United States District Court, D. Utah
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER
M. WARNER United States Magistrate Judge.
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeks judicial review of
the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security
(Commissioner) denying her claims for Disability Insurance
Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under
Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the Act). After
careful review of the entire record, the parties' briefs,
and arguments presented at a hearing held on September 22,
2016, the undersigned concludes that the Commissioner's
decision is supported by substantial evidence and free of
harmful legal error and is, therefore, AFFIRMED
Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine
whether substantial evidence in the record as a whole
supports the factual findings and whether the correct legal
standards were applied. See Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d
1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence is
such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Id.
(citation omitted). The Court may neither “reweigh the
evidence [n]or substitute [its] judgment for the
Commissioner's.” Id. (citation omitted).
Where the evidence as a whole can support either the
agency's decision or an award of benefits, the
agency's decision must be affirmed. See Ellison v.
Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990).
case, Plaintiff alleged that she became disabled in August
2012 due to bipolar disorder, memory loss, severe depression,
and agitation (Tr. 220). The administrative law judge (ALJ)
followed the five-step sequential evaluation process for
evaluating disability claims (Tr. 27-39). See
generally 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). As relevant here,
the ALJ found that, although Plaintiff had several severe
mental impairments, she retained the ability to perform work
that required only understanding, remembering, and carrying
out simple job instructions; the exercise of judgment
requisite for performing simple, routine, repetitive work
tasks commensurate to the unskilled occupational base; and
brief and superficial contact with co-workers (Tr. 30-37).
The ALJ then relied on vocational expert testimony in finding
that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work (Tr.
37). However, the ALJ found that, under the framework of the
Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the “Grids”), a
finding of nondisability was appropriate as Plaintiff's
social limitations would only have a slight effect on the
unskilled occupational base (Tr. 37-38). See 20
C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 2, Table No. 2. The ALJ thus
concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act (Tr.
38-39). The Court finds that the ALJ's factual findings
are supported by substantial evidence in the record and that
the correct legal standards were applied.
The ALJ Reasonably Weighed the Record Evidence and Adequately
Articulated his Findings in Assessing Plaintiff's
Residual Functional Capacity.
argues that the ALJ erred in weighing the record evidence in
assessing her residual functional capacity (see Pl.
Br. 7-12). The residual functional capacity assessment
represents the most that a claimant can still do despite her
functional limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. An
adjudicator relies on the residual functional capacity
assessment in determining whether or not an individual
retains the ability to perform work-and, by extension,
whether or not an individual is disabled within the meaning
of the Act. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iv)-(iv); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d) (defining
disability as the inability to work at substantially gainful
levels by reason of a severe impairment which can be expected
to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to
last for at least 12 consecutive months); see also
Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *5
(“the adjudicator's assessment of an
individual's [residual functional capacity] may be the
most critical finding contributing to the final determination
or decision about disability”). Here, the Court finds
that the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment is
supported by substantial evidence considering the record as a
whole and the correct legal standards were applied. As such,
the Court rejects Plaintiff's arguments.
asserts that “[t]here is no medical source opinion in
the record that matches the ALJ's residual functional
capacity findings” (Pl. Br. 8 n.1). But there is no
such requirement. As the Tenth Circuit has repeatedly
acknowledged, “there is no requirement in the
regulations for a direct correspondence between [a residual
functional capacity] finding and a specific medical opinion
on the functional capacity in question.” See Chapo
v. Astrue, 682 F.3d 1285, 1288 (10th Cir. 2012).
“[T]he ALJ, not a physician, is charged with
determining a claimant's [residual functional capacity]
from the medical record.” Howard v. Barnhart,
379 F.3d 945, 949 (10th Cir. 2004). Moreover, the ALJ does
not consider only medical source opinions; rather, the ALJ
must “consider all evidence in [the] case record”
in deciding a disability claim. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(3). As highlighted by the evidentiary discussion
in the ALJ's decision (see Tr. 31),
Plaintiff's allegations of severe social limitations were
undermined by, among other things, Plaintiff's ability to
communicate with her friends on a daily basis (see
Tr. 279). The ALJ reasonably assessed Plaintiff's
residual functional capacity based on a consideration of all
of the relevant evidence-both medical and nonmedical.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c), 404.1545.
argues that the ALJ erred because he did not include in the
residual functional capacity assessment all of the mental
limitations opined by Dr. Brill (Pl. Br. 7-11). Plaintiff
also argues the ALJ erred in considering the statement of her
former employer, Ms. Stubbs (Pl. Br. 9). The Court finds,
however, that the ALJ discussed the various opinions-medical
and otherwise-and adequately discussed valid bases for
ascribing less weight to certain evidence.
explicitly stated that he was affording only partial weight
to Dr. Brill's opined residual functional capacity
limitations (see Tr. 36). The ALJ first set forth
the entirety of Dr. Brill's residual functional capacity
opinion in his decision:
[Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity consistent
with lower-level semi-skilled work-tasks (i.e., can be
learned in one to three months). Due to some inattention,
[Plaintiff] will need a setting with no more than essential
contact with supervisors, coworkers, and the public.
[Plaintiff] will need a work setting that does not place a
priority on rapid task completion
(see Tr. 36, 74). The ALJ then explained that,
because he was assessing residual functional capacity for
even less than lower-level semi-skilled work tasks,
he would not be including Dr. Brill's opined restriction
to “a work setting that does not place a priority on
rapid task completion” (see Tr. 36-37). In
short, the ALJ read Dr. Brill's restriction to “a
work setting that does not place a priority on rapid task
completion” within the context of the
performance of lower-level semi-skilled work tasks. The
ALJ's inference that Plaintiff's ability for
“rapid task completion” varied depending
upon the skill level of the work task reasonably and
logically flowed from the facts. See Tillery v.
Schweiker, 713 F.2d 601, 603 (10th Cir. 1983) (when the
evidence permits varying inferences, the court may not
substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ). Moreover, with
respect to Dr. Brill's opined limitations in social
interactions with supervisors and the public, the ALJ's
evidentiary discussion highlighted that Plaintiff's
allegations of severe social limitations were undermined by,
among other things, Plaintiff's ability to communicate
with her friends on a daily basis (see Tr. 31). The
ALJ's reasoning is sufficiently discernable. See
Davis v. Erdmann, 607 F.2d 917, 919 n.1 (10th Cir. 1979)
(“While we may not supply a reasoned basis for the
agency's action that the agency itself has not given . .
. we will uphold a decision of less than ideal clarity if the
agency's path may reasonably be discerned.”
respect to Ms. Stubbs' statement that Plaintiff had
difficulty with her former work as a bank teller, the ALJ
explained that he could not give this statement significant
weight because it was overly restrictive based on the
objective evidence and inconsistent with the preponderance of
the opinions and observations by medical doctors in this case
(Tr. 34-35). An ALJ may give less weight to any opinion that
is not well-supported by objective medical evidence and/or is
inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(3), (c)(4); SSR 06-03p, 2006 WL
232993920, at *4 (explaining that although 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527 explicitly applies to only the evaluation of
acceptable medical source opinions, the same factors
enumerated can be applied in considering other opinion
Court finds that the ALJ articulated sufficient reasoning for
finding that portions of Dr. Brill's opinions and the
opinions of Ms. Stubbs were entitled to less weight.
also argues that the ALJ erred in not including any
limitations with regard to her left knee (see Pl.
Br. 11-12). However, similar to the opinions of record, the
ALJ was presented conflicting evidence regarding the nature
and extent of Plaintiff's knee issues. For example, while
Plaintiff saw an orthopedic specialist for knee pain after an
injury in early October 2012, treatment notes showed her pain
gradually improved and she did not return to the orthopedic
specialist again after October 2012 (see Tr.
333-36). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(ii) (ALJ
considers the location, duration, frequency, and intensity of
symptoms in evaluating the reliability of a claimant's
allegations). In addition, there was evidence that Plaintiff
declined physical therapy repeatedly (see Tr. 334,
336) and failed to comply with rehabilitative exercises
(see Tr. 334). See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1529(c)(v)-(vi) (ALJ considers treatment received and any
other measures used to relieve symptoms in evaluating the
reliability of a claimant's allegations). The ALJ's
decision to not assess any limitations with respect to
Plaintiff's left knee is based on one reasonable
interpretation of the evidentiary record. Where there ...