Bartee v. Commissioner of Social Security
OPINION AND ORDER SUSTAINING IN PART AND OVERRULING IN PART DEFENDANT'S OBJECTIONS [#20], ACCEPTING IN PART REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION [#19], GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [#16], GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT[#15]. Signed by District Judge Gershwin A. Drain. (TBan)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
Case No.: 16-10083
Honorable Gershwin A. Drain
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
OPINION AND ORDER SUSTAINING IN PART AND OVERRULING IN
PART DEFENDANT’S OBJECTIONS [#20], ACCEPTING IN PART
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION [#19], GRANTING IN PART AND
DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY
JUDGMENT [#16], GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART
PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT[#15]
This matter is before the court on the parties’ Cross-Motions for Summary
Judgment as to Plaintiff Edith Bartee’s claim for judicial review of Defendant
Commissioner of Social Security’s denial of her application for disability
The matter was referred to Magistrate Judge Stephanie
Dawkins Davis, who issued a Report and Recommendation on January 31, 2017,
recommending that Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment be granted in part
and denied in part, Defendant Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment be
granted in part and denied in part, and that the findings of the Commissioner be
reversed in part and remanded for further proceedings. The Commissioner filed
objections to the Report and Recommendation on February 7, 2017. Plaintiff filed
a Response to the Commissioner’s Objections on February 21, 2017. For the
reasons discussed below, the Court will accept in part the Magistrate Judge’s
Report and Recommendation and will remand this matter for further proceedings.
The standard of review to be employed by the court when examining a
report and recommendation is set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 636. This Court “shall make
a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed
findings or recommendations to which objection is made.”
28 U.S.C. §
636(b)(1)(C). This court “may accept, reject or modify, in whole or in part, the
findings or recommendations made by the magistrate.” Id.
A district court may affirm, modify, or reverse the Commissioner’s decision,
with or without remand.
See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Findings of fact by the
Commissioner are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. Id. The court
must affirm the decision if it is “based on [an appropriate] legal standard and is
supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.” Studaway v. Sec’y of
Health and Human Servs., 815 F. 2d 1074, 1076 (6th Cir. 1987). Substantial
evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate
to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).
Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits on October 29, 2013,
alleging a disability onset date of September 26, 2011. The Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”) determined that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease with cervical and mild lumbar radiculopathy; left sided
carpal tunnel syndrome; early rheumatoid arthritis; major depressive disorder;
bipolar disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; and posttraumatic stress disorder.
The ALJ found that none of Plaintiff’s impairments, either alone, or in
combination, met or medically equaled the severity of the listed impairments.
The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform:
Less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR
404.1567(b). Specifically, the claimant: can lift and carry 20 pounds
occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; can stand and/or walk up to
six hours and sit six hours in an eight-hour workday; can occasionally
balance, kneel, stoop, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs; may
not climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds; should avoid unprotected heights;
can occasionally lift overhead and frequently handle and finger with
bilateral upper extremities; should be limited to no turning of the head
to the extreme ranges of motion, but activities requiring such
movement can be accommodated by turning the torso; is limited to
understanding, remembering and carrying out simple, routine, and
repetitive tasks, but the pace of productivity should not [be] dictated
by an external source over which the claimant has no control, such as
an assembly line or conveyor belt; may make judgments on simple
work, and respond appropriately to usual work situations and changes
in routine work setting that is repetitive from day to day with few
expected changes; and may have occasional interactions with the
public, co-workers, and supervisors.
PgID 60. The ALJ also found that while Plaintiff could not perform her past
relevant work, her age, education, work experience and RFC capacity allowed her
to work in jobs in significant numbers in the national economy.
The Commissioner’s first objection concerns the Magistrate Judge’s
determination that the ALJ could not rely on the opinion of State Agency
Reviewing Physician Dr. Ramirez-Jacobs.
Specifically, the Magistrate Judge
concluded that she was troubled by the ALJ’s reliance on the state agency
reviewing physician, Dr. Sonia Ramirez-Jacob’s, RFC conclusion because the ALJ
found that Dr. Ramirez-Jacobs was a “single decision maker; as such, [her
assessment] is not afforded any weight.” PgID 65.
Here, the ALJ incorrectly characterized Dr. Ramirez-Jacobs as a single
decision-maker. The single decision-maker model “is an experimental program
offered by the Social Security Administration,” designed to streamline the review
of claims. White v. Comm’r Soc. Sec., No. 12-cv-12833, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS
114584, *8 (E.D. Mich. Aug. 14, 2013). Under this model, a single decisionmaker assumes primary responsibility for processing a claimant’s application for
disability, including making the claimant’s initial disability determination. Id.
Once the claimant’s application reaches the ALJ, however, the single decisionmaker’s assessment is no longer relevant to the determination of disability. Id.
On the disability determination form, Dr. Ramirez-Jacobs provides her
signature on the line designated “MC/PC or SDM.” On the same form, Sharon
Giles signed her name on the line designated “Disability Adjudicator/Examiner
Signature.” The Administration’s internal regulations state in relevant part that:
A team consisting of an MC or a PC and a disability examiner (DE)
generally makes the disability determination. If there is no medical
evidence in the file, the DE alone makes the determination. Each
medical assessment form must have a reviewing MC/PC’s actual
physical signature or an approved electronic signature—unless the DE
is a single decision-maker.
This demonstrates that Dr. Ramirez-Jacobs was not a single decision-maker; rather
she was assisted by disability examiner Giles.
As such, the ALJ erroneously
referred to Dr. Ramirez-Jacobs as a single decision-maker, and rejection of her
opinion on this basis would be inappropriate. Therefore, it was not error for the
ALJ to consider the opinion of Dr. Ramirez-Jacobs as found by the Magistrate
Judge. The Court will sustain the Commissioner’s first objection.
B. Objections #2 and #3
The Commissioner’s second and third objections relate to the Magistrate
Judge’s conclusion that the ALJ’s RFC determination is not supported by
substantial evidence. The Magistrate Judge concluded that:
Since the ALJ rejected [Plaintiff’s treating physician]’s opinions
concerning plaintiff’s RFC, and is precluded from relying on the
single decision maker’s opinion which she cited for support, the ALJ
is left with only her own lay opinion as to the medical support for her
RFC finding. This method of determining the RFC is impermissible.
Here, the Magistrate Judge correctly concluded that remand is appropriate
because the ALJ failed to articulate sufficient reasons supporting her decision to
afford Plaintiff’s treating physician’s opinions little weight. In denying Plaintiff’s
claim for disability benefits, the ALJ stated that she “affords little weight to the
opinions of Dr. Macy because they are not consistent with the test results detailed
above of the totality of the evidence.” PgID 63.
It is well-settled that greater deference is generally given to the opinions of
treating physicians than those of non-treating physicians. Rogers v. Comm’r of
Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 242 (6th Cir. 2007). When an ALJ declines to give a
treating physician’s opinion “controlling weight,” the ALJ must provide “good
reasons” for discounting the treating physician’s opinion. Id. Additionally, where
“a treating physician’s opinion is not controlling, the ALJ, in determining how
much weight is appropriate, must consider a host of factors, including the length,
frequency, nature and extent of the treatment relationship; the supportability and
consistency of the physician’s conclusions; the specialization of the physician; and
any other relevant factors.” Id.
Here, the ALJ failed to address all of these factors with respect to Dr.
Macy’s opinion. Therefore, remand to the Commissioner is required. Cole v.
Astrue, 661 F.3d 931, 939 (6th Cir. 2011) (“This Court has made clear that ‘[w]e
do not hesitate to remand when the Commissioner has not provided ‘good reasons’
for the weight given to a treating physician’s opinion and we will continue to
remanding when we encounter opinions from ALJ’s that do not comprehensively
set forth the reasons for the weight assigned to a treating physician’s opinion.’”).
Because the ALJ failed to provide “good reasons” for not giving controlling
weight to Dr. Macy, the Court cannot determine whether the ALJ’s RFC
assessment, which was apparently based solely on non-examining, consulting
physician, Dr. Ramirez-Jacob’s opinion, is supported by substantial evidence. The
ALJ wholly ignored Dr. Macy’s opinions related to Plaintiff’s functional
limitations. The Administration’s regulations explain that even if not entitled to
controlling weight, treating source opinions are entitled to deference.
Adjudicators 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. Treating source medical opinions are entitled to deference
and must be weighed using all of the factors provided in 20 C.F.R.
404.1527 and 416.927. In many cases, a treating source’s opinion
will be entitled to the greatest weight and should be adopted, even if it
does not meet the test for controlling weight.
SSR 96-2, 1996 SER LEXIS 9, 1996 WL 374188 (July 2, 1996).
“An ALJ’s failure to follow agency rules and regulations denotes a lack of
substantial evidence, even where the conclusion of the ALJ may be justified based
upon the regulation.” Gayheart v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 710 F.3d 365, 374 (6th
Cir. 2013). Based on the ALJ’s failure to abide by the treating source rule, remand
to the Commissioner is required. The Commissioner’s second and third objections
Accordingly, the Commissioner’s objections [#20] are SUSTAINED IN
PART and OVERRULED IN PART. The Court hereby ACCEPTS IN PART
Magistrate Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis’s January 31, 2017 Report and
Recommendation [#19], GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Defendant
Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment [#16], GRANTS IN PART and
DENIES IN PART Plaintiff Edith Bartee’s Motion for Summary Judgment [#15]
and REMANDS this matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings.
Dated: March 30, 2017
/s/Gershwin A. Drain
GERSHWIN A. DRAIN
United States District Judge
CERTIFICATE OF SERVICE
Copies of this Order were served upon attorneys of record on
March 30, 2017, by electronic and/or ordinary mail.
/s/ Tanya Bankston
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?