, the
claimant can perform other work in the national economy. Id. See Weir v. Colvin, No. 151300-JTM, 2016 WL 6164313, at *1–2 (D. Kan. Oct. 24, 2016).
Plaintiff challenges the ALJ’s ruling in four respects. But only one of those will be
addressed here – the ALJ’s assessment of the treating physician’s opinion - because that
issue requires a remand for further consideration by the ALJ, and such reconsideration
may affect or render the other arguments moot.
An ALJ has an obligation to weigh the medical opinion of a treating physician
under specified factors. See 20 CFR § 404.1527. The factors include the examining
relationship (with more weight ordinarily given to the opinion of an examiner than a
non-examiner), the treatment relationship (with more weigh ordinarily given to a
treating source), the supportability of the opinion and underlying explanation (with
more weight given to an opinion supported by relevant evidence such as medical signs
and laboratory findings), the consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole, the
specialization of the source (with more weight given to a specialist in the field), and
other factors tending to support or contradict the opinion. § 404.1527(c)(1)-(6).
If the ALJ finds a treating source’s medial opinion on the nature and severity of
an impairment is well-supported by acceptable clinical and laboratory techniques and is
not inconsistent with other evidence, the opinion must be given controlling weight.
§ 404.1527(c)(2). When the ALJ does not give the opinion controlling weight, the
remaining factors (paragraphs (c)(2)(i) and (ii) and (c)(3)-(c)(6)) must still be considered
in determining the weight to be given the opinion. § 404.1527(c)(2); Langley v. Barnhart,
373 F.3d 1116, 1119 (10th Cir. 2004) (even if not given controlling weight, treating
physician opinion is entitled to deference and must be weighed using the factors in
§ 404.1527). “[A]djudicators must remember that a finding that a treating source
medical opinion is not well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
diagnostic techniques or is inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case
record means only that the opinion is not entitled to ‘controlling weight,’ not that the
opinion should be rejected.” Langley, 373 F.3d at 1120 (quoting SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL
374188, at *4).
The regulations require the ALJ to “always give good reasons in our notice of
determination for the weight we give your treating source’s medical opinion.”
§ 404.1527(c). When a claim is denied, the ALJ’s opinion “must contain specific reasons
for the weight given to the treating source's medical opinion, supported by the evidence
in the case record, and must be sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent
reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the treating source's medical opinion and
the reasons for that weight.” SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *5.
A review of the ALJ’s opinion shows these legal requirements were not met. In
assessing the medical opinion of plaintiff’s treating physician Dr. Matthew Meschke, the
ALJ specifically addressed only Meschke’s medical source statement of July 11, 2012.
That statement diagnosed plaintiff with fibromyalgia, left hip pain, chronic low back
pain, and depression. Tr. at 21. Meschke opined that plaintiff could (among other
things) lift up to 25 pounds, sit for 30 minutes at a time, stand for 30 minutes at a time,
and work 3-4 hours per day. Tr. at 605. The ALJ found this statement was not supported
by or tied to any specific test or diagnostic data, was conclusory, and its limitations “are
inconsistent with [Meschke’s] relatively benign treatment notes.” The ALJ then “[held]
the same” with respect to two later medical source statements by Meschke, both of
which adopted more stringent limitations, saying only “there is no basis for the changes
between these medical source statements.” Tr. at 21.
In a medical source statement dated July 23, 2014, Meschke opined that plaintiff
suffered from “severe pain,” that she had an ability to stand for 15 minutes at a time
and for a total of two hours in a workday, and that she could sit for 30 minutes at a time
and for a total of two hours in a workday. The ALJ did not specifically address any of
these opinions but, as indicated above, apparently dismissed or discounted all of the
medical statements. In doing so, the ALJ gave no indication of the weight, if any, that he
gave to any of Meschke’s opinions. See Krauser v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1330 (10th Cir.
2011) (“at the second step of the analysis, the ALJ must make clear how much weight
the opinion is being given (including whether it is being rejected outright) and give
good reasons, tied to the factors … [in the regulations] for the weight assigned”). Nor is
there any indication that the ALJ considered the other relevant factors in
§ 404.1527(c)(2), such as the nature of the examining and treatment relationship, in
reaching his decision. Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1258 (10th Cir. 2007) (although
the ALJ is not required to conduct a factor-by-factor analysis, the opinion must be
“sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the
adjudicator gave to the treating source's medical opinion and the reasons for that
weight.”) (citation and quotation marks omitted).
The ALJ said Meschke’s opinions were “not supported by … any specific test or
diagnostic data.” As the ALJ recognized elsewhere, plaintiff underwent an MRI on her
left hip on July 3, 2014, only a few weeks before Meschke’s July 23, 2014, medical
statement. That test indicated a partial tear of the left gluteus minimus muscle, bilateral
tendinosis of the gluteus medius/minimus tendons at the insertion point on the greater
trochanter, and trochanteric bursitis of the right gluteus medius/minimus. Tr. at 610.
Plaintiff also underwent several other diagnostic tests in prior years, including an MRI
on her lumbar spine showing degenerative disc disease with a mild disc bulge to the
right neuroforamina at L5-S1. The ALJ’s opinion did not address whether the July 2014
MRI or any of plaintiff’s other diagnostic tests lent any degree of support to Meschke’s
opinions. The ALJ also concluded that Meschke’s opinions were contradicted by his
“relatively benign treatment notes,” but the ALJ’s opinion did not cite anything from
the notes and did not explain the alleged inconsistency.
Finally, the ALJ found that plaintiff’s RFC included limitations of standing and
walking in combination of up to 4 hours, and sitting for up to 6 hours. Tr. at 24. In
formulating the RFC, the ALJ stated that he gave plaintiff the benefit of the doubt and
viewed the evidence in the light most favorable to her, including “the discounted
medical source statements from Dr. Meschke.” But as indicated previously, it is not
clear what weight the ALJ ultimately gave Meschke’s statements and his evaluation of
Meschke’s opinions did not satisfy the legal standard. Moreover, the ALJ did not
explain how he determined the limitations for standing/walking up to 4 hours and
sitting up to 6 hours. The record indicates these limitations likely came from two agency
reviewing physicians, Dr. Gary Coleman (Tr. at 87) and Dr. C.A. Parsons (Tr. at 101),
although neither of those doctors was mentioned in the ALJ’s opinion. Inasmuch as the
ALJ never discussed the opinions of thosse doctors, he clearly did not evaluate them as
required by § 404.1527, and he did not offer any explanation for finding their opinions
to be more credible than those of plaintiff’s treating physician. This was procedural
error. See e.g., Ringgold v. Colvin, 644 F.App’x 841, 846 (10th Cir. 2016) (the reviewing
physicians did not examine plaintiff, “so the ALJ needed to provide good reasons
sufficient to overcome the presumption that their opinions were entitled to less weight”
than an examining physician); Steele v. Colvin, No. 15-1100-KHV, 2016 WL 4537748, *7
(D. Kan. Aug. 30, 2016) (“To the extent that the ALJ relied on inconsistencies between
[the treating doctor’s] opinion and the State agency non-examining doctors, the ALJ
must explain why the opinions of reviewing physicians outweigh the opinion of the
treating source”); Goatcher v. U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Svcs., 52 F.3d 288, 290 (10th
Cir. 1995) (“When a treating physician’s opinion is inconsistent with other medical
evidence, the ALJ’s task is to examine the other physicians’ reports to see if they
outweigh the treating physician’s report, not the other way around.”) [citation and
internal quotation marks omitted]; Hays v. Colvin, 630 F.App’x 749, 754 (10th Cir. 2015).
The failure to address these various medical opinions in accordance with the
regulations was error. Inasmuch as no showing is made that the error was harmless, the
matter must be remanded to the ALJ to properly address these matters and any other
issues impacted by them. By remanding, the court does not intend to suggest any
particular outcome with respect to plaintiff’s application. The matter is remanded only
to assure that the correct legal standards are applied in reaching a decision on the claim.
See Angel v. Barnhart, 329 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2003).
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED this 11th day of April, 2017, that the
Commissioner’s decision is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the
Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
___s/ J. Thomas Marten__________
J. THOMAS MARTEN, JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?