Sullins v. Colvin
ORDER AND OPINION AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER'S FINAL DECISION DENYING BENEFITS. Signed on 6/26/17 by District Judge Ortrie D. Smith. (Matthes Mitra, Renea)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
WESTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
RHONDA ANN SULLINS,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,1
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
Case No. 16-3161-CV-S-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 application for disability and disability benefits. 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).
Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 25(d), Nancy A. Berryhill is substituted for
former Acting Commissioner Carolyn A. Colvin as the Defendant in this suit.
Plaintiff was born in 1972, and she completed the eighth grade. R. at 21, 33, 145.
Plaintiff previously worked as an assembler, housekeeper/cleaner, and inspector. R. at 21,
41-47, 70-71. In 2013, Plaintiff applied for disability and disability insurance benefits,
alleging a disability onset date of June 7, 2012. R. at 10, 148-55. Plaintiff’s application was
denied, and she requested a hearing. R. at 87-91, 94-95. A hearing was held before an
administrative law judge (“ALJ”) in July 2014. R. at 28-76.
On October 27, 2014, the ALJ issued his decision, finding Plaintiff was not disabled.
R. at 10-23. The ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity,
degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and thoracic spine, and neuropathy caused by
vitamin B12 deficiency. R. at 13. The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following residual
functional capacity (“RFC”):
[P]erform a range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a)
except that she is unable to climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds, but can
occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl.
She can occasionally push/pull and operate foot pedals with the lower
extremities bilaterally. The claimant must have the ability to change positions
between sitting and standing every 30 minutes at the workstation.
R. at 16. Based upon the RFC and the Vocational Expert’s (“VE”) testimony, the ALJ
concluded Plaintiff could work as a telephone quotation clerk and table worker. R. at 22,
71-74. Plaintiff appealed the ALJ’s decision to the Appeals Council, which denied her
appeal. R. at 1-9. Plaintiff now appeals to this Court.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ’s decision must be reversed because (1) the ALJ failed to
afford adequate weight to Plaintiff’s treating physician’s opinion, and (2) the ALJ’s RFC
determination was not supported by substantial evidence.
A. Treating Physician’s Opinion
Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred in affording little weight to the opinion of her treating
physician, Karen Hopkins, M.D. 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). Ultimately, 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 February 2014, Dr. Hopkins stated in a progress note that Plaintiff “can’t stand or
sit for long periods which makes working difficult.” R. at 20, 415. Plaintiff argues this
statement reflects Dr. Hopkins’s opinion about Plaintiff’s “functional capacity,” and the
opinion should have been afforded controlling weight.
With respect to this statement in Dr. Hopkins’s progress note, the ALJ found “[i]t is
unclear whether [Dr. Hopkins] was documenting the claimant’s subjective report or giving an
opinion but if it was an opinion, the undersigned gives it little weight.” R. at 20. The ALJ
further noted Dr. Hopkins, who was Plaintiff’s primary care physician, “referred the claimant
to specialists, suggesting that her orthopedic, neurological and chronic pain conditions are
outside of her area of expertise.” Id. Additionally, Dr. Hopkins’s opinion was “inconsistent
with the preponderance of the objective evidence of record detailed above, including
unremarkable imagings.” Id.
The Court reviewed the record and finds substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s
decision to discount Dr. Hopkins’s opinion. The Court also finds the ALJ provided good
reasons explaining the weight she afforded Dr. Hopkins’s opinion. First, it is unclear if the
particular statement at issue was Dr. Hopkins’s opinion about Plaintiff’s functional capacity,
or more likely, Dr. Hopkins’s notation of what Plaintiff told her. Second, substantial
evidence in the record does not corroborate Dr. Hopkins’s statement. Third, Dr. Hopkins’s
statement is contrary to Plaintiff’s testimony that she could have worked during her alleged
period of disability if she had the option to sit and stand when needed. R. at 49.
Furthermore, Plaintiff has not set forth how Dr. Hopkins’s statement is inconsistent with the
ALJ’s RFC determination, which limited Plaintiff to perform a limited range of sedentary
work with the ability to change positions every thirty minutes. For these reasons, the Court
finds the ALJ properly afforded Dr. Hopkin’s opinion little weight, and the Court affirms the
ALJ’s decision in this respect.
B. Plaintiff’s RFC
One’s RFC is the “most you can still do despite your limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ must base the RFC on “all of the relevant evidence, including the
medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and an individual’s own
description of his limitations.” McKinney v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000).
Plaintiff contends the ALJ’s RFC was not supported by substantial evidence.
In determining Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ considered, among other things, Plaintiff’s
symptoms consistent with the objective medical evidence; the intensity, persistence, and
limiting effects of Plaintiff’s symptoms; inconsistencies in the record, which diminished
Plaintiff’s credibility; medical records from several physicians; and Plaintiff’s daily living
activities. R. at 16-21. The ALJ also considered the lack of work restrictions placed on
Plaintiff by physicians during the alleged disability period; Plaintiff’s minimal treatment for
allegedly disabling symptoms; Plaintiff’s failure to comply with conservative treatment
recommendations; the objective findings in Plaintiff’s medical records, which were
inconsistent with her claim of total debilitation; and the lack of opinions from Plaintiff’s other
physicians indicating she is disabled or has greater limitations than those set forth in the
RFC. R. at 17-20.
Here, the ALJ properly utilized the evidence in the record to support his
determination of Plaintiff’s RFC. Even without Dr. Hopkins’s statement, the ALJ had
sufficient evidence in the record to determine Plaintiff’s RFC, and the ALJ cited the portions
of the record he considered in reaching that determination. The Court finds substantial
evidence in the record supports the ALJ’s RFC determination.
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: June 26, 2017
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