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Balliett v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Utah, Northern Division

September 17, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Dustin B. Pead Magistrate Judge.



         Plaintiff Mark Balliett filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of a final agency decision denying his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act.[1] He had applied for benefits in April 2014, alleging disability as of July 31, 2013. On March 14, 2017, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found Balliett was not disabled.[2] On August 3, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Balliett's request for review, making the ALJ's determination the final agency action. Balliett then sued, and the court referred the case to Magistrate Judge Dustin B. Pead pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).[3]

         Judge Pead issued a Report and Recommendation on May 8, 2018, [4] recommending that this court reverse the denial of benefits and remand the case for further consideration. Judge Pead found the ALJ failed to evaluate the opinions of Balliett's treating psychologist, Dr. John Kluthe, under the applicable legal standard-the so-called ‘treating physician rule.' Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, filed a timely Objection[5] to Judge Pead's Report and Recommendation.

         The court has reviewed de novo review Berryhill's Objection. Having considered it, along with the parties' briefing before Judge Pead, the applicable law, evidentiary record, and reasoning in Judge Pead's Report and Recommendation, the court OVERRULES the Objection, ADOPTS Judge Pead's Recommendation, REVERSES the denial of benefits, and REMANDS this action.


         As Judge Pead sets forth in his Report and Recommendation, the ALJ in a March 14, 2017 decision followed the familiar five-step sequential evaluation for evaluating disability claims:[6]

Step one requires the claimant to demonstrate that he is not presently engaged in substantial gainful activity. At step two, the claimant must show that he has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. At step three, if a claimant can show that the impairment is equivalent to a listed impairment, he is presumed to be disabled and entitled to benefits. If a claimant cannot meet a listing at step three, he continues to step four, which requires the claimant to show that the impairment or combination of impairments prevents him from performing his past work.
If the claimant successfully meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant retains sufficient RFC [residual functional capacity] to perform work in the national economy . . . . If a determination can be made at any of the steps that a claimant is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary.[7]

         In this analysis, the ALJ found Balliett had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date of July 31, 2013, [8] and that he had the following severe impairments: obesity, lumbar degenerative disc disease, depression, and anxiety.[9] But the ALJ concluded these impairments did not meet or equal the criteria for disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).[10] The ALJ found Balliett had the RFC to perform a reduced range of unskilled work; and that while Balliett could not return to his prior work as a tax examiner, he could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.[11] Thus, the ALJ concluded that Balliett was not disabled.[12]

         In his analysis, the ALJ briefly stated and considered the opinions of Balliett's treating psychologist, John Kluthe, PhD. The ALJ's discussion of Dr. Kluthe's opinions is as follows:

The claimant's treating psychologist, John Kluthe, Ph.D. filled out several forms and wrote letters on behalf of the claimant. He found extreme limitations in concentration and marked limitations in understanding, memory, social interaction, and adaptation (Exhibit I F, 4F, 5F, 12F, 14F). Controlling weight does not apply to this opinion because it is not entirely consistent with other substantial evidence in the case record. I give little weight to his opinions in Exhibit 5F because no specific work-related limitations are identified. The claimant's opinions at page 14 regarding a leave of absence is vague and the opinion regarding the claimant's ability to work is reserved to the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.
I give partial weight to Dr. Kluthe's other opinions. This provider's own treatment notes do not indicate marked or extreme limitations in any area (E.g. Exhibit 10F). The opinions also appear to relate to the claimant's most recent position at the IRS, where he had significant conflict with new managers. The medical records do not show significant complications during many routine examinations (E.g. Exhibit 2F/ 10; 9F/3, 7, 11, 15). The medical records support that with continuing medication management, and psychotherapy, he could sustain a simple, low-social job.


         This court reviews only whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision below is supported by substantial evidence.[13] Substantial evidence is that which a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion-more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance.[14]

         Balliett asserts a narrow ground for reversing the denial of his claim for benefits. He contends the ALJ failed to properly apply the so-called ‘treating physician rule' in evaluating the opinions Dr. Kluthe offered.

         Under the enunciation of this rule applicable at the time of Balliett's claim, “[a]n ALJ should generally give ‘more weight to opinions from [claimant's ] treating sources.”[15] Here, an ALJ must first inquire whether to give the opinion controlling weight. This inquiry entails a sequential analysis beginning with an evaluation of “whether the opinion is ‘well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.'”[16] If the answer is no, the inquiry ends. If the answer is yes, the ALJ next confirms whether the opinion is “consistent with other substantial evidence in the record.”[17] If it is, then the opinion is entitled to controlling weight. If it is not, the opinion is not entitled to controlling weight-but it may not be summarily rejected.

         Rather, even if it is not controlling, the opinion is still entitled to deference and must be “weighed using all of the factors provided in 20 C.F.R. § ...

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