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Carol T. B. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Utah, Northern Division

September 28, 2018

CAROL T. B.[1], Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S FINAL DECISION DENYING DISABILITY BENEFITS

          EVELYN J. FURSE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Ms. B., 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 (“Act”). After careful review of the entire record, the parties' briefs, and arguments presented at a hearing held on September 13, 2018, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision because substantial evidence supports it, and it lacks harmful legal error.

         The 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).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Background

         Ms. B. applied for benefits in October 2013, alleging disability beginning that same month (ECF No. 11, Tr. 152-53, the certified copy of the transcript of the entire record of the administrative proceedings relating to Connie B. (“Tr. ”)). She claimed she was unable to work due to mental impairments, including depression, anxiety, and panic attacks (Tr. 51-60, 172.) Ms. B. completed high school and had past relevant work as a retail store assistant manager, retail store department manager, and photo finishing lab worker. (Tr. 67, 69, 154-61, 164-65, 173.)

         After a hearing (Tr. 35-75), an administrative law judge (ALJ) found that Ms. B. was not disabled in a February 2016 decision. (Tr. 16-30.) The ALJ followed the familiar five-step sequential evaluation for assessing disability. See generally 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) (outlining the process). As relevant here, the ALJ found that Ms. B. had severe mental impairments-major depression, recurrent, moderate, and anxiety disorder not otherwise specified-but that her medical conditions did not meet or equal the criteria of the disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app'x 1 (Tr.18-22.) The ALJ next determined that Ms. B. retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of simple, unskilled work. (Tr. 22-28.) Considering this RFC, and consistent with vocational expert testimony, the ALJ found that Ms. B. could not perform her past relevant work but could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 28-30, 70-73.) Hence, the ALJ concluded that Ms. B. was not disabled under the strict standards of the Act. (Tr. 30.)

         The Appeals Council later denied Ms. B.'s request for review (Tr. 1-4), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 422.210(a).[2] This appeal followed.

         II. Analysis

         Ms. B. argues that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence, asserting that the ALJ erred in discounting an opinion from her treating psychologist, Chris Fletcher, Ph.D. In a November 2013 medical source statement, Dr. Fletcher opined that Ms. B. had significantly distorted, pessimistic, catastrophic, and paranoid thinking and displayed chronic suicidal ideation with poor insight. (Tr. 311-12.) He also opined that Ms. B. had significant limitations (“Obvious, ” “Serious, ” and “Very Serious” problems) in activities of daily living, social interactions, and task performance. (Tr. 311-13.)

         The ALJ discounted Dr. Fletcher's opinion, finding it inconsistent with evidence of record that Ms. B.'s mental impairments improved with medication and that she had intact memory, attention, orientation, and concentration, with no psychotic perceptions. (Tr. 27.) See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(4) (an ALJ may give less weight to a medical source opinion that is inconsistent with other substantial evidence of record). The ALJ also found that Dr. Fletcher's contemporaneous examination findings did not include objective medical evidence that would support his opinion that Ms. B. had significant mental limitations. (Tr. 27.) See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(3) (stating an ALJ may give less weight to a medical source opinion that is not supported by “relevant evidence . . ., particularly medical signs and laboratory findings”).

         Ms. B. argues that although there are six regulatory factors for weighing opinion evidence (see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(1)-(6)), the ALJ erred by only discussing two of those factors-supportability and consistency-in assessing Dr. Fletcher's opinion. However, not every factor applies to every case and an ALJ is not required to “apply expressly” each factor. See Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1258 (10th Cir. 2007). Here, the ALJ provided a thorough discussion in support of good reasons for discounting Dr. Fletcher's opinion (Tr. 27), and those reasons are supported by substantial evidence.

         For example, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Dr. Fletcher's opinion was inconsistent with other substantial evidence of record. (Tr. 27.) See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(4) (discussing the factor of consistency). The ALJ cited to evidence of record supporting this finding, including other providers' observations that Ms. B.'s depression and anxiety symptoms responded well to medication changes and their objective examination findings showing that Ms. B. had intact memory, attention, orientation, and concentration, with no psychotic perceptions. (Tr. 27 (citing Tr. 451, 454, 458, 461, 465, 470, 476, 479, 483, 491, 496, 501, 505, 508, 511, 525, 531, 534, 545.))

         Likewise, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Dr. Fletcher's opinion lacked objective medical support from his treatment notes. (Tr. 27.) See 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1527(c)(3) (discussing the factor of supportability). As the ALJ found, Dr. Fletcher's treatment notes from at and before the time of his November 2013 opinion do not include objective medical findings that support his extreme analysis, such as his opinion that Ms. B. had significantly distorted, pessimistic, catastrophic, and paranoid thinking and displayed chronic suicidal ideation with poor insight or that Ms. B. had extreme ...


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