Welch v. Colvin
ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING the Commissioner's decision for denial of benefits. Signed on 9/15/16 by District Judge M. Douglas Harpool. (View, Pat)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
WESTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
TANA PATRIC WELCH,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
Case No. 15-cv-00180-MDH
Before the Court is Plaintiff’s appeal of the Commissioner’s denial of her application for
disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq.
Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies and the matter is now ripe for judicial
review. After carefully reviewing the files and records, the Court finds the decision of the
Commissioner is not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and the decision
is REVERSED and REMANDED.
The procedural history, facts, and issues of this case are contained in the record and the
parties’ briefs, so they are not repeated here. Plaintiff is a 62-year old woman (at the time of the
ALJ’s decision) who applied for benefits and the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from severe
impairments of disorder of the back, hiatal hernia, history of heart disease, various GI-related
diagnoses (e.g., interstitial cystitis, Barrett’s esophagus, and gastritis), anxiety and depression.
After finding Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform light
work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds and
can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs as well as stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, balance, and
bend; she can have only occasional interaction with the public and with co-workers and
supervisors.” The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as a
sterilizer, stating “this work does not require the performance of work-related activities
precluded by the claimant’s residual functional capacity.” The ALJ found that claimant is able to
perform the job of sterilizer as “actually performed.”
Plaintiff argues on appeal that the ALJ erred in assessing Plaintiff’s RFC and that the
ALJ’s step four determination is legally flawed.
Judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision is a limited inquiry into whether
substantial evidence supports the findings of the Commissioner and whether the correct legal
standards were applied. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(1)(B)(ii)(3). Substantial evidence is
less than a preponderance of the evidence and requires enough evidence to allow a reasonable
person to find adequate support for the Commissioner’s conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402
U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Freeman v. Apfel, 208 F.3d 687, 690 (8th Cir. 2000). This standard
requires a court to consider both the evidence that supports the Commissioner’s decision and the
evidence that detracts from it. Finch v. Astrue, 547 F.3d 933, 935 (8th Cir. 2008). That the
reviewing court would come to a different conclusion is not a sufficient basis for reversal. Wiese
v. Astrue, 552 F.3d 728, 730 (8th Cir. 2009). Rather, “[i]f, after review, we find it possible to
draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the
Commissioner’s findings, we must affirm the denial of benefits.” Id. (quoting Mapes v. Chater,
82 F.3d 259, 262 (8th Cir. 1996)). Courts “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions of the
Social Security Administration” and will disturb the Commissioner’s decision only if it falls
outside the “zone of choice.” Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010); Casey v.
Astrue, 503 F.3d 687, 691 (8th Cir. 2007).
After full and careful review of the record and briefs, the Court finds the ALJ’s findings
are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.
Generally, a treating physician’s opinion is given at least substantial weight under the
Social Security Administration regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c), see also
Brown v. Colvin, 2014 WL 1687430 *2 (W.D. Mo. 2014). However, such an opinion “does not
automatically control or obviate the need to evaluate the record as a whole.” Brown v. Colvin,
2014 WL 1687430, at *2 (W.D. Mo. April 29, 2014); citing, Brown v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 535,
540 (8th Cir. 2004). Rather, an “ALJ may discount or disregard the opinion of a treating
physician where other medical assessments are more thoroughly supported or where a treating
physician renders inconsistent opinions.” Id.; citing, Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959,964 (8th
“In determining how much weight to accord a physician’s opinion, the ALJ must take
into account a variety of considerations including: whether the opinion is supported with facts
and evidence; whether the opinion is consistent with other evidence and opinions, including the
physician’s own notes; and whether the physician’s specialty gives her[or him] greater
credibility.” Id, citing, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c); and Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d
1057, 1065 (8th Cir. 2012). The Court does not re-weigh the evidence presented to the ALJ and
defers to the ALJ’s determinations regarding the credibility of testimony, so long as it is
supported by substantial evidence. See Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005).
Further, a claimant’s subjective complaints may be discounted if there are inconsistencies in the
record as a whole. Id.
First, the Court finds the ALJ did not properly explain the weight given to the medical
records. For example, the ALJ gave “partial weight” to two State agency medical opinions but
little weight to the treating physician records. The ALJ gave partial weight to the “opinion” of
Dr. Chopra. Dr. Chopra’s medical opinion was one paragraph, which stated, in its entirety,:
61 year old claimant alleging disability due to degenerative spine, FM, heart disease.
Medical evidence currently in file reviewed. PRFC signed by Denise R. Trowbridge,
MD, dated 1 0/29/12 is reaffirmed as written.
The ALJ did not give any basis for why he gave this opinion more weight than Plaintiff’s
treating physician. The ALJ found the treating physician’s records “are not well-supported or
consistent with the record,” and referenced that Plaintiff “is able to perform all activities of daily
living independently.” The ALJ further references that Plaintiff often did not report pain and the
records do not support her treating physician’s findings, however, the record as a whole is not
consistent with this determination.
Plaintiff’s treating physician opined that Plaintiff had
numerous restrictions that the ALJ discredited without specific findings, including mental and
Further, the ALJ’s determination gave partial weight to the other state evaluator, Dr.
Trowbridge, but again does not provide his reasoning for doing so. The form or document filled
out by Dr. Trowbridge references evaluations of Plaintiff, but the Court agrees with Plaintiff, it is
unclear what part of the record reflects Dr. Trowbridge’s opinions with regard to Plaintiff. The
ALJ does not elaborate on his reasoning for rejecting Plaintiff’s treating physician records and
relying on the state evaluators.
The medical opinions of Dr. Morohunfola, Plaintiff’s treating physician, reflect
Plaintiff’s pain was debilitating and that she had mental limitations based on Dr. Morohunfola’s
review of her mental state evaluation and his “general observations over the years.” In order to
discredit this treating physician’s opinion the ALJ must address his reasons for doing so.
Further, the ALJ did not provide any reason for rejecting all the medical records regarding
Plaintiff’s mental function. There are consistent opinions in the record regarding Plaintiff’s
impairment affecting her ability to work.
Further, if there were inconsistencies or more
information needed, the ALJ failed to obtain an opinion from a consultative examining doctor to
reach his conclusion. On remand, if the ALJ finds it necessary to clarify the issues reserved for
the Commissioner, the ALJ should re-contact the source for clarification and/or explain the basis
for rejecting the medical opinions in the record.
In addition, in evaluating whether Plaintiff could return to her past work as a sterilizer,
the ALJ must set forth her specific limitations and determine how those limitations will affect
her RFC. Lowe v. Apfel, 226 F.3d 969, 972 (8th Cir. 2000) (internal citations omitted). The ALJ
must provide “explicit findings” regarding the physical and mental demands of Plaintiff’s past
work in light of the RFC to determine whether she could perform her prior duties. Id.
Plaintiff’s description of her past work as a sterilizer stated she stood or walked during
her entire shift, she never sat down, and she lifted surgery cases, some of which weighed 35
pounds and had to be lifted onto shelving. Plaintiff’s job description is inconsistent with the
RFC set forth by the ALJ.
The ALJ stated Plaintiff could perform her job “as actually
performed” in light of his RFC finding. However, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform light
work which typically does not involve lifting more than 20 pounds occasionally and standing
and/or walking no more than 6 hours.
On remand, the ALJ should fully and accurately describe the medical evidence of record
and explain how that evidence supports his determination of Plaintiff’s RFC, his determination
of impairments, and provide an explanation for the weight given to the medical opinions of
Plaintiff’s treating physicians, including an explanation for any alleged inconsistencies in the
record and how they are factored into the ALJ’s Determination.
The Court finds the Commissioner’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence in
the record as a whole and the Commissioner’s denial of benefits is hereby REVERSED and
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Dated: September 15, 2016
/s/ Douglas Harpool
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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