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Cooley v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Utah

September 28, 2017

DAVID N. COOLEY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeks judicial review of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying his claims for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), and supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Act. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, both parties have consented to the undersigned conducting all proceedings in this case, including entry of final judgment, with appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit (ECF No. 13). After careful review of the entire record, the parties' briefs, and arguments presented at a hearing held on September 7, 2017, the Court concludes that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits and that proper legal standards were applied.


         In this case, Plaintiff claimed disability based on bipolar disorder and chronic depression (Tr. 169); he also testified that he was disabled due to “arthritis in his hips and nerve pain” (Tr. 18). He is a high school graduate (Tr. 46) and worked as a cashier, industrial cleaner, janitor, and stocker (Tr. 255). He was let go from his last long term job as a janitor in January 2005 (Tr. 48), but later worked as a cleaner in 2008 (Tr. 443), and as a sign holder during tax season in 2013 (Tr. 46-47).

         An ALJ denied Plaintiff's application for benefits after a hearing in July 2014 (Tr. 23). In her November 2014 decision, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process for evaluating disability claims (Tr. 12-23). See generally 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). As relevant here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety were “severe” impairments (Tr. 15). None of Plaintiff's impairments met or equaled a listed impairment, and Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform a range of medium work, involving only simple tasks that could be learned within a short demonstration period of up to 30 days, working primarily with things rather than people, and maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace for two hours at a time before taking regularly scheduled breaks (Tr. 15-18). Considering this residual functional capacity, the ALJ found that because Plaintiff could perform his past work as a store laborer and industrial cleaner, Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act (Tr. 22-23). The Appeals Council then declined Plaintiff's request for review in February 2016 (Tr. 1-3).

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's decision by asserting error in assessing his credibility and residual functional capacity, weighing medical opinions, and failing to further develop the record (See generally ECF No. 16, Petitioner's Opening Brief (Pl. Br.)). After careful review of the entire record, the Court concludes that Plaintiff's arguments do not establish reversible error.


         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” administrative law judge (ALJ)'s. Id. (citation omitted). Where the record as a whole can support either the agency's decision or an award of benefits, the agency's decision must be affirmed, regardless of whether the court would have reached a different result. See Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990).


         First, the Court finds the ALJ did not err in assessing Plaintiff's credibility. The ALJ articulated sufficient reasoning, including citing to inconsistencies between Plaintiff's testimony and other evidence in the record, and relied upon proper factors in finding Plaintiff's testimony not entirely credible. See Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *2; see also Kepler v. Chater, 68 F.3d 387, 391 (10th Cir. 1995). For example, the ALJ noted that despite Plaintiff's complaints of debilitating anxiety, chronic depression, and bipolar disorder, his symptoms were well-controlled with medication (Tr. 20). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3)(iv)-(vi) (ALJ considers medication, treatment, and other measures used for relief of symptoms). Plaintiff himself indicated in 2007 that his bipolar disorder was “very well controlled” and that he was “very satisfied with his treatment” (Tr. 20, 435). See Kelley v. Chater, 62 F.3d 335, 338 (10th Cir. 1995) (fact that impairment was well-controlled and no physician opined that the claimant was disabled supported the ALJ's conclusion the claimant was not disabled).

         The ALJ also observed that Plaintiff had very little mental health treatment since the alleged onset date of disability nine years before the date of the decision (Tr. 20; see generally 454-60, 471-82, 485-500). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(4). Further, Plaintiff reported in April 2014 that he had returned to treatment because he was applying for social security “and I need to be seeing somebody . . . from what I hear” (Tr. 485). See Gossett v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 802, 807 (10th Cir. 1988) (“Though the claimant alleges he became disabled in August 1983, he did not seek medication for joint pain until 20 months later, or one month after he filed for Social Security disability benefits.”).

         The record also reflects that Plaintiff admitted to holding two jobs in 2008 and 2013, one as a seasonal sign holder outside a tax preparation office and the other as a cleaner (Tr. 20, 46-47, 57, 443). See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A) (a claimant is not disabled unless “he is not only unable to do his previous work but [also] cannot . . . engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work”); Shepherd v. Apfel, 184 F.3d 1196, 1202 (10th Cir. 1999) (evidence a claimant did mechanic work even after the alleged onset of disability supported a finding of nondisability).

         The ALJ also pointed to Plaintiff's activities of daily living, noting Plaintiff's statements that he walked his dog, mowed his lawn, shoveled snow, and went fishing (Tr. 20, 293-95). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3)(i) (ALJ considers a claimant's activities when evaluating symptoms); Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1146 (10th Cir. 2010) (ALJ reasonably found a claimant's description of her daily activities did not indicate significant limitations). Plaintiff also walked 1.3 miles to AA meetings, which he attended up to five times a week since 2002, and was proud that he was able to help newer members cope (Tr. 53-54). These activities contradicted Plaintiff's statements that he avoided people and was unable to communicate with them without severe anxiety (Tr. 49). For all these legally valid reasons, the ALJ reasonably determined Plaintiff's subjective reports of disabling symptoms were not completely reliable (Tr. 20).

         Next, the Court concludes that the ALJ did not err by giving opinions from Plaintiff's treating medical providers less weight. Even if a doctor is a treating physician, the opinion of that doctor is only entitled to controlling weight if it is well-supported by the medical evidence and “is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence” in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1300 (10th Cir. 2003) (“[i]t is an error to give an opinion controlling weight simply because it is the opinion of a treating source if it is not well-supported by medically acceptable ...

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