United States District Court, D. Utah
MEMORANDUM DECISION & ORDER
B. Pead 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 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,
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).
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.
The ALJ reasonably evaluated the medical source
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.
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).
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).
next determined Dr. Root's opinion was inconsistent with
Plaintiff's treatment records, which showed only mild
physical findings and limitations (Tr. 35). 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).
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).
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).On ...