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Perkins v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Utah

January 30, 2017

JACKIE PERKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION & ORDER

          Dustin B. Pead Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeks judicial review of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the Act). After careful review of the record, the parties' briefs, and arguments presented at a hearing held on January 11, 2017, the undersigned concludes that the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and free of harmful legal error and is, therefore, AFFIRMED.

         This 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 [ALJ'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).

         DISCUSSION

         In this case, Plaintiff was 47 years old in July 2009, when she claimed disability based on head trauma, nerve damage, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and headaches (Tr. 180, 212). She completed one year of college and had past relevant work as an area manager and utility locator (Tr. 213). In evaluating her case, the ALJ followed the familiar five-step sequential evaluation process (Tr. 22-38). See generally 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). As relevant here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had a severe impairment (degenerative disc disease, status post disc replacement surgery), but that her impairment did not meet or equal the severity of one of the listed impairments (Tr. 25-28). The ALJ then found that she retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work (Tr. 28-36). Considering this RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work, and, in the alternative, could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy (Tr. 36-38). The ALJ thus concluded that Plaintiff failed to establish disability under the strict standards of the Act (Tr. 38). After a careful review of the record, the Court finds and concludes that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.

         I. The ALJ reasonably evaluated the medical source opinions.

         On appeal, Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's evaluation of her RFC, including his assessment of the medical source opinions. Specifically, she argues that the ALJ did not properly weigh the opinions of treating physicians Drs. Root and Goodger, treating psychiatrist Dr. Morgan, and examining physician Dr. Johnsen (Pl. Br. 19-25). However, because the ALJ in this case reasonably weighed all of the medical source opinions, his treatment of these opinions does not support Plaintiff's request for remand. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527.

         1.Dr. Root

         Plaintiff first asserts that the ALJ erred by failing to give controlling weight to the opinion from treating physician Dr. Root (Pl. Br. 19-23). In August 2011, Dr. Root opined that Plaintiff could sit for 45 minutes at a time and about two hours total; stand for 10 minutes at a time and less than two hours total; and lift less than 10 pounds frequently (Tr. 787-88). He stated that she was “permanently totally disabled” (Tr. 787). The Court finds that the ALJ thoroughly evaluated this opinion and reasonably concluded that it was not entitled to controlling weight (Tr. 35).

         First, the ALJ properly determined that Dr. Root's statement that Plaintiff was “permanently totally disabled” was an opinion on an issue reserved to the Commissioner (Tr. 35). Indeed, a statement that a claimant is unable to work is an opinion on an issue reserved to the Commissioner, and the Court notes that such a statement is not entitled to controlling weight. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1)-(3) (treating source opinions on issues that are reserved to the Commissioner are never entitled to any special significance); Castellano v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 26 F.3d 1027, 1029 (10th Cir. 1994) (a treating physician's opinion on an issue reserved to the Commissioner is not binding on the Commissioner in making his ultimate determination of disability).

         The ALJ next determined Dr. Root's opinion was inconsistent with Plaintiff's treatment records, which showed only mild physical findings and limitations (Tr. 35).[2] Indeed, as the ALJ noted, although Plaintiff reported exacerbation of her neck pain and symptoms from July 2009 through December 2009, she had a cervical discectomy with artificial disc placement in January 2010 (Tr. 33; see Tr. 543, 627). In February 2010, Plaintiff was “doing quite well post-operatively, ” her neck and arm pain had improved significantly, her motor strength was intact and her sensory examination was normal (Tr. 630, 673). In March 2010, Dr. Root stated that Plaintiff's post-operative recovery had been “exceptional, ” and she was “really enjoying the improvement in her discomfort” (Tr. 757). In April 2010, Dr. MacFarlane again noted Plaintiff's significant improvement, recommended “work hardening exercises, ” and opined that she “could be released to light duty work” (Tr. 33; see Tr. 631). He subsequently released her to full-time work with lifting no more than 10 to 15 pounds (Tr. 33; see Tr. 639). In June 2010, Plaintiff told Dr. Root that she wanted to “start doing some light duty” work, and he noted that she was “fairly medically stable and maintaining her gains” (Tr. 767). He opined that she could return to work at “sedentary to light duty” with a 15-pound lifting restriction, four hour shifts, and a low stress environment (Tr. 768). In February 2011, Dr. MacFarlane noted that Plaintiff's neck and arm pain had “completely resolved, ” and she was “very pleased with her surgical result” (Tr. 33; see Tr. 339). She had full (5/5) motor strength and a normal sensory examination (Tr. 33; see Tr. 339). In August 2012, her physical examination was unremarkable (Tr. 33; see Tr. 815).

         Thus, based upon the above evidence, all of which was discussed by the ALJ, the Court finds that the ALJ reasonably concluded that Dr. Root's opinion was not entitled to weight (let alone controlling weight), because it was inconsistent with the record as a whole (Tr. 35). See20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(4) (an ALJ must consider whether an opinion is consistent with the record as a whole); Raymond v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 1269, 1272 (10th Cir. 2009) (ALJ reasonably discounted treating physician opinion which was inconsistent with other medical evidence).

         2. Dr. Goodger

         Next, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ improperly weighed an opinion from treating physician Dr. Goodger (Pl. Br. 21-22). In February 2014, Dr. Goodger opined that Plaintiff could sit for 45 minutes at a time and less than two hours total; stand for 30 minutes and less than two hours total; and lift less than 10 pounds rarely (Tr. 790-91). Although he did not provide psychiatric care for Plaintiff, Dr. Root also opined as to her psychiatric limitations, alleging that she would experience “marked” limitations in many areas of mental functioning (Tr. 795-97).[3]On ...


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