Couch v. SSA
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER: (1) The decision of the Commissioner is found to be supported by substantial evidence and is hereby AFFIRMED; (2) Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 9 ) is hereby DENIED; (3) Defendants Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 10 ) is hereby GRANTED. A Judgment in favor of Defendant Commissioner will be entered contemporaneosly herewith. Signed by Judge David L. Bunning on 1/2/17. (MRS) cc: COR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
CIVIL ACTION NO. 15-191-DLB
DANNY RAY COUCH
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security
Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review
of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Court, having
reviewed the record, will affirm the Commissioner’s decision, as it is supported by
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On June 24, 2013, Plaintiff Danny Ray Couch protectively filed his application for
disability insurance benefits, alleging disability as of June 21, 2013. (Tr. 136-42). Plaintiff’s
claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 58-86 and 68-76). On January 27,
2015, Administrative Law Judge Sheila Lowther conducted an administrative hearing at
Plaintiff’s request. (Tr. 28-57). ALJ Lowther ruled that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits
on April 10, 2015.
This decision became the final decision of the
Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied review on September 8, 2015. (Tr. 2-7).
On November 3, 2015, Plaintiff filed the instant action. (Doc. # 1). This matter has
culminated in cross motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for the Court’s
review. (Docs. # 9 and 10).
Overview of the Process
Judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision is restricted to determining whether
it is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.
See Cutlip v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994).
“Substantial evidence” is defined as “more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a
preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. Courts are not to conduct a de novo review, resolve
conflicts in the evidence, or make credibility determinations. Id. Rather, we are to affirm
the Commissioner’s decision, provided it is supported by substantial evidence, even if we
might have decided the case differently. See Her v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388,
389-90 (6th Cir. 1999).
The ALJ, in determining disability, conducts a five-step analysis. Step 1 considers
whether the claimant is still performing substantial gainful activity; Step 2, whether any of
the claimant’s impairments are “severe”; Step 3, whether the impairments meet or equal
a listing in the Listing of Impairments; Step 4, whether the claimant can still perform his past
relevant work; and Step 5, whether significant numbers of other jobs exist in the national
economy which the claimant can perform. As to the last step, the burden of proof shifts
from the claimant to the Commissioner. See Jones v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469,
474 (6th Cir. 2003); Preslar v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th
The ALJ’s Determination
At Step 1, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity
from his alleged onset date (June 21, 2013) through his date last insured. (Tr. 18). At Step
2, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments through the date
last insured: (1) history of right ankle sprain; (2) mild degenerative disc disease of the
lumbar spine; (3) history of right shoulder injury; and (4) obesity. (Id.).
At Step 3, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or
combination of impairments listed in, or medically equal to, an impairment listed in 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 18-19). Specifically, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff’s spinal impairments did not meet the requirements of Listing 1.04 (disorders of the
spine), or Listing 1.02 A or B (major dysfunction of a joint). (Id.). In reaching this
conclusion, the ALJ noted that the record contained no evidence of nerve root
compression, spinal arachnoiditis, or lumbar spinal stenosis with accompanying ineffective
ambulation, nor problems with ambulation or involvement of a major joint in each upper
The ALJ also noted that while obesity may combine with other
impairments to increase the severity or functional limitation of other impairments, the record
in this case did not provide support for such a conclusion. (Id.).
At Step 4, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform medium work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c), except that he can
“stand and walk six hours of an eight hour day; sit six hours of an eight hour day; and
frequently reach and handle with the right arm.” (Id.). The ALJ further found that Plaintiff
was able to perform past relevant work as a tipple supervisor. (Tr. 23).
Accordingly, the ALJ did not proceeded to the final step of the sequential evaluation.
(Id.). Based on the testimony of the VE and Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was
capable of performing his past relevant work, and thus concluded that he was not under
a "disability," as defined by the Social Security Act. (Id.).
Plaintiff advances two arguments on appeal. (Doc. # 9-1). First, Plaintiff argues that
the ALJ failed to give appropriate weight to the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating physician.
Second, Plaintiff complains that the ALJ’s determination was not supported by substantial
evidence. Each of these arguments will be addressed in turn.
The ALJ did not err in weighing the opinion of Dr. Spencer, a treating
In social security disability cases, medical evidence may come from treating sources,
non-treating sources and non-examining sources. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1502. A treating source
is the claimant’s “own physician, psychologist, or other acceptable medical source who
provides [claimant], or has provided [claimant], with medical treatment or evaluation and
who has, or has had, an ongoing treatment relationship with [claimant].” Id.; see also
Abney v. Astrue, Civ. A. No. 5:07-394-KKC, 2008 WL 2074011, at *11 (E.D.K.Y. May 13,
2008) (stating that one meeting is insufficient to establish an ongoing treatment
relationship). A non-treating source is an acceptable medical source who has examined
the claimant but does not have an ongoing treatment relationship with him or her, while a
non-examining source has not examined the claimant but provided medical or other opinion
evidence in the case. Id.
In deciding how much weight to give the opinion of a non-treating source, the ALJ
must consider the length, frequency, nature and extent of the treatment relationship;
evidence in support of the opinion; consistency of the opinion with evidence in the record;
physician’s specialization; and other factors brought to the ALJ’s attention. 20 C.F.R. §
On September 17, 2013, Dr. Donnie Spencer wrote a letter regarding Plaintiff, in
which he noted:
This patient has extensive degenerative arthritis affecting his knees
especially. He is 58 years old now and carrying a bit of extra weight at 222
pounds. He has diabetes mellitus type II, thus causing more complications
to his other issues. He has mild hypertension. His knees are nearly worn
out. He is therefore, unable to work at the surface mines as he did in the
On December 5, 2014, Dr. Spencer completed a form regarding Plaintiff’s abilities.
(Tr. 336). He indicated that Plaintiff could only stand for two hours in an eight hour day, sit
for four hours in an eight hour day, lift five pounds occasionally and do no lifting frequently,
only occasionally reach above shoulder level, should have a moderate restriction on
exposure to dust, fumes and gases, have a moderate restriction from driving automobiles
and/or equipment, and should avoid all exposure to unprotected heights and moving
machinery. (Id.). Dr. Spencer concluded that Plaintiff was “unable to work.” (Id.).
Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred in concluding that objective medical evidence did
not support Dr. Spencer’s opinions, and argues that Dr. Spencer’s opinion was “only
inconsistent with one time evaluating physicians or a physician who had only reviewed the
medical records and had not even met [Plaintiff].” (Doc. # 9-1 at 9-13). The record belies
this assertion. In rendering his RFC assessment, the ALJ explained that he gave “little
weight to this opinion, as no objective medical evidence supports such limitations.” (Tr. 22).
Specifically, Dr. Spencer’s findings were inconsistent with those of Dr. Johnson, Dr.
Corbett, Dr. Primm, and Dr. Snider. (Tr. 20-22).
First, Dr. Primm’s impression was that Plaintiff had “multiple somatic complaints
disproportionate to physical findings.” (Tr. 379).
Dr. Corbett concluded similarly:
In short, the diagnoses were the doctor’s descriptions of the patient’s
subjective complaints, but did not show actual presence of a pathologic
process or attributable, codable disease which could be identified as being
causally related to any specific condition other than aging.
Finally, discussion regarding the patient’s shoulders and neck indicates a
level of complaint which was not elicited despite questioning in my evaluation
and no mentioned or described by Dr. Primm in his evaluation. In short, we
are dealing with an extension of the emperor’s new clothes (defined as a
condition definable only by the observer).
(Tr. 384-85). Dr. Snider also noted that he “ha[d] not seen presentation of any
objective findings that indicate a ‘cumulative trauma’ condition in the shoulders beyond
what one would expect to see based solely on Mr. Couch’s age.” (Tr. 409).
Because the ALJ explained how much weight he gave to the opinion of Dr. Spencer,
a treating source, and because he detailed his reasons for doing so in accordance with 20
C.F.R. § 404.1527(c), the Court finds no error in this portion of the ALJ’s Step 4 analysis.
The ALJ’s determination was supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff contends that if the ALJ had considered the case in its entirety, substantial
evidence would show that the combined effects of his physical impairments prevent him
from being able to work on a regular basis. (Doc. # 9-1 at 14). First, Plaintiff claims that
the ALJ ignored his physical restrictions and marked mental limitations, rather than
reviewing the record as a whole. (Id. at 15). This assertion is not supported by the record.
The ALJ considered each piece of evidence in the record, including the restrictions that Dr.
Spencer recommended for Plaintiff. (Tr. 19-23). As discussed supra, numerous medical
records support the ALJ’s decision.
Next, Plaintiff claims that “based on [his] physical limitations, and age he should
have been awarded benefits under the grids and as such, should have been found
disabled.” (Doc. # 9-1 at 15). Specifically, Plaintiff argues:
It is the contention of the Plaintiff under these standards of review, that there
is not substantial evidence to support the denial of his application for social
security benefits. The objective medical evidence unequivocally documents
that the Plaintiff suffers from right ankle pain; mild degenerative disc disease
of the lumbar spine; right shoulder injury, obesity, sensorineural hearing loss
and tinnitus, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension. Those impairments, with
restrictions placed on him by his treating physician of thirty (30) years,
coupled with his age, support of [sic] finding of disabled under the grid
(Id. at 14).
Essentially, Plaintiff argues that the treating physician’s opinion should have been
given weight above all else. While it is true that a treating physician’s opinion is afforded
great weight, the ALJ explained that in this case, Dr. Spencer’s opinions were not
supported by the objective medical evidence. (Tr. 22). The other medical opinions in the
record provide substantial evidence for the ALJ’s decision. As the ALJ explained:
After careful consideration of the evidence, the undersigned finds that the
claimant’s medically determinable impairments could cause some of the
alleged symptoms. However, the claimant’s statements concerning the
intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely
credible for the reasons explained in this decision. While the claimant has
alleged that he is incapacitated by problems with his back, shoulders, neck,
and knees, diagnostic imaging has all been normal. Multiple examinations
have stated that there are no objective findings to support his complaints or
to suggest any limitations in his abilities.
Furthermore, Plaintiff’s argument is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding
of the Court’s role in Social Security appeals. The key inquiry is not whether Plaintiff’s
interpretation of the medical records is supported by substantial evidence. It is whether the
ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, regardless of the Court’s own opinion
about the record. In asking the Court to remand this case because there is substantial
evidence to support his position, Plaintiff essentially invites the Court to re-weigh the
evidence. Such a request is beyond the scope of the Court’s review.
Accordingly, for the reasons stated herein, IT IS ORDERED as follows:
The decision of the Commissioner is found to be supported by substantial
evidence and is hereby AFFIRMED;
Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 9) is hereby DENIED;
Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 10) is hereby GRANTED.
A Judgment in favor of Defendant Commissioner will be entered contemporaneously
This 2nd day of January, 2017.
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