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Poole v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Utah

March 22, 2018

GINA POOLE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Jill N. Parrish United States District Court Judge

         Before the court is Plaintiff Gina Poole's appeal from the Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits. For the reasons below, the Commissioner's denial is affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ms. Poole filed an application for disability benefits in February 2013, but the Social Security Administration denied her application initially and on reconsideration. Ms. Poole then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). That hearing occurred on February 10, 2015 before ALJ Barry Jenkins in Las Vegas, Nevada.

         The ALJ evaluated Ms. Poole's claim using the familiar five-part sequential evaluation process. See Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 750-52 (10th Cir. 1988). At step one, the ALJ determined that Ms. Poole did not engage in substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date through her date last insured. At step two, the ALJ determined that Ms. Poole had the following severe impairments: disorder of the left ankle-status post gastroc slide, disorder of the lumbar spine, obesity, and depression. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Poole did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526. At step four, the ALJ determined that Ms. Poole had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) with certain limitations. And at step five, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Poole was capable of performing jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Poole was not disabled, as defined in the Social Security Act, from October 6, 2008 (the alleged onset date) through December 31, 2013 (the date Ms. Poole was last insured). On August 25, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Poole's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.


         In reviewing an appeal of a Social Security determination, the court considers “whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Joyce v. Barnhart, 88 Fed. App'x 320, 324 (10th Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quoting Fowler v. Bowen, 876 F.2d 1451, 1453 (10th Cir. 1989)). The court must examine the record closely to determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's determination, but the court may not “reweigh the evidence or substitute [its] judgment for the Commissioner's.” Id. (citation omitted). The court also considers “whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Id.

         In steps one through four of the sequential evaluation, “[t]he claimant bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability.” Id. Once the claimant meets that burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show at step five that the claimant retains sufficient residual functional capacity to perform work in the national economy, given her age, education, and work experience. Id.


         On appeal, Ms. Poole argues that the ALJ erred in two regards: (1) the ALJ did not give controlling weight to the opinion of Ms. Poole's treating physician (Dr. Douglas Callahan), and (2) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate whether Ms. Poole's impairments met or equaled Listing 1.02.

         A. The Weight Given to Dr. Callahan's Opinion

In social security disability cases, treating physicians may offer opinions regarding claimants' impairments. However, a treating physician's opinion that a claimant is disabled “is not dispositive because final responsibility for determining the ultimate issue of disability is reserved to the [Commissioner].” Id. at 325 (quoting Castellano v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 26 F.3d 1027, 1029 (10th Cir. 1994)). Under the treating physician rule, “the agency will generally give more weight to medical opinions from treating sources than those from non-treating sources.” Id. However, “the agency will not give controlling weight to the medical opinion of a treating source unless the source's conclusion is ‘well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence.'” Id. (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)).

         Here, Douglas Callahan, D.O., was one of Ms. Poole's treating physicians. He began seeing her in July 2010. In October 2014, he filled out a residual functional capacity assessment diagnosing Ms. Poole with left ankle and foot pain and chronic back pain. Under “prognosis, ” he indicated that Ms. Poole's condition “[h]as been getting worse” but that she “[h]ad surgery and [her] ankle has been better but is still painful.” In estimating Ms. Poole's functional limitations, he indicated that she cannot walk a city block without rest or severe pain, that she cannot walk a block on rough or uneven ground, and that she cannot climb steps without use of a handrail at a reasonable pace. Furthermore, he indicated that she has problems with balance when ambulating and problems stooping, crouching, and bending. Dr. Callahan opined that Ms. Poole must lie down for about three hours during an eight-hour workday and that she can sit for twenty minutes, stand for five minutes, and walk for five minutes. He further noted that she would require unscheduled breaks of five to ten minutes every twenty to thirty minutes and that she can lift or carry fifteen pounds or more only rarely. In Dr. Callahan's opinion, Ms. Poole's impairments, symptoms, and limitations probably lasted since 2009.

         As the court noted above, two conditions must be met for a treating physician's opinion to be accorded controlling weight: (1) that opinion must be well supported by medical evidence, and (2) that opinion must be consistent with other substantial evidence. However, the ALJ found that Dr. Callahan's opinion met neither condition because it was “not consistent with the medical evidence and the claimant's activities.” A.R. at 23. Ms. Poole argues that the ALJ erred in not giving controlling weight to Dr. Callahan's opinion because “nothing in [Ms. Poole's] testimony contradicts Dr. Callahan's opinions regarding Ms. Poole's residual ...

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