Watkins v. Social Security Administration
OPINION AND ORDER by Magistrate Judge Paul J Cleary affirming the Commissioner's decision (sdc, Dpty Clk)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration,
Case No. 15-CV-578-PJC
OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff, Tina Watkins (“Watkins”), seeks judicial review of the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application
for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et
seq. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED.
Social Security Law and Standard of Review
Disability under the Social Security Act is defined as the “inability to engage in any
substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental
impairment.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A claimant is disabled under the Act only if his
“physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to
do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in
any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(2)(A). Social Security regulations implement a five-step sequential process to evaluate a
disability claim. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.1 See also Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th
Step One requires the claimant to establish that she is not engaged in substantial gainful
activity, as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1510. Step Two requires that the claimant establish that
Cir. 2009) (detailing steps). “If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a claimant is
or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.” Lax, 489 F.3d 1080,
1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (citation and quotation omitted).
Judicial review of the Commissioner’s determination is limited in scope to two inquiries:
first, whether the decision was supported by substantial evidence; and, second, whether the
correct legal standards were applied. Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004).
“Substantial evidence is such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion. It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Wall, 561
F.3d at 1052 (quotation and citation omitted). Although the court will not reweigh the evidence,
the court will “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may
undercut or detract from the ALJ’s findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has
been met.” Id.
Watkins was thirty-eight years old on the amended alleged date of onset of disability and
forty-one on the date of the Commissioner’s final decision. [R. 1, R. 150 (Ex. 1D)]. She has a
she has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limit her
ability to do basic work activities. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant is engaged in
substantial gainful activity (Step One) or if the claimant’s impairment is not medically severe
(Step Two), disability benefits are denied. At Step Three, the claimant’s impairment is
compared with certain impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App.1 (“Listings”). A
claimant suffering from a listed impairment or impairments “medically equivalent” to a listed
impairment is determined to be disabled without further inquiry. If not, the evaluation proceeds
to Step Four, where the claimant must establish that she does not retain the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work. If the claimant’s Step Four burden is met,
the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish at Step Five that work exists in significant
numbers in the national economy which the claimant, taking into account her age, education,
work experience, and RFC, can perform. See Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir.
2007). Disability benefits are denied if the Commissioner shows that the impairment which
precluded the performance of past relevant work does not preclude alternative work. 20 C.F.R. §
high school education. [R. 32, R. 169 (Ex. 2E)]. She has previous experience as a cashier, a
habilitation training specialist and a plastic molder. [R. 169 (Ex. 2E)]. In her application, she
claimed to be unable to work as a result of social anxiety, depression, ADHD, “Anger/Explosive
problem,” and bipolar disorder. [R. 1`68 (Ex. 2E)].
The ALJ’s Decision
In his decision, the ALJ found that Watkins last met insured status requirements on
December 31, 2011, but not thereafter, and, at Step One, that she had not engaged in any
substantial gainful activity since January 10, 2012, the application date. [R. 13]. He found at
Step Two that Watkins had severe impairments of affective disorder and anxiety disorder. Id. At
Step Three, he found that the impairments did not meet or medically equal any listing. Id. He
concluded that Watkins the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):
[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work
at all exertional levels but with the following nonextertional limitations: The
claimant is able to perform simple work with routine supervision. The claimant
is able to relate to coworkers and supervisors for work related purposes only. She
should have no contact with the general public. She is able to adapt to a work
[R. 15]. At Step Four, the ALJ determined that Watkins had no past relevant work. [R. 18]. At
Step Five, he found that, considering Watkin’s age, education, work experience and residual
functional capacity, there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that
she could perform, including hand packager (medium exertion, unskilled, SPV 2, DOT
#920.587-018, 18,000 positions in the region and 220,000 positions nationally); laundry worker
(medium exertion, unskilled, SVP 2, DOT #361.685-018, 15,000 positions in the region and
190,000 positions nationally); dishwasher (medium exertion, unskilled, SVP 2, DOT #318.687010, 19,000 positions in the region and 280,000 positions nationally); laundry sorter (light
exertion, unskilled, SVP 2, DOT #361.687-014, 12,000 positions in the region and 177,000
positions nationally); assembler (light exertion, unskilled, SVP 2, DOT #706.684-022, 13,000
positions in the region and 180,000 positions nationally); and trimmer (sedentary exertion,
unskilled, SVP 2, DOT #692.685-266, 6,500 positions in the region and 95,000 positions
nationally). [R. 19].
Accordingly, the ALJ found that Watkins had not been under a disability since January
10, 2012, the date the application was filed. Id.
On appeal, Watkins asserts that: (1) the ALJ failed to properly consider all of the
evidence; (2) the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of consultative psychologist Jeri
Fritz, Ph.D; and (3) the ALJ failed to properly consider plaintiff’s credibility.
1. Consideration of Evidence
Watkins contends the ALJ failed to properly consider records from CREOKS Behavioral
Health Services, a primary treating source, because he discussed only one record from that
provider.2 In particular, she contends the GAF and CAR scores in the CREOKS records support
her claim of totally disabling depression and anxiety. However, the ALJ expressly stated that he
considered the entire record. [R. 11]. The court’s “general practice . . . is to take a lower tribunal
at its word when it declares that it has considered a matter.” Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168,
1173 (10th Cir. 2005). Moreover, the ALJ is not required to “discuss every piece of evidence.”
Wall, 561 F.3d at 1067 (citing Frantz v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1299, 1303 (10th Cir. 2007). “On the
contrary, [the court] will generally find the ALJ’s decision adequate if it discusses the
Specifically, the ALJ stated that on January 2, 2014, Watkins reported she was dealing with
feelings of depression and anxiety, and was doing better until graduating from the Anna McBride
program the previous month. She was assessed with depression and anxiety disorder and
assigned a GAF of fifty, with the highest in the past year being sixty-two. [R. 19, R. 656 (Ex.
‘uncontroverted evidence’ the ALJ chooses to rely upon and any ‘significantly probative evidence’
the ALJ decides to reject.” Id.
Additionally, the ALJ noted that Dr. Fritz had assigned Watkins a GAF score of forty-five,
and acknowledged that a score of 41-50 “indicates serious symptoms or any serious impairment in
social, occupational, or school functioning.” [R. 17]. However, he concluded that “[a] global
assessment of functioning score in the severe range is not preclusive of substantial gainful
activity,” and stated that “[t]he limitations identified by Dr. Fritz are consistent with the above
residual functional capacity, which allowed for the performance of the jobs identified below.” Id.
In this case, no treating source opined that Watkins was unable to work as a result of her
mental impairments. And while the ALJ acknowledged she suffered from mental illness, he noted
that “with medication management and compliance, claimant’s symptoms improve greatly.” [R.
16, R. 467-473 (Ex. 9F)]. Further, he restricted her to performing simple work with no contact
with the general public and to relating to coworkers and supervisor for work related purposes only.
The Court concludes that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision.
2. Consideration of Consultative Psychologist’s Opinion
Consultative psychologist Dr. Fritz stated in her report that Watkins’ attention and
concentration appeared to be impaired but she demonstrated the ability to understand, retain, and
follow simple directions and “she most likely could perform simple, repetitive tasks.” [R. 289
(Ex. 4F)]. Additionally, she opined that “her ability to handle the stress of day to day interactions
was judged to be poor,” and that “[s]he might benefit from a work hardening supportive
employment program.” Id.
Watkins complains that while the RFC limited her to “simple work,” it did not include a
restriction to “repetitive” tasks or a limitation addressing her inability to handle stress, and it failed
to require a work hardening supportive employment program.
Watkins’ arguments are not convincing. While the RFC did not include a restriction to
repetitive tasks, the jobs identified by the vocational expert are all described as having the “R”
temperament, which means “performing REPETITIVE or short-cycle work.” (emphasis in
original).3 Accordingly, any error in this respect is harmless. See Mays v. Colvin, 739 F.3d 569,
578-79 (10th Cir. 2014).
Further, the ALJ addressed her problem with the “stress of day to day interactions” by
restricting Watkins to relating to coworkers and supervisors “for work related purposes only” and
allowing no interaction with the public. [R. 15]. Finally, the statement that claimant “might
benefit from a work hardening supportive employment program” is not a specific functional
limitation. It is unclear how this recommendation could have been incorporated into an RFC.
The RFC adopted by the ALJ reasonably incorporated all functional limitations identified
by Dr. Fritz.
3. Credibility Determination
Watkins contends the ALJ erred in evaluating her credibility. “[C]redibility determinations
are peculiarly the province of the finder of fact, and [the court] will not upset such determinations,
when supported by substantial evidence.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1144 (10th Cir. 2010)
Specifically, the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”), classifies the relevant positions as
follows: hand packager, DOT #920.587-018, 1991 WL 687916; laundry worker, DOT
#361.685-018, 1991 WL 672987; dishwasher, DOT #318.687-010, 1991 WL 672755; laundry
sorter, DOT #361.687-014, 1991 WL 672991; assembler, DOT #706.684-022, 1991 WL 678774.
See also Beck v. Colvin, 2015 WL 757554, at *22 (M.D. Penn. Feb. 23, 2015) (unpublished) (the
“Temperament factor of “R,” . . . is defined as “performing a few routine tasks over and over
again according to set procedures, sequence, or pace with little opportunity for diversion or
interruption.” (citing U.S. Dep’t of Labor, Revised Handbook for Analyzing Jobs 10-2 (1991)).
(internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Those findings “should be closely and
affirmatively linked to substantial evidence and not just a conclusion in the guise of findings.” Id.
(internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “[C]ommon sense, not technical perfection, is
[the] guide” of a reviewing court. Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1167 (10th Cir. 2012).
In assessing Watkins’ credibility, the ALJ stated:
[T]he claimant’s medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected
to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant’s statements concerning the
intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible
for the reasons explained in this decision.
[R. 20]. He supported this assessment by citing the report of Dr. Fritz, discussed above and, inter
alia, the following evidence:
On March 16, 2012, after being admitted to Wagoner Community Hospital on an
emergency detention order, claimant was stabilized on medication and discharged home,
having shown good resolution of target symptoms. [R. 16, R. 467-473]. The ALJ stated,
“This evidence shows that with medication management and compliance, the claimant’s
symptoms improved greatly.” Id. Additionally, he concluded, “This evidence does not
support any greater limitations than those identified in the above residual functional
On December 3, 2013, Watkins presented to OSU physicians, reporting anxiety but
denying depression and insomnia. [R. 17, R. 432-437 (Ex. 7F)]. She was oriented to
person, place, time and situation; she exhibited appropriate mood and affect, but poor
insight and judgment. When she returned on January 15, 2014, she was oriented to time,
place, situation and person and demonstrated appropriate affect. Id. The ALJ stated that
“[i]t is reasonable to assume that if the claimant’s impairments were as severe as alleged,
they would be present on examination.” Id.
Based on a review of the record, state agency reviewing psychologist CMK opined that
claimant demonstrated the ability to understand, retain and follow simple instructions and
that while her attention and concentration appeared impaired, she could perform simple
repetitive tasks and her ability to relate to others, including co-workers and supervisors,
was estimated to be fair. [R. 81 (Ex. 3A); R. 92 (Ex. 4A)]. The ALJ gave great weight to
the agency psychologist’s opinion. [R. 18].
Support in the medical record is among the various factors properly considered in making
a credibility determination. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 416.929. In his decision, the ALJ discussed
the portions of the records he believed contradict Watkins’ subjective statements, thus satisfying
his duty to support his credibility finding with substantial evidence. Furthermore, it is not the
diagnosis of a condition, but the functional consequences of the condition that form the basis of a
disability determination. See e.g. Coleman v. Chater, 58 F.3d 577, 579 (10th Cir. 1995) (the mere
presence of alcoholism is not necessarily disabling, the impairment must render the claimant
unable to engage in any substantial gainful employment); Higgs v. Bowen, 880 F.2d 860, 863 (6th
Cir. 1988) (the mere diagnosis of arthritis says nothing about the severity of the condition);
Madrid v. Astrue, 243 Fed.Appx. 387, 392 (10th Cir. 2007) (unpublished) (diagnosis of a
condition does not establish disability, the question is whether an impairment significantly limits
the ability to work); Scull v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1352 (10th Cir. 2000) (unpublished), 2000 WL
1028250 *1 (disability determinations turn on the functional consequences, not the cause of a
The ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, and the court “may neither
reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] discretion for that of the Commissioner.” Hamlin, 365
F.3d at 1214 (quotation omitted).
The Court finds that the ALJ evaluated the record in accordance with the legal standards
established by the Commissioner and the courts and further that there is substantial evidence in the
record to support the ALJ’s decision. Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner finding
Watkins is not disabled is hereby AFFIRMED.
ENTERED this 7th day of February, 2017.
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?