Culberson v. Commissioner of Social Security
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER - IT IS ORDERED THAT Defendant's decision is REVERSED AND REMANDED under sentence four, for further development of the record consistent with this report and recommendation, that judgment be entered, and that this case is CLOSED. Signed by Magistrate Judge Stephanie K. Bowman on 7/29/2022. (km)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO
Case No. 1:21-cv-157
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Terri C. filed this Social Security appeal in order to challenge the
Defendant’s finding that she is not disabled. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Proceeding through
counsel, Plaintiff presents one claim of error for this Court’s review. The Commissioner’s
finding of non-disability will be REMANDED for further fact-finding.2
I. Summary of Administrative Record
In May 2016, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits alleging a disability
onset date of September 26, 2015. (Tr. 140). Her application was denied initially and
upon reconsideration. (Id.). Plaintiff, represented by counsel, subsequently appeared and
testified at an administrative hearing before ALJ Meadows (Id.). The ALJ issued a
decision in January 2019, finding Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 140-52). In May 2020, the
Appeals Council granted Plaintiff’s request for review and remanded the case for the ALJ
to further evaluate Plaintiff’s mental impairments and further consider Plaintiff’s residual
The Committee on Court Administration and Case Management of the Judicial Conference of the United
States has recommended that, due to significant privacy concerns in social security cases, federal courts
should refer to claimants only by their first names and last initials. See General Order 22-01.
The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge. See 28 U.S.C. §636(c).
functional capacity. (Tr. 159). On remand, in August 2020, a new hearing was held in
front of ALJ Meadows. Plaintiff, her attorney, and an impartial vocational expert appeared
at the telephonic hearing. (Tr. 20, 43- 73). In September 2020, the ALJ concluded that
Plaintiff was not disabled from September 26, 2015, the alleged onset date of disability,
through the date of the decision. (Tr. 20-37). The Appeals Council declined further review,
leaving the ALJ’s decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then filed
this judicial appeal.
Plaintiff was 41 years old on her alleged date of disability. She graduated from
high school and has past relevant work as grocery stock clerk. The ALJ determined that
Plaintiff has severe impairments of “diabetes mellitus, conversion disorder, peripheral
neuropathy, minor cervical degenerative disc disease, obesity, major depressive
disorder, and anxiety disorder.” (Tr. 23). Although Plaintiff argued at the hearing that her
impairments were of listing level severity, the ALJ found that none of the impairments,
alone or in combination, met or medically equaled any Listing in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appx. 1, such that Plaintiff would be entitled to a presumption of disability.
The ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform a range of sedentary work, subject
to the following:
She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs and never climb ladders,
ropes, and scaffolds. She is limited to occasionally balancing, stooping,
kneeling, crouching and never crawling. She can have no exposure to
hazards of unprotected heights or dangerous moving machinery. She is
limited to no commercial driving. She is limited to frequent handling and
fingering with her right upper extremity. She is limited to simple, routine
tasks. She is limited to low stress jobs, defined as jobs with only occasional
decision making required and only occasional changes in the work setting
or duties, and limited to a setting with no sustained fast paced tasks or
production rate pace. She is limited to occasional interaction with
coworkers, supervisors, no joint tasks; no over the shoulder supervision;
and no interaction with the general public.
Based upon the RFC and testimony from the vocational expert, the ALJ concluded
that Plaintiff could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy,
including addresser, document preparer, and cutter and paster. (Tr. 37). Plaintiff urges
this Court to reverse, arguing that the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion of her treating
physician, Dr. Lunderman. The undersigned agrees and for the reasons explains below,
finds that this matter should be remanded for further fact-finding.
A. Judicial Standard of Review
To be eligible for benefits, a claimant must be under a “disability.” See 42 U.S.C.
§1382c(a). Narrowed to its statutory meaning, a “disability” includes only physical or
mental impairments that are both “medically determinable” and severe enough to prevent
the applicant from (1) performing his or her past job and (2) engaging in “substantial
gainful activity” that is available in the regional or national economies. See Bowen v. City
of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 469-70 (1986).
When a court is asked to review the Commissioner’s denial of benefits, the court’s
first inquiry is to determine whether the ALJ’s non-disability finding is supported by
42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
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) (additional citation and internal quotation
omitted). In conducting this review, the court should consider the record as a whole.
Hephner v. Mathews, 574 F.2d 359, 362 (6th Cir. 1978). If substantial evidence supports
the ALJ’s denial of benefits, then that finding must be affirmed, even if substantial
evidence also exists in the record to support a finding of disability. Felisky v. Bowen, 35
F.3d 1027, 1035 (6th Cir. 1994). As the Sixth Circuit has explained:
The Secretary’s findings are not subject to reversal merely because
substantial evidence exists in the record to support a different conclusion....
The substantial evidence standard presupposes that there is a ‘zone of
choice’ within which the Secretary may proceed without interference from
the courts. If the Secretary’s decision is supported by substantial evidence,
a reviewing court must affirm.
Id. (citations omitted).
In considering an application for supplemental security income or for disability
benefits, the Social Security Agency is guided by the following sequential benefits
analysis: at Step 1, the Commissioner asks if the claimant is still performing substantial
gainful activity; at Step 2, the Commissioner determines if one or more of the claimant’s
impairments are “severe;” at Step 3, the Commissioner analyzes whether the claimant’s
impairments, singly or in combination, meet or equal a Listing in the Listing of
Impairments; at Step 4, the Commissioner determines whether or not the claimant can
still perform his or her past relevant work; and finally, at Step 5, if it is established that
claimant can no longer perform his or her past relevant work, the burden of proof shifts to
the agency to determine whether a significant number of other jobs which the claimant
can perform exist in the national economy. See Combs v. Com’r of Soc. Sec., 459 F.3d
640, 643 (6th Cir. 2006); 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520, 416.920.
A plaintiff bears the ultimate burden to prove by sufficient evidence that she is
entitled to disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a). A claimant seeking benefits must
present sufficient evidence to show that, during the relevant time period, she suffered an
impairment, or combination of impairments, expected to last at least twelve months, that
left her unable to perform any job. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
B. The ALJ’s Decision
Plaintiff argues first that the ALJ erred by failing to give controlling weight to the
opinion of Plaintiff’s treating physician, Dr. Lunderman. The record indicates that Plaintiff
began treating with Dr. Lunderman in 2018 for depression and anxiety. In November
2018, Dr. Lunderman opined that Plaintiff is seriously limited with regard to her vocational
abilities. Notably, he found that Plaintiff had marked limitations in activities of daily living,
maintaining social functioning, maintaining concentration, persistence or pace and would
have one or two episodes of decompensation with[in] a year each lasting at least two
weeks. (Tr. 34).
In formulating Plaintiff’s mental RFC, the ALJ assigned little weight to Dr.
Lunderman’s findings, noting that his opinion was “not consistent with the medical
evidence as a whole since the alleged onset date. (Tr. 34). In this regard, the ALJ noted
that the record routinely notes that there are no issues with her attention span and
concentration and Dr. Lunderman has recently described Plaintiff as having an euthymic
mood. The ALJ further noted that Dr. Lunderman has only treated Plaintiff since 2018
and the record contains limited visits since treatment began. “This very limited treatment
history weighs against his report, and suggests he may have over-relied on the Plaintiff’s
subjective complaints rather than longitudinal clinical findings.” (Tr. 35). Additionally, the
ALJ found that his opinion is rather vague as he describes her limitations as “seriously
limited” which is not clearly correlated with deficits for any specific functional tasks. (Id.)
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s findings in this regard is not supported by substantial
evidence. The undersigned agrees.
At the time of Plaintiff’s application, the regulations and controlling law provided
that when evaluating the opinion evidence, “[t]he ALJ ‘must’ give a treating source opinion
controlling weight if the treating source opinion is ‘well-supported by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques’ and is ‘not inconsistent with the other
substantial evidence in [the] case record.’” Blakley v. Commissioner Of Social Sec., 581
F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Wilson v. Commissioner, 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th
Cir. 2004). If the ALJ does not accord controlling weight to a treating physician, the ALJ
must still determine how much weight is appropriate by considering a number of factors,
including the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination, the
nature and extent of the treatment relationship, supportability of the opinion, consistency
of the opinion with the record as a whole, and any specialization of the treating physician.
Wilson, 378 F.3d at 544; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)-(d)(6)).
Upon careful review, the undersigned findings that the ALJ's findings, at least in
part, failed to comport with Agency regulations and controlling law. As noted above, the
ALJ rejected the findings of Dr. Lunderman, in part, because his opinions were based
upon Plaintiff's self-reports of her symptoms. As noted above, the ALJ found that Dr.
Lunderman’s “very limited treatment history weights against his report, and suggests he
may have over-relied on the Plaintiff’s subjective complaints rather than longitudinal
clinical findings.” (Tr. 35). However, contrary to the findings of the ALJ, the fact that those
opinions were based on Plaintiff's self-reports does not provide an adequate basis to
reject such findings. Notably, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, citing Poulin v. Bowen,
817 F.2d 865 (D.C. Cir. 1987), stated that:
A psychiatric impairment is not as readily amenable to substantiation by
objective laboratory testing as a medical impairment ... consequently; the
diagnostic techniques employed in the field of psychiatry may be somewhat
less tangible than those in the field of medicine.... In general, mental
disorders cannot be ascertained and verified as are most physical illnesses,
for the mind cannot be probed by mechanical devices [sic] in order to obtain
objective clinical manifestations of medical illness.... When mental illness is
the basis of a disability claim, clinical and laboratory data may consist of the
diagnosis and observations of professionals trained in the field of
psychopathology. The report of a psychiatrist should not be rejected simply
because of the relative imprecision of the psychiatric methodology or the
absence of substantial documentation, unless there are other reasons to
question the diagnostic techniques.
Blankenship v. Bowen, 874 F.2d 1116, 1121, (6th Cir. 1989).
In Blankenship, the Sixth Circuit concluded that no cause existed to question the
diagnosis of a psychiatrist made after only one interview and where no psychological
testing had been conducted and even though the doctor noted the need for a more
accurate history. Blankenship, 874 F.2d at 1121. Thus, interviews are clearly an
acceptable diagnostic technique in the area of mental impairments and Dr. Lunderman
could rely upon Plaintiff's subjective complaints elicited during her treatment sessions in
formulating Plaintiff's functional restrictions. See Warford v. Astrue, No. 09–52, WL
3190756, at *6 (E.D. Ky. Aug. 11, 2010) (finding interviews are an acceptable diagnostic
technique in the area of mental impairments).
As noted above, the Commissioner is required to provide “good reasons” for
discounting the weight given to a treating-source opinion. Id. § 404.1527(c)(2). These
reasons must be “supported by the evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently
specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the
treating source's medical opinion and the reasons for that weight.” Soc. Sec. Rul. No. 96–
2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *5 (Soc. Sec. Admin. July 2, 1996). This procedural requirement
“ensures that the ALJ applies the treating physician rule and permits meaningful review
of the ALJ's application of the rule.” Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544
(6th Cir. 2004). Such is not the case here, the record presented does not provide for such
Furthermore, as noted by Plaintiff, Dr. Lunderman’s opinion does find objective
clinical support in the medical record. His own mental status exams, for example,
document depressed mood, anxious affect, irritable affect, and blunted affect. (Tr. 883,
901, 903, 904, 908). Notably, these clinical signs and symptoms are consistent with the
clinical findings Dr. Lunderman noted in support of his Mental Impairment Questionnaire,
where he listed marked depression with irritability, marked anxiety with excessive worry,
low energy, and mood instability as clinical findings that demonstrate the severity of
Plaintiff’s impairments and symptoms. (Tr. 889, 892). Dr. Lunderman increased the
prescribed dose of psychiatric medication in August 2018 and again in November 2018.
Additionally, Dr. Lunderman’s findings are also consistent with the findings of
Taylor Gronck, Psy.D, who performed a consultative examination in October 2016.
Namely, Dr. Groneck found that Plaintiff performed poorly on short-term verbal recall task
and had difficulty concentrating, presumably due to fatigue. (Tr. 608). She presented as
“distant and difficult to engage.” Id. Dr. Groneck opined that she may experience a
subjective sense of increased fatigue in response to high work demands and intense
workplace pressures. Id.
As a rule, the ALJ must build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence
and his conclusion. Fleischer v. Astrue, 774 F.Supp.2d 875, 877 (N.D. Ohio 2011); see
also Wilson v. Comm. of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544–546 (6th Cir. 2004) (finding it was
not harmless error for the ALJ to fail to make sufficiently clear why he rejected the treating
physician's opinion, even if substantial evidence not mentioned by the ALJ may have
existed to support the ultimate decision to reject the treating physician's opinion). Thus,
“an ALJ's decision must articulate with specificity reasons for the findings and conclusions
that he or she makes.” Bailey v. Commissioner of Social Security, 173 F.3d 428, 1999
WL 96920 at *4 (6th Cir. Feb, 2, 1999). See also Hurst v. Secretary of Health and Human
Services, 753 F.2d 517 (6th Cir. 1985) (articulation of reasons for disability decision
essential to meaningful appellate review); Social Security Ruling (SSR) 82–62 at *4 (the
“rationale for a disability decision must be written so that a clear picture of the case can
Here, the ALJ's evaluation of the opinion evidence does not build an accurate and
logical bridge between the evidence and his conclusion and his reasons for rejecting Dr.
Lunderman’s findings are not “good reasons” as outlined by controlling law. As such, this
matter should be remanded because there is insufficient evidence in the record to support
the Commissioner's conclusions. On remand, the ALJ should be instructed to properly
evaluate and weigh the opinion evidence in accordance with Agency regulations and
III. Conclusion and Order
This matter is herein remanded pursuant to Sentence Four of § 405(g) for further
proceedings consistent with this Report and Recommendation. A sentence four remand
under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) provides the required relief in cases where there is insufficient
evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's conclusions and further fact-finding
is necessary. See Faucher v. Secretary of Health and Human Servs., 17 F.3d 171, 174
(6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). In a sentence four remand, the Court makes a final
judgment on the Commissioner's decision and “may order the Secretary to consider
additional evidence on remand to remedy a defect in the original proceedings, a defect
which caused the Secretary's misapplication of the regulations in the first place.” Faucher,
17 F.3d at 175. Here, all essential factual issues have not been resolved in this matter,
nor does the current record adequately establish Plaintiff's entitlement to benefits as of
her alleged onset date. Faucher, 17 F.3d at 176.
For the reasons explained herein, IT IS ORDERED THAT Defendant's decision is
REVERSED AND REMANDED under sentence four, for further development of the
record consistent with this report and recommendation, that judgment be entered, and
that this case is CLOSED.
s/Stephanie K. Bowman
Stephanie K. Bowman
United States Magistrate Judge
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