United States District Court, D. Utah, Central Division
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER AFFIRMING DECISION OF
C. WELLS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
case is before the undersigned following the parties consent
under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. Plaintiff Kelly
Jaeger alleges disability beginning September 15, 2011, from
neck and back problems, right-arm arthritis, and a plate and
bolts in his left arm. Mr. Jaeger appeared and testified at a
hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on
October 7, 2015, in St. George, Utah. Following the hearing, the
ALJ concluded Mr. Jaeger was not disabled for purposes of the
Social Security Act. The agency's Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request for review, rending the ALJ's
decision final. This appeal followed. As set forth below,
the court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.
Plaintiff applied for disability, disability insurance
benefits and supplemental security income on July 5, 2013. He
alleges disability due to neck and back problems, right-arm
arthritis, and a plate and bolts in his left
In 1993, while in his late 20's, Mr. Jaeger suffered a
severe head injury due to a motorcycle accident. His then
fiancé who was riding with him was killed and Mr.
Jaeger experienced a closed-head trauma and lost
consciousness. Mr. Jaeger reported using a variety of
illegal substances, including methamphetamine, since about
age 14. At various times throughout his life Plaintiff has
spent time in prison for his involvement with manufacturing
2001 through 2009 Mr. Jaeger reported working a variety of
jobs including work as a cook supervisor, laborer, grounds
keeper, sign hanger and truck loader. Plaintiff
stopped working in September 2011 after he was laid off. Mr.
Jaeger states he lacks the abilities to work due to his
followed the standard five-step sequential evaluation process
for disability claims. The ALJ found Mr. Jaeger had the
severe impairments of organic mental disorder, affective
disorder and substance abuse disorder. At step three
the ALJ found Mr. Jaeger did not meet a listing. The ALJ then
determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional
capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional
levels with certain nonexertional limitations: “limited
to performing simple tasks and instructions that can be
performed in 2-hour increments and would do better with
hands-on instructions. He is limited to only occasional
interactions with others.” Given this RFC, the ALJ
found Mr. Jaeger could perform past relevant work as a
groundskeeper, maintenance worker and sign hanger.
Additionally, Mr. Jaeger was capable of performing other jobs
in the national economy. Thus, Mr. Jaeger was not
the Appeals Council denied the claimant's requested
review the ALJ's decision is considered the
Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this
appeal. The court reviews the ALJ's decision
to determine whether the correct legal standards were applied
and whether the factual findings are supported by substantial
evidence in the record. “Substantial evidence is such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.”“A
decision is not based on substantial evidence if it is
overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or if there is a
mere scintilla of evidence supporting
it.” In considering claimant's appeal the
court may “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute
[its] judgment for that of the agency.”
appeal Mr. Jaeger argues the ALJ erred in two aspects. First
the ALJ erred in failing to properly evaluate the medial
opinion evidence concerning his mental impairments,
especially in the opinions from Dr. Daniel Sanderson and Dr.
Ronald Houston. Second, based on this initial failure, the
ALJ's residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment did
not include all Plaintiffs' mental limitations in the
record and thus was flawed.
The ALJ's evaluation of the medical opinion
must “give consideration to all the medical opinions in
the record [and] discuss the weight [she] assigns to such
opinions.” When assessing medical opinions, the ALJ
must consider the factors listed in 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(c) and give good reasons for the weight she assigns
to the opinion. The opinions of physicians who have
treated a patient over a long period are given greater weight
than reports of physicians employed and paid by the
government for purposes of defending against a disability
takes issue with the ALJ's analysis of the opinions of
Dr. Sanderson and Dr. Houston. The Social Security Agency
sent Mr. Jaeger to a consultative exam with psychologist, Dr.
Sanderson in April 2014. Dr. Sanderson performed a series of
standardized tests that considered inter alia Mr.
Jaeger's memory, mental status and IQ. There were no
indications of malingering. Dr. Sanderson opined Mr.
Jaeger's “capacity for auditory memory lies in the
range of significant impairment”, his capacity for
immediate memory had deficits and that he would
“struggle greatly with any task requiring retention of
verbal instruction.” Dr. Sanderson further opined
that “[Mr. Jaeger] may fair somewhat better with more
fluid ‘hands-on' instruction” but
“given his cognitive profile, intellectual tasks beyond
a very pedestrian level will tend to be a
challenge.” Dr. Sanderson noted Mr. Jaeger's
“rather rapid-cycling lability of affective
states” and recommended a “closer
look” at subtests given the unexpected inconsistencies
in the testing.
gave Dr. Sanderson's mental assessment great weight
noting Mr. Jaeger's struggles with “any task
requiring retention of verbal instruction or any task beyond
a very pedestrian level” but that he would
“perform better with more fluid ‘hands-on'
October 2015, Dr. Houston reviewed Dr. Sanderson's report
and prison medical records. Dr. Houston noted that based
on the testing, “it appears Mr. Jaeger is suffering
from cognitive dysfunction severe enough to preclude
competitive employment, reduced to highly structured,
sheltered employment situations where work is constantly
supervised.” Dr. Houston listed some examples of real
life job problems Mr. Jaeger is likely to encounter and
further opined that given the past head trauma
it is most probable that with advancing age the course of his
impairment follows the emerging evidence in the literature
which suggests that head trauma even mild concussions such as
those that occur in sports like football, soccer, and hockey
can lead to progressive mental deterioration as a result of
chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
“any increase in mental demands or change in
environment would predictably lead to
decompensation.” Finally, Dr. Houston noted that Mr.
Jaeger “needs to be informed in no uncertain terms that
continued use of drugs and alcohol is an especially bad thing
for persons with a head injury.” The ALJ
discounted Dr. Houston's opinion giving it little weight
based on the record, Mr. Jaeger's employment history and
his legal history involving drugs.
argues the ALJ failed to incorporate Dr. Sanderson's
limitations into the RFC and hypothetical given to the
vocational expert. According to Plaintiff, the ALJ conflated
Dr. Sanderson's statements noting that “the
claimant would struggle with any task requiring retention of
verbal instructions or any task beyond a very pedestrian
level, but would perform better with more fluid
‘hands-on' instruction.” Thus, the
limitation to hands-on instructions was not explained in the
hypothetical as an inability to process verbal instructions.
reading of Dr. Sanderson's opinion does not support
Plaintiff's position. Dr. Sanderson did not opine that
Mr. Jaeger had an inability to process verbal instructions.
Rather, he stated that Plaintiff “will struggle greatly
with any task requiring retention of verbal
instruction.” Dr. Sanderson then provided an
alternative, Mr. Jaeger would “fair somewhat better
with more fluid ‘hands-on'
instruction.” The court finds no error in the
ALJ's hypothetical that provided for an individual who
“would be limited to simple tasks and instruction,
would do better with … hands-on instructions,
occasional contact with others, and tasks that can be
performed in basically tow-hour increments with normal
breaks, ….” This hypothetical accounted for Dr.
Sanderson's difficulties in retention of verbal
the record supports the ALJ's reading and interpretation
of Dr. Sanderson's opinion the court need not adopt
Plaintiff's alternative reading.
Plaintiff takes issue with the weight given to Dr.
Houston's opinion arguing the ALJ “completely
ignores Dr. Houston's finding that Mr. Jaeger's
functional decline over this time is related to chronic
traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).” Once again a
close reading of Dr. Houston's opinion undermines
Plaintiff's position. Dr. Houston noted that “it is
most probable that with advancing age the course of
[Plaintiff's] impairment follows the emerging evidence in
the literature which suggests that head trauma . . . can lead
to progressive mental deterioration as a result of chronic
traumatic encephalopathy.” Dr. Houston did not
diagnose CTE thus the ALJ did not need to consider a CTE
diagnosis. Further, Dr. Houston did not treat Mr. Jaeger over
a long period of time,  and the ALJ discounted his opinion
based on the record and Plaintiff's employment and legal
history. Taken together the undersigned finds these items
constitute good reasons for the weight given to Dr.
The ALJ's RFC determination
Jaeger argues the ALJ erred by failing to include all his
established limitations in his RFC assessment. In ...