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Barton v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Utah

January 2, 2020

TERRY BARTON, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


          Paul Kohler Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeks judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security 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”; 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, 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.

         After reviewing the record, the parties' briefs, and the parties' oral arguments, the Court has decided to affirm the Commissioner's decision.


         I. Background

         Plaintiff applied for benefits in May 2015, alleging disability beginning December 1, 2013, due to memory loss, a blood clotting disorder, pulmonary embolism, sleep apnea, and depression, among other conditions (Certified Administrative Transcript (Tr.) 147-50, 176). He completed high school and had past relevant work as a software engineer (Tr. 177-78).

         After a hearing (Tr. 29-42), an administrative law judge (ALJ) issued an April 2018 decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled through December 31, 2016, his date last insured (Tr. 9-28).[1] 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 Plaintiff had severe impairments (frontal lobe syndrome, sleep apnea, and obesity), but that his medical conditions did not meet or equal the criteria of the per se disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (Tr. 14-17). The ALJ next determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a reduced range of light work (Tr. 17-21). Considering this RFC, and consistent with vocational expert testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work, but could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy (Tr. 21-22). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled (Tr. 22).

         The Appeals Council then denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-5), 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). This appeal followed.

         II. Analysis

         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence, asserting that (1) the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinions from Dr. Martin Shinedling; and (2) that the ALJ failed to account for all of Plaintiff's limitations in assessing his RFC (Plaintiff's Brief (Pl. Br.) 2-14). However, as discussed below, the Court finds that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record, and therefore, it must be affirmed.

         A. The ALJ's Evaluation of Dr. Shinedling's Opinions

         As a preliminary matter, it is undisputed by the parties that in order to qualify for benefits, a claimant must establish disability on or before his date last insured. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.101, 404.120, 404.315; see also Potter, 905 F.2d at 1348-49. At issue in this case is the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff failed to establish that he was disabled prior to his December 2016 date last insured (Tr. 12-22). See Social Security Ruling (SSR) 83-10, 1983 WL 31251, at *8 (“Under Title II, a period of disability cannot begin after a worker's disability insured status has expired.”).

         In challenging the ALJ's decision, Plaintiff primarily relies on two opinions from Dr. Shinedling-one from December 2017 and another from February 2018 (Plaintiff's Brief (Pl. Br.) 6-9). However, as Defendant points out, both of these opinions were authored long after Plaintiff's December 2016 date last insured. The Tenth Circuit has noted that medical evidence beyond a claimant's date last insured may be considered, but only to the extent that it sheds light on the nature and severity of the plaintiff's condition during the relevant time period. See Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1217 (10th Cir. 2004). There is no evidence Dr. Shinedling treated or evaluated Plaintiff prior to December 2017, and his resulting opinion did not purport to assess Plaintiff's mental functioning prior to December 2016 (Tr. 539-44). Further, while Dr. Shinedling's February 2018 opinion stated that Plaintiff first exhibited symptoms consistent with a neurocognitive disorder in 2016 (Tr. 625), Dr. Shinedling did not evaluate Plaintiff in 2016, and there is no evidence that he reviewed Plaintiff's medical records (Tr. 539-44, 624-31). Dr. Shinedling also acknowledged that it was “unknown” whether Plaintiff's impairments, symptoms, and limitations had been present since December 2013 (Tr. 630). Thus, the Court concludes that Dr. Shinedling's opinions were of limited assistance to the ALJ in assessing Plaintiff's functioning and abilities from December 2013 through December 2016. See Huston v. Bowen, 838 F.2d 1125, 1127 (10th Cir. 1988) (claimant's eligibility for benefits turned on the severity of his back problems prior to his date last insured, not at the time of his subsequent application).

         Moreover, despite the fact that these opinions lacked temporal relevance, the ALJ still considered them and reasonably concluded that they were only entitled to little weight (Tr. 20). The ALJ first determined that Dr. Shinedling's February 2018 opinion was inconsistent with his December 2017 evaluation (Tr. 20). For instance, although Dr. Shinedling's December 2017 testing revealed that Plaintiff's memory was in the normal range (Tr. 543), in February 2018, he opined that Plaintiff would have memory problems (Tr. 625). And while the December 2017 evaluation did not appear to evaluate Plaintiff's social functioning or abilities, Dr. Shinedling later assessed him with many moderate to marked limitations in his ability to interact with others (compare Tr. 539-44 with Tr. 628). Finally, Dr. Shinedling's earlier testing showed that Plaintiff scored in the 95th percentile in verbal reasoning ability and in the 75th percentile in long term memory and general fund of information (Tr. 542-43). Dr. Shinedling nonetheless assessed him with many moderate to marked limitations in areas such as understanding and learning terms and instructions; following instructions; and identifying and solving problems (Tr. 628). Thus, the Court finds that the ALJ reasonably concluded that Dr. Shinedling's February 2018 opinion was inconsistent with his December 2017 examination. See20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(4) (stating an ALJ must consider consistency); Simmons v. Colvin, 635 Fed.Appx. 512, 515 (10th Cir. 2015) (unpublished) ...

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