Thach v. Astrue
MEMORANDUM DECISION - AFFIRMING the Commissioner's decision and denying 23 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and. Signed by Magistrate Judge Samuel Alba on 10/25/11. (alp)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF UTAH
DEBRA D. THACH,
Case No. 1:10-CV-136-SA
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
Commissioner of Social
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND
Before the Court is an action filed by Plaintiff, Debra D.
Thach, asking the Court to reverse the final agency decision
denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”)
under the Social Security Act (“the Act”).
See 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-
The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that Ms. Thach
was capable of performing her past relevant work and therefore
was not disabled as defined by the Act.
Ms. Thach seeks an order
reversing the Commissioner’s final decision and ordering the
payment of benefits; in the alternative, Ms. Thach seeks to have
this case remanded for further administrative proceedings.
The Court reviews the Commissioner’s decision to determine
whether the factual findings are supported by substantial
evidence and whether correct legal standards were applied.
Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007).
evidence is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion,’” Doyal v. Barnhart,
331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted), and
“requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance,”
Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084.
The Commissioner’s findings, “if
supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.”
U.S.C. § 405(g).
The Court may neither reweigh the evidence nor
substitute its judgment for that of the agency.
See Lax, 489
F.3d at 1084.
Having carefully reviewed and considered the ALJ’s decision,
the record, and the parties’ pleadings, the Court affirms the
The Court concludes that the ALJ’s decision is
not legally erroneous and is supported by substantial evidence.
Ms. Thach filed for DIB in March 2006, alleging disability
as of May 2003.
(Doc. 18, the certified copy of the transcript
of the entire record of the administrative proceedings relating
to Debra D. Thach (hereafter “AR __”) 124-28, 138-40.)
application was denied initially (AR 84-85) and upon
reconsideration (AR 86), Ms. Thach requested a hearing before an
Following a hearing before an ALJ (AR 24-83), the ALJ
issued a decision finding that Ms. Thach was not disabled within
the meaning of the Act during the relevant time period (AR 8-23).
The Appeals Council denied Ms. Thach’s request for review (AR 12
7), making the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final decision
for purposes of judicial review.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.
After receiving the Appeals Council’s February 19, 2010
letter, Ms. Thach filed her complaint in this Court on August 17,
2010, and the case was assigned to United States Magistrate Judge
Samuel Alba. (Doc. 1.)
On January 24, 2011, and February 7,
2011, the parties consented to United States Magistrate Judge
jurisdiction, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).
Ms. Thach filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings on
May 9, 2011.
The Commissioner filed his response
brief on July 13, 2011 (Doc. 28).
brief on August 10, 2011.
Ms. Thach filed her reply
Ms. Thach makes two main arguments in support of her motion.
First, Ms. Thach argues that the ALJ should have found that Ms.
Thach had a somatoform disorder “as a separate and distinct
mental impairment that would differently impact the ability to
engage in the requirements of work activity on a sustained basis
as described by Dr. Charlat.”
(Doc. 23, at 14.)
Thach argues “the ALJ failed to give ‘good reasons’ for rejecting
the opinions of Dr. Stelter and Dr. Goncharova.”
(Id. at 20.)
The Court examines each of these arguments in turn.
The Court first turns to Ms. Thach’s argument that the ALJ
should have found Ms. Thach had a somatoform disorder.
original brief, Ms. Thach cites to the third paragraph of the
ALJ’s findings of fact and conclusions of law when making this
(Doc. 23, at 8-9.)
Consequently, it appears to the
Court, as it apparently did to the Commissioner, that Ms. Thach’s
argument is challenging the ALJ’s finding at step two of his
The Court has considered this apparent challenge to
step two of the ALJ’s analysis, but is unpersuaded to remand this
case based on that challenge.
As the Tenth Circuit has held, any
error at step two of the analysis was harmless where the ALJ
determined that the claimant could not be denied benefits
conclusively at step two and proceeded to the next step of the
(10th Cir. 2008).
See Carpenter v. Astrue, 537 F.3d 1264, 1266
As the Commissioner explains in his brief, step
two is a threshold inquiry, and is designed to “weed out at an
early stage of the administrative process those individuals who
cannot possibly meet the statutory definition of disability.”
Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 156 (1987) (O’Connor, J.,
Because the ALJ found severe impairments existed,
the threshold inquiry was satisfied and he continued to the
remaining steps of the sequential evaluation process.
made by the ALJ at step two was harmless.
Ms. Thach clarifies in her reply brief that she is
challenging more than just step two of the sequential evaluation
process; Ms. Thach explains that she is arguing that the ALJ
failed to properly consider the opinions of Richard Charlat, M.D.
with respect to the presence of a somatoform disorder at step
(Doc. 29, at 4.)
At step three of the sequential
evaluation process, the ALJ must determine the medical severity
of the claimant’s impairment and whether the claimant’s
impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically
equals the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d), (e) and 404.1525.
Having carefully examined the pleadings and record, the
Court rejects Ms. Thach’s challenge to the ALJ’s findings at step
Ms. Thach does not explain in any coherent or detailed
way how extra consideration of her somatoform disorder would
change the ALJ’s step three finding.
Dr. Charlat did not opine
as to any specific functional limitations resulting from the
somatoform disorder that the ALJ failed to consider in assessing
Ms. Thach’s work-related abilities.
In determining the extent of a claimant’s limitations, the
ALJ considers all medically determinable impairments, including
those that are not “severe.”
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(2).
fact, the ALJ acknowledged that Dr. Charlat had diagnosed Ms.
Thach with a somatoform disorder.
Ms. Thach has not
directed the Court to any evidence supporting that Ms. Thach’s
ability to perform basic work activities was impacted by the
alleged somatoform disorder beyond the limitations the ALJ
Thus, the Court rejects Ms. Thach’s
Treating Physician Opinions
The Court next examines Ms. Thach’s argument that the ALJ
failed to give “good reasons” for rejecting the opinions of Dr.
Stelter and Dr. Goncharova.
When evaluating “medical opinion” evidence, the ALJ must
determine how much weight to give each opinion.
See 20 C.F.R. §
The ALJ considers the following factors: (1) whether
the medical source examined the claimant; (2) the length, nature
and extent of any treatment relationship, including the treatment
provided and the examination or testing performed; (3) the degree
to which the opinion is supported by relevant evidence; (4)
consistency between the opinion and the record as a whole; (5)
whether the rendering source is a specialist in the area upon
which an opinion is rendered; and (6) other factors which tend to
support or contradict the opinion.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d).
The ALJ need not expressly apply each of these factors in
deciding what weight to give an opinion; not every factor applies
in every case.
See Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1258 (10th
Rather, the ALJ’s decision “‘must be sufficiently
specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the
adjudicator gave to the . . . opinion and the reasons for that
Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1300 (10th Cir.
2003) (quoting SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *5).
A doctor’s opinion can be rejected if it is brief,
conclusory, and unsupported by medical evidence.
Bowen, 816 F.2d 508, 513 (10th Cir. 1987).
See Frey v.
the regulations, an opinion that a claimant is “disabled” is not
a medical opinion, but an opinion on an issue reserved to the
See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(e)(1).
ALJ must consider such opinions and apply the relevant factors in
20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d).
See Social Security Ruling (“SSR”)
96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *3.
The Court first examines Ms. Thach’s argument in terms of
Dr. Stetler opined that Ms. Thach could not
tolerate even “low stress” work (AR 1527).
He stated that,
although Ms. Thach had a fair prognosis as to her physical
conditions, he believed that Ms. Thach’s “psychiatric component
renders her unable to maintain functional employment.”
Dr. Stetler also opined that Ms. Thach could not tolerate
full-time work activity, would require frequent postural changes,
and would be absent from work more than four days monthly.
In discounting Dr. Stetler’s opinions, the ALJ notes, while
citing to the AR, that (1) Dr. Stetler’s opinions were not
consistent with the other record evidence, (2) Dr. Stetler’s own
treatment notes did not contain any objective evidentiary
support, (3) Dr. Stetler did not cite to any objective evidence
in rendering his opinions, and (4) Dr. Stetler had only treated
Ms. Thach three times in a three-month period before rendering
(AR 21-22 & n.3.)
Thus, the ALJ sufficiently
supported his decision.1
Ms. Thach argues that Dr. Stetler’s opinion was entitled to
greater weight because Dr. Stetler was her primary care
physician; however, Dr. Stetler had no established treatment
relationship or history with Ms. Thach.
In his May 2008 opinion,
Dr. Stetler specifically highlighted that Ms. Thach “established
care less than three months ago” and that Ms. Thach “would
warrant an independent evaluation for disability status.”
In his June 2008 opinion, Dr. Stetler indicated that his
clinic had evaluated Ms. Thach four times, but he personally had
only evaluated Ms. Thach twice.
Stetler’s two opinions were rendered at his first and second
visits with Ms. Thach.
Furthermore, Dr. Stetler did not indicate
that he reviewed Ms. Thach’s medical records in either his
opinions or his treatment notes.
In fact, as just mentioned, Dr.
Stetler specifically stated that he believed an independent
The ALJ noted that the treatment records indicated that Ms.
Thach experienced some depression and anxiety, but the records
indicated her affective disorders were mild, not functionally
debilitating. (AR 20.)
disability evaluation was warranted, indicating that he
recognized that he did not have sufficient information regarding
Ms. Thach’s conditions to reliably assess disability.
Stetler did not possess the type of “longitudinal picture” of Ms.
Thach’s conditions as contemplated under the regulations.
C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)(1) (the longer and more times a treating
source has seen a claimant, the greater the weight to which their
opinion may be entitled).
The Court next examines Ms. Thach’s argument in terms of Dr.
In April 2006, Dr. Goncharova opined that Ms. Thach
had significant physical limitations, including that during an
eight-hour workday, Ms. Thach could only sit for two hours and
could stand or walk for zero to one hour.
Goncharova stated that, at a maximum, Ms. Thach could lift and
carry zero to five pounds occasionally.
also indicated that psychological and emotional factors
contributed to Ms. Thach’s functional limitations.
The ALJ gave Dr. Goncharova’s opinion little weight because
it was inconsistent with the preponderance of the record
evidence, which the ALJ set forth in detail in reviewing the AR.2
As the Commissioner sets forth in his brief, the record
supports the ALJ’s reasons for discounting Dr. Goncharova’s
opinion. Further, Dr. Goncharova’s opinions were inconsistent
with her own treatment notes. For example, in September 2005,
Ms. Thach indicated that she wanted increased Lortab because she
was doing a lot around the house (AR 719), and that her back pain
Thus, as with Dr. Stetler’s opinion, the ALJ
provided sufficient reasons for his treatment of Dr. Goncharova’s
The Court concludes that the ALJ relied on proper factors in
determining how much weight to give Dr. Stetler’s and Dr.
Goncharova’s opinions; the ALJ was sufficiently specific to make
clear to the Court the weight the ALJ gave to their opinions, and
the reasons for that weight, see Watkins, 350 F.3d at 1300;
further, the ALJ’s reasons were supported by medical evidence,
see Frey, 816 F.2d at 513.
Based on the above analysis, IT IS ORDERED that the
Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED because it is supported by
substantial evidence and is free of reversible legal error.
Thach’s motion for judgment on the pleadings (Doc. 23) is DENIED.
DATED this 25th day of October, 2011.
BY THE COURT:
United States Magistrate Judge
significantly improved with epidural injections (AR 720). In June
2006, Dr. Goncharova indicated that Ms. Thach’s condition was
well controlled and Ms. Thach reported her pain was tolerable
with medications. (AR 1119-20.)
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?