Morley v. Astrue, No. 2:2010cv00153 - Document 21 (D. Utah 2012)

Court Description: MEMORANDUM DECISION affirming the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Signed by Magistrate Judge Dustin B. Pead on 09/10/2012. (asp)
Download PDF
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRlCTCOURT FOR THE DISrfu.i~DTIcW otAiI32 CENTRAL DIVISION 8'1: _____ .. ~--. - - ­ '. . ; DOROTHY B. MORLEY, "/ MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER Plaintiff, Case No. 2:1O-cv-153-DBP v. MICHAEL 1. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant. Magistrate Judge Dustin B. Pead Both parties consented to having a United States Magistrate Judge conduct all proceedings in the case, including entry of final judgment, with appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.! Consequently, this case has been assigned to Magistrate Judge Dustin B. Pead pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure? Before the court is Dorothy B. Morley's ("Plaintiff') appeal of Michael J. Astrue's ("Commissioner") final decision determining that Plaintiff was not entitled to Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II ofthe Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. After careful consideration of the written briefs and the complete record, the court has determined that oral argument is not necessary in this case. I See docket no. 19. 2 See docket no. 20. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND On July 12,2005, Plaintiff applied for DID, alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2005. 3 Plaintifflater amended her alleged onset date of disability to June 23, 2005. 4 Plaintiffs application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. s On May 26,2006, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("AU"),6 and that hearing was held on September 21,2007. 7 On November 2,2007, the AU issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's claim for DID.s Subsequently, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the AU for further proceedings.9 A second hearing was held before the AU on December 10,2008. 10 On May 5, 2009, the AU issued a written decision again denying Plaintiff's claim for DIDY On September 25,2009, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review,12 making the AU's decision the 3 See docket no. 10, Administrative Record ("Tr. 4 See Tr. 534. S SeeTr. 64-66, 71-73. 6 SeeTr.63. 7 See Tr. 531-580. 8 See Tr. 355-370. 9 See Tr. 374-378 10 See Tr. 502-530. 11 See Tr. 13-28. 12 See Tr. 7-9. 2 ") 77-81. Commissioner's final decision for purposes ofjudicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. On March 1, 2010, Plaintiff filed her complaint in this case.13 After receiving an extension oftime,14 the Commissioner filed his answer on June 3, 20lO,15 and the court received the Administrative Record the same day.16 Plaintiff filed her opening brief on June 15,2011. 17 The Commissioner filed his responsive brief on July 15,2011. 18 Plaintiff filed her reply brief on July 29,2011. 19 STANDARD OF REVIEW This court "review[s] the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied." Lax v. Astrue,489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quotations and citation omitted). The Commissioner's findings, "if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It requires more than a 13 See docket no. 3. 14 See docket nos. 4-5. 15 See docket no. 7. 16 See docket no. 10. 17 See docket no. 14. 18 See docket no. 15. 19 See docket no. 16. 3 scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084 (quotations and citation omitted). "In reviewing the AU's decision, [this court may] neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [AU]." Madrid v. Barnhart, 447 F.3d 788, 790 (10th Cir. 2006) (quotations and citation omitted). "The failure to apply the correct legal standard or to provide this court with a sufficient basis to determine that appropriate legal principles have been followed [are] grounds for reversal." Jensen v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 1163, 1165 (10th Cir. 2005) (quotations and citation omitted). A five-step evaluation process has been established for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v); see also Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750­ ·51 (10th Cir. 1988) (discussing the five-step process). If a determination can be made at anyone of the steps that a claimant is or is not disabled, the subsequent steps need not be analyzed. See 20 C.F.R. § 404. 1520(a)(4). Step one determines whether the claimant is presently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If [the claimant] is, disability benefits are denied. If [the claimant] is not, the decision maker must proceed to step two: determining whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.... If the claimant is unable to show that his impairments would have more than a minimal effect on his ability to do basic work activities, he is not eligible for disability benefits. If, on the other hand, the claimant presents medical evidence and makes the de minimis showing of medical severity, the decision maker proceeds to step three. Williams, 844 F.2d at 750-51 (quotations and citations omitted); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(ii). 4 "Step three determines whether the impairment is equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that ... are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. . .. If the impairment is listed and thus conclusively presumed to be disabling, the claimant is entitled to benefits. If not, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step ...." Williams, 844 F .2d at 751 (quotations and citations omitted); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1 520(a)(4)(iii). At the fourth step, the claimant must show that the impairment prevents performance of his "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. § 404.l520(a)(4)(iv). "If the claimant is able to perform his previous work, he is not disabled." Williams, 844 F.2d at 751. If, however, the claimant is not able to perform his previous work, he "has met his burden of proof, establishing a prima facie case of disability." Id. At this point, "[t]he evaluation process ... proceeds to the fifth and final step." Id. At this step, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner, and the decision maker must determine "whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity [("RFC")] ... to perform other work in the national economy in view of his age, education, and work experience." Id.; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)( 4)(v). If it is determined that the claimant "can make an adjustment to other work," 20 C.F.R. § 404.1 520(a)(4)(v), he is not disabled. If, on the other hand, it is determined that the claimant "cannot make an adjustment to other work," id., he is disabled and entitled to benefits. ANALYSIS In support of her claim that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred: (1) by improperly evaluating the opinions of Plaintiff s treating 5 physician, (2) in evaluating Plaintiffs credibility, and (~) by failing to comply with the order of the Appeals Council on remand. The court will address each argument in turn. 1. Medical Opinions Plaintiff argues that the ALl erred on remand by improperly rejecting the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Robert Payne ("Dr. Payne"). In deciding how much weight to give a treating source opinion, an AU must first determine whether the opinion qualifies for controlling weight. To make this determination, the AU ... must first consider whether the opinion is well[ ]supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. If the answer to this question is "no," then the inquiry at this stage is complete. If the AU finds that the opinion is well[ ]supported, he must then confirm that the opinion is consistent with other substantial evidence in the record. If the opinion is deficient in either of these respects, then it is not entitled to controlling weight. Even if a treating physician's opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, treating source medical opinions are still entitled to deference and must be weighed using all ofthe factors provided in [20 C.F.R. §] 404.1527. Those factors are: (1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, including the treatment provided and the kind of examination or testing performed; (3) the degree to which the physician's opinion is supported by relevant evidence; (4) consistency between the opinion and the record as a whole; (5) whether or not the physician is a specialist in the area upon which an opinion is rendered; and (6) other factors brought to the AU's attention which tend to support or contradict the opinion. Under the regulations, the agency rulings, and [Tenth Circuit] case law, an ALl must give good reasons ... for the weight assigned to a treating physician's opinion ... that are sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the treating source's medical opinion and the reason for that weight. If the ALl rejects the 6 opinion completely, he must then give specific, legitimate reasons for doing so. Langleyv. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1119 (lOth Cir. 2004) (quotations and citations omitted) (sixth alteration in original); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404. 1527(c). An ALJ is not required to discuss every factor set forth in the relevant regulations. See Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1257 (10th Cir. 2007) (stating that when an AU does not discuss every factor, it "does not prevent this court from according his decision meaningful review"). And, as with other evidentiary matters, when an AU is considering medical opinion evidence, it is the ALJ's role to weigh and resolve evidentiary conflicts and inconsistencies. See, e.g., Rutledge v. Apfel, 230 F.3d 1172, 1174 (lOth Cir. 2000); Eggleston v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 1244, 1247 (lOth Cir. 1988). As noted above, Plaintiff argues that the AU erred by rejecting the opinions of Dr. Payne. The court disagrees. In rejecting Dr. Payne's opinions, the AU relied upon proper factors under the relevant regulations. The AU properly relied upon the fact that Dr. Payne's opinions about Plaintiff's limitations due to depression and lower back pain were inconsistent with those of specialists. 20 See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(3)-(5). Opinions of specialists are generally given more weight than those of treating or examining sources who are not specialists in a particular field. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(5). The AU also properly relied upon the fact that Dr. Payne's opinions about Plaintiff's limitations were inconsistent with other medical evidence in the record. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1 527(c)(3)-(4). The AU cited multiple examples of 20 See Tr. 24-26. 7 inconsistencies between other evidence in the record and Dr. Payne's opinions about Plaintiffs limitations due to lower back pain, depression, and fybromyalgia. 21 To the extent that Plaintiff attempts to reargue the weight of the evidence before the ALJ on this issue, the court emphasizes that it is not this court's role to reweigh the evidence before the ALl. See Madrid, 447 F.3d at 790. Indeed, it is the ALJ's role to weigh and resolve evidentiary conflicts and inconsistencies. See, e.g., Rutledge, 230 F.3d at 1174; Eggleston, 851 F.2d at 1247. From an evidentiary standpoint, the only issue relevant to the court is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the ALJ's conclusions. See Oldham, 509 F.3d at 1257 (providing that the court reviewing the ALl's decision reviews "only the sufficiency of the evidence, not its weight" (emphasis omitted)). Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALl did not err in his treatment of the opinions of Dr. Payne. II. Credibility Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating the credibility of Plaintiffs subjective complaints. In general, "[c]redibility detenninations are peculiarly the province of the finder of fact, and [this court] will not upset such detenninations when supported by substantial evidence." Kepler v. Chater, 68 F.3d 387, 391 (10th Cir. 1995) (quotations and citation omitted). Although credibility detenninations "should be closely and affinnatively linked to substantial evidence," 21 See id. 8 id. (quotations and citation omitted), they "do[] not require a formalistic factor-by-factor recitation of the evidence." Qualls v. Apfel, 206 F.3d 1368, 1372 (lOth Cir. 2000). Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-7p clarifies the standards an ALJ must apply when evaluating the credibility of an individual's statements, including his or her allegations of pain. See SSR 96-7p. In addition to the objective medical evidence, an AU should consider the following factors when assessing the credibility of an individual's statements: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. The individual's daily activities; The location, duration, frequency, and intensity of the individual's pain or other symptoms; Factors that precipitate and aggravate the symptoms; The type, dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of any medication the individual takes or has taken to alleviate pain or other symptoms; Treatment, other than medication, the individual receives or has received for relief of pain or other symptoms; Any measures other than treatment the individual uses or has used to relieve pain or other symptoms (e.g., lying flat on his or her back, standing for 15 to 20 minutes every hour, or sleeping on a board); and Any other factors concerning the individual's functional limitations and restrictions due to pain or other symptoms. Id.; see 20 C.F.R. § 404. 1529(c); see also Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1489 (lOth Cir. 1993). In this case, the AU considered proper factors in reaching the determination that Plaintiff s testimony was not fully credible. First, in reaching his credibility determination, the AU noted his own observations of Plaintiff at the administrative hearing. The AU indicated that Plaintiff demonstrated no symptoms of pain or endurance limitations and seemed to move 9 about freely without signs of pain.22 See SSR 96-7p ("In instances where the individual attends an administrative proceeding conducted by the adjudicator, the adjudicator may also consider his or her own recorded observations of the individual as part of the overall evaluation of the credibility of the individual's statements."). Second, the ALI determined that Plaintiff engaged in activities of daily living that were inconsistent with her subjective complaints. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3)(i); SSR 96-7p. Specifically, the ALI noted that Plaintiff could do small household projects for fifteen minutes at a time, leave home or shop for two to three hours, and go out to dinner at a restaurant. 23 Finally, the ALI properly noted that the record evidence established that the great majority of Plaintiff's medical evaluations demonstrated mild to moderate limitations. 24 See SSR 96-7p. The ALI articulated sufficient reasoning and relied upon proper factors in determining that, overall, Plaintiff's testimony was not fully credible. Furthermore, the court concludes that the AU's determination is "closely and affirmatively linked to substantial evidence." Kepler, 68 F.3d at 391 (quotations and citation omitted). Accordingly, the court concludes that the AU did not err in reaching his determination about Plaintiff's credibility. 22 See Tr. 22-23. 23 See id. 24 See Tr. 23-26. 10 III. Compliance With Order of Remand In her final argument, Plaintiff asserts that the AU failed to comply with the order of the Appeals Council on remand. In that order, the Appeals Council instructed the AU to give further consideration to Plaintiff's RFC by evaluating Plaintiffs treating and· examining source opinions. 25 The AU was also instructed to further evaluate the credibility Plaintiffs subjective complaints. 26 Above, the court concluded that the AU did not err in his treatment of Dr. Payne's opinions or in his assessment of Plaintiffs credibility. Accordingly, Plaintiffs argument on this point fails. CONCLUSION AND ORDER The court concludes that all of Plaintiffs arguments fail. Therefore, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the Commissioner's decision in this case is AFFIRMED. IT IS SO ORDERED. DATED this 10th day of September, 2012. 25 See Tr. 377. 26 See id. 11