Bailey v. Berryhill
ORDER AND OPINION AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER'S FINAL DECISION DENYING BENEFITS. Signed on 9/25/17 by District Judge Ortrie D. Smith. (Kitsmiller, Julia)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
WESTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, )
Case No. 17-00055-CV-W-ODS
ORDER AND OPINION AFFIRMING
COMMISSIONER’S FINAL DECISION DENYING BENEFITS
Pending is Plaintiff’s appeal of the Commissioner of Social Security’s final
decision denying her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental
security income. For the following reasons, the Commissioner’s decision is affirmed.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited to a determination
whether the decision is “supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.
Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but…enough that a reasonable mind
would find it adequate to support the conclusion.” Andrews v. Colvin, 791 F.3d 923, 928
(8th Cir. 2015) (citations omitted). “As long as substantial evidence in the record
supports the Commissioner's decision, we may not reverse it because substantial
evidence exists in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome, or
because we would have decided the case differently.” Cline v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 1098,
1102 (8th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). Though advantageous to the Commissioner, this
standard also requires the Court consider evidence that fairly detracts from the final
decision. Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 793 (8th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted).
Substantial evidence means “more than a mere scintilla” of evidence; rather, it is
relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion. Gragg v. Astrue, 615 F.3d 932, 938 (8th Cir. 2010).
Plaintiff was born in 1980, and has a bachelor’s degree in science. R. at 41, 183.
She previously worked as a medication aide, dispatcher, operations specialist, and
paralegal. R. at 51, 184. Plaintiff first applied for disability and disability insurance
benefits in September 2012 and alleged an onset date of March 1, 2012, but her
application was denied on May 27, 2014. R. at 15. On June 3, 2014, Plaintiff applied a
second time for disability and disability insurance benefits, and filed an application for
supplemental security income as well, again alleging a disability onset date of March 1,
2012. R. at 15. Because Plaintiff’s March 1, 2012 alleged onset date was considered
and adjudicated in a prior proceeding, the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) considered
May 27, 2014, the date on which Plaintiff’s first application was denied, as the onset
date for Plaintiff’s applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental
security income at issue here. R. at 15. Plaintiff’s applications were again denied, and
she requested a hearing before an ALJ. R. at 106. A hearing was held in November
2015. R. at 36-55. In December 2015, the ALJ issued his decision, finding Plaintiff was
not disabled. R. at 12-24.
In rendering his decision, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the following severe
impairments: depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and personality disorder. R. at 18.
The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
[P]erform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following
nonexertional limitations: she is limited to simple, repetitive, routine tasks;
limited to making simple work-related decisions; limited to tolerating few or
infrequent changes in a routine work setting; occasional interactions with
supervisors and coworkers, and no contact with the public.
R. at 19. Based upon the RFC and the vocational expert’s (“VE”) testimony, the ALJ
concluded Plaintiff could work as a hospital food service worker, industrial cleaner, and
folding machine operator. R. at 23. Plaintiff appealed the ALJ’s decision to the Appeals
Council, which denied her appeal. R. at 1-7. Plaintiff now appeals to this Court.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ’s decision must be reversed because (1) the ALJ failed to
properly weigh the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating physician, and (2) the ALJ failed to
properly evaluate Plaintiff’s credibility.
A. Medical Opinion Evidence
Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred in affording “little weight” to the opinion of her
treating psychiatrist, Dr. Zafar Mahmood. Generally, a treating physician’s opinion is
given more weight than other sources in a disability proceeding. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(c)(2). A treating physician’s opinion may be disregarded if it is unsupported
by clinical or other data, or is contrary to the weight of the remaining evidence in the
record. See Anderson, 696 F.3d at 793-94; Pena v. Chater, 76 F.3d 906, 908 (8th Cir.
1996). The ALJ must “give good reasons” to explain the weight given the treating
physician’s opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); Anderson, 696 F.3d at 793.
In June 2015, Dr. Mahmood completed a medical source statement – mental
(“MSS”) in which he opined Plaintiff would need to miss four days of work per month,
and would be off task twenty-five percent or more of the time. R at 290. Dr. Mahmood
also opined Plaintiff was mildly limited in her ability to understand, remember, and carry
out simple instructions; moderately limited in her ability to understand, remember, and
carry out detailed instructions, and the ability to make simple work related decisions;
and markedly limited in her ability to maintain concentration, perform activities within a
scheduled period of time, and complete a normal workday and workweek. R. at 290-91.
Dr. Mahmood did not opine Plaintiff was extremely limited in any of the areas of
understanding and memory, sustained concentration and persistence, social interaction,
or adaptation. R. at 290-91.
The record contains Dr. Mahmood’s treatment notes. Plaintiff is repeatedly
described as “alert and oriented” with no “overt delusions or hallucinations” or “suicidal
or homicidal ideations.” R. at 271-77, 300, 303-06, 308-09. Plaintiff is noted to be
anxious during these visits, but compliant with her prescriptions and denies depression
at times. R. at 271-77, 300, 303-06, 308-09.
The ALJ gave Dr. Mahmood’s MSS little weight because his opinion was not
well-supported or consistent with the record. R. at 22. The ALJ found Dr. Mahmood did
not identify objective medical evidence supporting his opinion, and his opinion conflicted
with his objective exam findings, conservative treatment he prescribed, and reports of
improvement with medication. R. at 22.
The Court reviewed the record and finds substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s
decision to discount Dr. Mahmood’s opinion. The Court also finds the ALJ provided
good reasons explaining the weight he afforded Dr. Mahmood’s opinion. Dr. Mahmood
provided conservative treatment principally consisting of supportive psychotherapy and
medication adjustments. Although Plaintiff required adjustments in her medication, the
record reflects generally mild side effects, such as excessive sweating, that Plaintiff was
able to manage. R. at 270, 310. As the ALJ noted, the record does not contain
evidence of in-patient treatment or hospitalizations which would be consistent with a
disabling mental state. R. at 21.
Dr. Mahmood opined Plaintiff would be off-task twenty-five percent of the time,
but consistently noted her thoughts were organized and goal-directed during his visits.
R. at 271-77, 300, 303-06, 308-09. To the extent Dr. Mahmood opined Plaintiff would
have difficulty with instructions or interactions with co-workers and the public, Plaintiff’s
RFC includes limitations consistent with the record. Although Plaintiff cites a two year
period of treatment with Dr. Mahmood as evidence of her disability, Dr. Mahmood’s
notes repeatedly indicate Plaintiff denies depression and/or that her depression is
manageable. R. at 271, 276, 304, 307. The ALJ properly discounted Dr. Mahmood’s
opinion because the limitations he set forth were not consistent with his treatment
records. See Cline, 771 F.3d at 1104; see also Davidson v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 838, 843
(8th Cir. 2009) (noting “[i]t is permissible for an ALJ to discount an opinion of a treating
physician that is inconsistent with the physician’s clinical treatment notes.”). The Court
finds the ALJ properly weighed Dr. Mahmood’s opinion.
B. Plaintiff’s Credibility
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in evaluating her credibility. The familiar standard
for analyzing a claimant’s subjective complaints is set forth in Polaski v. Heckler, 739
F.2d 1320 (8th Cir. 1984):
While the claimant has the burden of proving that the disability results
from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, direct
medical evidence of the cause and effect relationship between the
impairment and the degree of claimant’s subjective complaints need not
be produced. The adjudicator may not disregard a claimant’s subjective
complaints solely because the objective medical evidence does not fully
The absence of an objective medical basis which supports the degree of
severity of subjective complaints alleged is just one factor to be
considered in evaluating the credibility of the testimony and complaints.
The adjudicator must give full consideration to all of the evidence
presented relating to subjective complaints, including the claimant’s prior
work record, and observations by third parties and treating and examining
physicians relating to such matters as:
1. The claimant’s daily activities;
2. the duration, frequency and intensity of the pain;
3. precipitating and aggravating factors;
4. dosage, effectiveness and side effects of medication;
5. functional restrictions.
The adjudicator is not free to accept or reject the claimant’s subjective
complaints solely on the basis of personal observations. Subjective
complaints may be discounted if there are inconsistencies in the evidence
as a whole.
Id. at 1322. The ALJ “need not explicitly discuss each Polaski factor...[t]he ALJ need
only acknowledge and consider those factors before discounting a claimant’s subjective
complaints.” Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 590 (8th Cir. 2004) (citations
omitted); see also Samons v. Apfel, 497 F.3d 813, 820 (8th Cir. 2007).
The ALJ found Plaintiff’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and
limiting effects of her symptoms were “not entirely credible.” R. at 20. While Plaintiff
has severe impairments and corresponding functional limitations, the ALJ found the
record did not establish greater limitations than those detailed in the RFC. R. at 20.
The ALJ identified Dr. Mahmood’s notes to support this assertion. R. at 20-21. Dr.
Mahmood’s treatment notes do not support allegations of disabling mental state, as
Plaintiff is repeatedly described as “alert and oriented” with no “overt delusions or
hallucinations” or “suicidal or homicidal ideations,” and Plaintiff denies depression
and/or that her depression is manageable. R. at 271-77, 300, 303-06, 308-09. Plaintiff
also reports getting along with her family and boyfriend, and being able to get out of the
house to do “necessary” chores. R. at 271, 273, 275-76, 304.
The ALJ also found Plaintiff’s subjective complaints not entirely credible based
on Plaintiff’s reporting shortly after her first disability benefit application was denied. On
May 29, 2014, Plaintiff denied feeling depressed, was getting along with her family and
boyfriend, was compliant with her medication and tolerating it well, her sleep and
appetite was adequate, and she was able to get out of the house for necessary chores.
R. at 271. Twice in June 2014 and once in July 2014, Plaintiff called Dr. Mahmood’s
office to discuss excessive sweating side effects due to her medication, but was able to
adjust her medication, tolerate her symptoms, and was “doing well” on her medication.
R. at 270.
Plaintiff’s self-reported symptoms and alleged limitations dramatically changed
when her initial application for disability was denied on July 22, 2014. R. at 101-104.
On July 24, 2014, Plaintiff complained to Dr. Mahmood that she had severe anxiety, had
not left her home for the last year, did not have any friends, was cutting herself “off and
on,” and had visual hallucinations “when she is stressed out.” R. at 309. Despite her
complaints, Dr. Mahmood described Plaintiff as alert and oriented with organized and
goal-directed thoughts. R. at 309. The record does not show treatment for cutting, and
Dr. Mahmood describes them as “superficial cuts.” R. at 309. The only other reference
in the record to Plaintiff cutting herself is Dr. Mahmood’s August 20, 2014 note which
states Plaintiff has not been cutting herself because her boyfriend “has been watching
her closely.” R. at 308. Plaintiff’s report that she had not left her house for a year
directly conflicts with her May 2014 visit to Dr. Mahmood, and her July 1, 2014 function
report. R. at 214-221, 270.
The ALJ also noted Plaintiff’s activities of daily living were inconsistent with her
reports of disability. R. at 21. Plaintiff’s function report states she gives parental care to
her two children, cooks for the family, takes care of pets, does not need reminders to
take her medications, and is able to do regular household chores. R. at 214-21.
Plaintiff reported difficulty outside of the home, but can go shopping alone if necessary.
R. at 217. A third-party function report completed by Plaintiff’s boyfriend states Plaintiff
stays at home taking care of the housework and kids. R. at 225-232.
The ALJ acknowledged and considered the Polaski factors. R. at 21-27. To the
extent Plaintiff argues the evidence could support a decision contrary to the ALJ’s, the
Court will not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349
F.3d 549, 558 (8th Cir. 2003) (stating “[t]he credibility of a claimant’s subjective
testimony is primarily for the ALJ to decide, not the courts.”). The Court finds the ALJ
did not err in analyzing Plaintiff’s credibility.
The Court concludes there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to
support the ALJ’s decision. The Commissioner’s decision denying benefits is affirmed.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
/s/ Ortrie D. Smith
ORTRIE D. SMITH, SENIOR JUDGE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DATE: September 25, 2017
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