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Evonne H. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Utah

September 19, 2019

EVONNE H., Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Cecilia M. Romero, Magistrate United States District Court Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Evonne H.’s (Plaintiff) application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. The Court has thoroughly reviewed the parties’ arguments (in both their briefs and at oral argument), the certified administrative transcript, and the decision of the administrative law judge (ALJ) denying Plaintiff’s disability application. The Court hereby AFFIRMS the Commissioner’s final decision denying Plaintiff’s application for disability insurance benefits.


         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.” Id. at 1154. Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla”; it 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, the 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. If the evidence is susceptible to multiple interpretations, the Court “may not displace the agency’s choice between two fairly conflicting views, even though the court would justifiably have made a different choice had the matter been before it de novo.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (quotation and citation omitted). That is, in its review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a court must affirm if the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence and the correct legal standards were used, even if the Court believes the evidence is “equivocal.” Nguyen v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1400, 1403 (10th Cir. 1994).


         Ms. Howard was 53 years old in January 2015 when she alleged disability due to type 1 diabetes (ECF 13, Certified Administrative Transcript (Tr.) 32). The ALJ determined Ms. Howard had the severe impairments of diabetes mellitus (type 1) and hypothyroidism (Tr. 24). The ALJ considered Listings for the endocrine system finding none applied (Tr. 26). Next, the ALJ determined she had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium work with additional limitations to avoid exposure to unprotected heights and dangerous machinery (Tr. 26). At step four, the ALJ found that, given this RFC, she was unable to perform his past relevant work as a bus driver (Tr. 32). However, at step five, the ALJ determined that she could perform other work as a laundry worker, hand packager, and bagger (Tr. 33).


         On appeal Plaintiff argues that: (1) the ALJ did not appropriately consider the testimonial opinion provided by medical expert Steven Goldstein, M.D., in relation to her RFC; and (2) the ALJ erred in failing to re-contact Dr. Goldstein or order a consultative examination (ECF 20, Plaintiff’s Opening Brief (Pl. Br.) 8-15). For the reasons explained below, the Court is not persuaded by these arguments.

         A. The ALJ’s RFC assessment is supported by substantial evidence.

         Dr. Goldstein initially testified that, if Plaintiff’s A1C levels[1] were in the range of 7.6 to 8.9, “she would be in the light level of activity so she wouldn’t be able to do anything more than that unless she got her diabetes under better control” (Tr. 51). When Plaintiff’s counsel asked Dr. Goldstein if his opinion would change if Plaintiff’s A1C levels were about 9.7, Dr. Goldstein opined that “if she was consistently in that range, . . . she would be more in the sedentary range” (Tr. 51). The ALJ ultimately found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a range of medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c), not sedentary or light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) and (b).

         If the RFC assessment differs from an opinion, the ALJ must explain why it differs. Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *7. Here, the ALJ discussed and weighed Dr. Goldstein’s opinion (Tr. 31-32). The ALJ gave the opinion “considerable weight” because it was “mostly compatible with the medical evidence of record.” “However, ” the ALJ continued, “the relatively intact examination findings between exacerbations combined with [Plaintiff’s] reported activities (e.g., farming, homemaker), suggest a range of medium work, instead” (Tr. 31-32).

         The Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a range of medium work, not the sedentary or light work opined by Dr. Goldstein. The agency’s regulations lay out certain factors that an ALJ must consider when evaluating a medical opinion. See20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).[2] While an ALJ is required to consider these factors, he is not required to “apply expressly each of the six relevant factors in deciding what weight to give a medical opinion.” Oldham v. Astrue, 509 F.3d 1254, 1258 (10th Cir. 2007). Rather, an ALJ need only provide “good reasons in his decision for the weight he gave to the” opinions. Id. (citing prior section 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d), which was later re-numbered as § 404.1527(c) in 2012). The Court finds that the ALJ provided good reasons to discount Dr. Goldstein’s opinion that Plaintiff’s A1C levels would restrict her to sedentary or light work.

         First, the Court finds that the ALJ reasonably considered the inconsistency between Dr. Goldstein’s opinion that Plaintiff could perform only sedentary or light work and the generally normal examination findings between exacerbations. See20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(3) (“The more a medical source presents relevant evidence to support an opinion, particularly medical signs and laboratory findings, the more weight we will give that opinion.”); Raymond v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 1269, 1272 (10th Cir. 2009) (ALJ reasonably discounted treating physician opinion because it was inconsistent with objective medical evidence).

         As the ALJ discussed earlier in his decision, the record was replete with normal examination findings. SeeEndriss v. Astrue, 506 Fed.Appx. 772, 777 (10th Cir. 2012) (unpublished) (“The ALJ set forth a summary of the relevant objective medical evidence earlier in his decision and he is not required to continue to recite the same evidence again in rejecting Dr. Wright’s opinion.”); Best-Willie v. Colvin, 514 Fed.Appx. 728, 733 (10th Cir. 2013) (unpublished) (rejecting the claimant’s argument that the ALJ did not specifically identify what other evidence allegedly contradicted Dr. Hall’s assessed limitations: “Although there was not a contemporaneous discussion of ...

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