McGrath v. SSA
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER: Pla's 11 Motion for Summary Judgment is OVERRULED and Dft's 12 Motion for Summary Judgment is SUSTAINED. A judgment in favor of the Dft will be entered contemporaneously herewith. Signed by Judge Henry R. Wilhoit, Jr on September 15, 2016. (AWD) cc: COR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
Civil Action No. 15-261-HRW
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,
Plaintiff has brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) to challenge a final
decision of the Defendant denying Plaintiffs application for disability insurance benefits. The
Court having reviewed the record in this case and the dispositive motions filed by the parties, and
being otherwise sufficiently advised, for the reasons set forth herein, finds that the decision of the
Administrative Law Judge is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed her current application for disability insurance benefits on January 2, 2014,
alleging disability beginning on May 6, 2013, due to migraines, depression, neck, shoulder and
arm pain as well as depressive disorder (Tr. 312). It was denied initially, upon reconsideration
and finally by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on September 19, 2014. ®. 142). An appeals
was filed with the Appeals Council and review was granted on January 8, 2015. ®. 162). After a
second hearing before the ALJ, another denial was issued on May 18, 2015. ®· 12). The Appeals
Council denied review on July 31, 2015. ®. 1)
At the hearing, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.920, the ALJ performed the following fivestep sequential analysis in order to determine whether the Plaintiff was disabled:
Step 1: If the claimant is performing substantial gainful work, he is not disabled.
Step 2: If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work, his impairment(s) must
be severe before he can be found to be disabled based upon the requirements in 20 C.F .R.
Step 3: If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work and has a severe
impairment (or impairments) that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period
of at least twelve months, and his impairments (or impairments) meets or medically
equals a listed impairment contained in Appendix I, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4, the
claimant is disabled without fmiher inquhy.
Step 4: If the claimant's impairment (or impairments) does not prevent him from doing
his past relevant work, he is not disabled.
Step 5: Even ifthe claimant's impairment or impairments prevent him from performing
his past relevant work, if other work exists in significant numbers in the national
economy that accommodates his residual functional capacity and vocational factors, he is
Plaintiff was 52 years old when she applied for benefits. She has a high school education
education (Tr. 313). Her past relevant work experience consists of work as a secretmy and office
manager (Tr. 313 ).
At Step 1 of the sequential analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of disability (Tr. 17).
The ALJ then determined, at Step 2, that Plaintiff suffers from degenerative disc disease,
migraines, osteoarthritis, obesity and an effective disorder, which he found to be "severe" within
the meaning of the Regulations (Tr. 17-18).
At Step 3, the ALJ found that Plaintiffs impairments did not meet or medically equal any
of the listed impairments (Tr. 18).
The ALJ further found that Plaintiff could not return to her past relevant work (Tr. 25)
but determined that she has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a limited range
of medium work with additional limitations as set fotih in the hearing decision (Tr. 21-25).
The ALJ finally concluded that these jobs exist in significant numbers in the national and
regional economies, as identified by the VE (Tr. 26).
Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not to be disabled at Step 5 of the sequential
Plaintiff seeks a reversal of the Commissioner's decision. Both parties have filed
Motions for Summary Judgment [Docket Nos. 11 and 12] and this matter is ripe for decision.
Standard of Review
The essential issue on appeal to this Court is whether the ALJ' s decision is suppotied by
substantial evidence. "Substantial evidence" is defined as "such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion;" it is based on the record as a
whole and must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight. Garner
v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6'h Cir. 1984). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by
substantial evidence, the reviewing Court must affirm. Kirk v. Secret my ofHealth and Human
Services, 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6'h Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 957 (1983). "The com1 may
not try the case de novo nor resolve conflicts in evidence, nor decide questions of credibility."
Bradley v. Secretmy ofHealth and Human Services, 862 F.2d 1224, 1228 (6'h Cir. 1988).
Finally, this Court must defer to the Commissioner's decision "even ifthere is substantial
evidence in the record that would have suppo11ed an opposite conclusion, so long as substantial
evidence supports the conclusion reached by the ALJ." Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th
Plaintiff's Contentions on Appeal
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's finding of no disability is erroneous because: (I) the
ALJ erred in identifying Plaintiffs severe impairments; (2) the ALJ improperly Plaintiffs
credibility and (3) the ALJ did not properly weight the medical opinion evidence.
Analysis of Contentions on Appeal
Plaintiffs first claim of error is that the ALJ did not identify her anxiety and depression
as "severe" at Step 2 of the sequential evaluation. However, this argument is largely academic,
as the ALJ went on to complete the remaining steps of the sequential evaluation process. AS
such, that some of Plaintiffs impairments were not deemed "severe" is legally irrelevant. See
Underwoodv. Commissioner, 2015 WL 8491487 (S.D. Ohio 2015).
Plaintiff also alleges error as to the ALJ's assessment of her credibility.
of an ALJ's decision, this Court is to accord the ALJ's determinations of credibility great weight
and deference as the ALJ has the opportunity of observing a witness' demeanor while testifying.
Walters v. Commissioner a/Social Security, 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6 1h Cir. 1997). Again, this
Court's evaluation is limited to assessing whether the ALJ's conclusions are supported by
substantial evidence on the whole record. Subjective claims of disabling pain must be suppo11ed
by objective medical evidence. Duncan v. Secretwy ofHealth and Human Services, 801 F.2d
847, 852-853 (6 1h Cir. 1986).
Plaintiff seems to assert that certain findings, which she does not specify, with regard to
her range of motion call into question the ALJ' s finding that her allegations of disabling
symptoms were "not entirely credible."
Yet, a review of the decision reveals that the ALJ
considered the medical evidence which undermined Plaintiffs claims (Tr. 22). For example,
while Plaintiff complained of arm weakness, the ALJ accurately noted that the record did not
support these complaints (Tr. 22). A nerve conduction showed only mild median neuropathy in
Plaintiffs right wrist (Tr. 702). Plaintiff regularly had normal strength in not just her arms, but
also her legs (Tr. 449, 455, 492, 639, 644, 647, 652, 742, 747, 752, 779). While Plaintiff claimed
that she could not move her neck without terrible pain, the medical records showed that she had
full range of motion in her neck (Tr. 449, 699, 703, 792, 794, 795, 796). Despite claiming she
could not stand more than 10 minutes, Plaintiffs gait and posture were normal throughout the
record (Tr. 449, 455, 465, 479, 639, 794, 795, 796). While the ALJ acknowledged the record also
contained some evidence of musculoskeletal problems (Tr. 22), the evidence did not support
Plaintiffs claims about her limitations, and the ALJ reasonably considered these normal
examination findings which undermined her complaints (Tr. 21-24).
The Court finds no error in this regard. This was substantial evidence supporting the
ALJ's determination that Plaintiff was not as limited by her impairments as she claimed. See
Crouch v. Sec '.Y ofHealth & Human Servs., 909 F.2d 852, 856-57 (6th Cir. 1990) (minimal
clinical findings and absence of significant neurological deficits support rejection of allegation of
disabling pain). To the extent that Plaintiff suggests that this evidence is open to another
interpretation that favors her claim, the Court declines to reweigh the evidence in this fashion. If
the Commissioner's decision denying benefits is suppotted by substantial evidence, as it is here,
the Court must affirm that decision. Longworth v. Commissioner ofSocial Security, 402 F.3d
591, 595 (6'h Cir. 2005). Even if substantial evidence exists to support Plaintiffs claim, the Court
should still affirm the Commissioner's decision because it is supported by substantial evidence.
Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 772 (6th Cir. 2001); see also Smith v. Chafer, 99 F.3d 780, 782
(6th Cir. 1996) (even ifthe Court would have decided the matter differently than the ALJ, if
substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, it must be affirmed.)
Finally, Plaintiff questions the ALJ's consideration of the medical opinions.
Specifically, she argues it was improper for the ALJ to reject the opinions of treating sources
John M. Horn, M.D., Pion Zieba, M.D. and Pam Noble, MS in favor of consultative physicians.
"In order to determine whether the ALJ acted properly in disagreeing with a medical
source, we must first determine the medical source's classification," Ealy v. Comm'r ofSoc. Sec.,
594 F.3d 504, 514 (6th Cir.2010), as "not all medical sources need be treated equally," Smith v.
Comm'r ofSoc. Sec., 482 F.3d 873, 875 (6th Cir.2007). The Social Security regulations classify
"acceptable medical sources into three types: nonexamining sources, nontreating (but examining)
sources, and treating sources." Id. at 875. Generally, more weight is given to the medical
"opinion of a source who has examined [the claimant] than to the opinion of a source who has
not examined [the claimant]." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(l); see also Norris v. Comm'r ofSoc.
Sec., 461 Fed.Appx. 433, 439 (6th Cir.2012) (noting that a nonexamining source's opinion is
given less deference than an examining (but not treating) source's opinion, which is given less
deference than a treating source). But "[i]n appropriate circumstances, opinions from State
agency medical and psychological consultants ... may be entitled to greater weight than the
opinions of treating or examining sources." SSR 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180, at *3. One such
instance is where the "[s]tate agency medical or psychological consultant's opinion is based on a
review of a complete case record that includes a medical rep01i from a specialist in the
individual's paiiicular impairment which provides more detailed and comprehensive information
than what was available to the individual's treating source." Id "The more a medical source
presents relevant evidence to support an opinion, particularly medical signs and laboratory
findings, the more weight [the ALJ] will give that opinion." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(3).
Generally, more weight is given to opinions that are "more consistent ... with the record as a
whole," id.§ 404.1527(c)(4), and opinions of"a specialist about medical issues related to his or
her area of specialty." Id.§ 404.1527(c)(5).
Dr. Horn, Plaintiffs primaty care physician, completed a Physical Residual Functional
Capacity assessment in which he opined that Plaintiff had significant limitations in her ability to
sit and stand or walk, and also could not lift more than 10 pounds; furthermore, she would have
difficulty twisting and bending at the waist and would be absent from work four or five days a
month (Tr. 676-79).
Yet, as the ALJ noted, Dr. Horn's treatment notes, particularly those which
are from the appointments immediately prior to the aforementioned assessment. Dr. Horn does
not refer to problems with sitting, standing, walking, or strength (Tr. 438, 440-41, 442-43, 70506 and 708-09). Further, the ALJ noted that Dr. Horn's opinion of dire limitation was at odds
with a significant amount of evidence in the record showing only moderate limitation.
That the ALJ gave more weight to the opinion of state agency physician, P. Sangara,
M.D. is not, in and of itself, reversible error. See Blakley v. Comm 'r ofSoc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399,
409 (6th Cir. 2009); Combs v. Comm 'r ofSoc. Sec., 459 F.3d 640, 651 (6th Cir. 2006). In this
instance, the ALJ noted that Dr. Sangara' s opinion was consistent withe the largely normal
physical examinations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c )(4) (opinions that are consistent with the
record are entitled to more weight).
Plaintiff also takes issue with the ALJ's evaluation of opinions about her mental
functioning (Tr. 12-14). Dr. Horn opined that Plaintiff had marked limitations in her ability to
deal with the normal stresses of competitive employment (Tr. 675). Pamela Noble, Plaintiffs
licensed clinical social worker, wrote that Plaintiff had poor to no ability to deal with the public
or work stress, function independently, maintain attention and concentration, handle detailed job
instructions, behave in an emotionally stable manner, or relate predictably in social situations (Tr.
736-38). And Dr. Piotr Zieba assessed similar mental limitations in additional areas (Tr. 670-72).
However, as the ALJ observed, these opinions were not supported by the objective medical
record (Tr. 25).
While Plaintiff has been observed to be depressed and anxious (see, e.g., Tr. 541), as well
as having a flat affect (see, e.g., Tr. 438), the assessments of her mental functioning have also
generally shown Plaintiff to be "oriented/alert" (Tr. 541 ), be interactive interpersonally (Tr. 544),
have an "intact" functional status (Tr. 546), often with an "appropriate" affect (Tr. 657). These
findings indicate some functional limitations, as the ALJ found (see Tr. 21 (imposing mental
limitations in the residual functional capacity finding)). Yet they do not supp01i the extreme
opinions issued by Ms. Noble, Dr. Horn, and Dr. Zieba. For example, Ms. Noble assessed that
Plaintiff was improving with treatment (Tr. 555-61).
Again, this Comi's task is to determine if
substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision. That there is substantial evidence which could
suppo1i an opposite conclusion is of no moment, so long as substantial evidence supports the
conclusion reached by the ALJ. Here, the ALJ enumerated reasons for discounting the opinions
of Plaintiff's treating sources and his analysis withstands scrutiny.
The Comi finds that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the
record. Accordingly, it is HEREBY ORDERED that the Plaintiff's Motion for Summmy
Judgment be OVERRULED and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment be
SUSTAINED. A judgment in favor of the Defendant will be entered contemporaneously
tmnry R. WJ/holt. Jr.
United StatllB District Judge
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