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Wilks v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Utah

August 13, 2019

ANDREW SAUL[1], Commissioner of Social Security.


          Paul Kohler United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her claim for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”). The scope of the Court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is specific and narrow. As the Supreme Court recently reiterated, “[o]n judicial review, an ALJ's factual findings . . . ‘shall be conclusive' if supported by ‘substantial evidence.'” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1153 (2019) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). The threshold for evidentiary sufficiency under the substantial evidence standard is “not high.” Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1154. Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla, ” but means only “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotations and citations omitted). Under this deferential standard, this Court may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. See Hendron v. Colvin, 767 F.3d 951, 954 (10th Cir. 2014). The Court's inquiry, “as is usually true in determining the substantiality of evidence, is case-by-case, ” and “defers to the presiding ALJ, who has seen the hearing up close.” Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1157.

         Having considered the parties' arguments, having reviewed the record and relevant case law, and having been otherwise fully informed, the Court will affirm the administrative ruling.


         I. Background

         Plaintiff applied for benefits in April 2015, alleging disability beginning in October 2014, due to bipolar disorder, personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) (Certified Administrative Transcript (“Tr.”) 158-63, 184). She completed high school and a year-and-a-half of college, and had past relevant work as a stocker and picker at Walmart (Tr. 36-37, 184-85).

         After a hearing (Tr. 30-53), an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) issued a December 2017 decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled (Tr. 12-29). The ALJ followed the familiar five-step sequential evaluation for assessing disability. See generally 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) (outlining the process). As relevant here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had a severe impairment (mood disorder), 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. 1 (Tr. 17-18). The ALJ next determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of work but was limited to occasional contact with others (Tr. 18-23). Considering this RFC, and consistent with vocational expert testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work, and in the alternative, could perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy (Tr. 23-24). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the strict standards of the Act (Tr. 25).

         The Appeals Council then denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-6), making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.1481, 422.210(a).[2] This appeal followed.

         II. Analysis

         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence, asserting that the ALJ erred in evaluating opinions from Plaintiff's treating nurse, Ms. Adams, and her treating counselor, Ms. Boorman (Plaintiff's Brief (“Pl. Br.”) 7-15). As discussed below, the Court concludes that the ALJ's analysis of these medical source opinions was supported by substantial evidence in the record.

         1. Ms. Adams

         Ms. Adams is an APRN Clinical Nurse Specialist in Psychiatry and Mental Health. Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ did not provide “good reasons” for the weight given to Ms. Adams's opinions (Pl. Br. 8). But, the Court concludes that the ALJ reasonably weighed the multiple opinions from Ms. Adams.

         Here, Ms. Adams issued several statements indicating that Plaintiff was “unable to work” due to her impairments (Tr. 436, 440, 529, 582, 583-92). She also opined that Plaintiff would experience marked[3] limitations in every category of mental functioning, including in her ability to understand, remember, and carry out very short and simple instructions (Tr. 444-47). The ALJ considered Ms. Adams's opinions, but concluded that they were entitled to little weight because they were inconsistent with Ms. Adams's own treatment notes andwith the record as a whole, and because Ms. Adams was a nurse with prescription privileges, not a medical doctor (Tr. 20-21). These were legitimate reasons to give less weight to Ms. Adams's opinions.

         As a preliminary matter, the Court notes that a statement that a plaintiff is completely disabled or unable to work is never entitled to any weight or special significance. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(1)-(3) (treating source opinions on issues that are reserved to the Commissioner are never entitled to any special significance); Castellano v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 26 F.3d 1027, 1029 (10th Cir. 1994) (a physician's opinion on an issue reserved to the Commissioner is not binding on the Commissioner in making his ultimate determination ...

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