United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division
ORDER AFFIRMING THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE'S DECISION
GREG KAYS, Chief District Judge.
This action seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying Plaintiff Kevin Castleman's applications for Social Security benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, but retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform his past relevant work as a casing-running-machine operator.
After carefully reviewing the record and the parties' arguments, the Court finds the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. The Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.
Procedural and Factual Background
A complete summary of the record is presented in the parties' briefs and repeated here only to the extent necessary. Plaintiff filed the pending applications on February 1, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of October 15, 2010 and a date of last insured of September 30, 2013. The Commissioner denied the applications at the initial claim level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. On May 17, 2012, the ALJ held a hearing and on July 12, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 2, 2013, leaving the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and judicial review is now appropriate under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).
Standard of Review
The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled, that is, unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
A federal court's review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision to deny disability benefits is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough evidence that a reasonable mind would find it sufficient to support the Commissioner's decision. Id. In making this assessment, the court considers evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision, as well as evidence that supports it. McKinney v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000). The court must "defer heavily" to the Commissioner's findings and conclusions. Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010). The court may reverse the Commissioner's decision only if it falls outside of the available zone of choice, and a decision is not outside this zone simply because the court might have decided the case differently were it the initial finder of fact. Buckner, 646 F.3d at 556.
The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work except there should be no contact with the public; limited contact with coworkers; no coworkers in close proximity; and work tasks which are performed independently. R. at 17. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in formulating this RFC by: (1) failing to properly weigh the opinions of Plaintiff's treating medical professionals; and (2) improperly evaluating Plaintiff's credibility. These arguments lack merit.
I. Substantial record evidence supports the ALJ's assessment of the medical evidence in formulating Plaintiff's RFC.
Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred by fully or partially discounting the opinions of his treating medical professionals. An RFC is "what an individual can still do despite his... physical or mental limitations." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). An RFC is fundamentally a "medical question." Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700, 704 (8th Cir. 2001).
An ALJ must determine a claimant's RFC based on all of the record evidence, including medical records, third-party observations, and the claimant's own descriptions of his limitations. Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004); SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *5 (July 2, 1996). The ALJ generally must accord a treating physician's opinion at least substantial weight, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c), but a treating physician's opinion "does not automatically control or obviate the need to evaluate the record as a whole." Brown v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 535, 540 (8th Cir. 2004). In determining how much weight to accord a physician's opinion, the ALJ must take into account a variety of considerations such as: whether the opinion is supported with facts and evidence; whether the opinion is consistent with other evidence and opinions; and the length and nature of the treatment relationship. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c); Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1065 (8th Cir. 2012).
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by rejecting an opinion of his treating therapist, Kristen King-Spero, L.C.S.W. ("Ms. King-Spero"). Ms. King-Spero opined on a medical source statement that Plaintiff had marked and extreme mental limitations in nearly every area of work-related function. R. at 329-30. The ALJ properly rejected this opinion. R. at 20-21. First, the medical source statement consisted of checkboxes with no narrative responses and so held negligible probative value. See Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 794 (8th Cir. 2012) ("[A] conclusory checkbox form has little evidentiary value when it cites no medical evidence, and provides little to no elaboration."). Second, the form's responses were based on visits in which Ms. King-Spero recorded only Plaintiff's subjective complaints. See Vandeboom v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 745, 749 (8th Cir. 2005) (upholding the ALJ's decision to disregard a doctor's opinion that was "based largely on [the claimant's] subjective complaints with little objective medical support"). Finally, the opinions expressed through this form were based on only two previous visits. R. at 230-32; see Randolph v. Barnhart, 386 F.3d 835, 840 ...