United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southern Division
RICHARD W. OLLILA, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER REMANDING CASE TO THE ALJ
GREG KAYS, District Judge.
Plaintiff Richard W. Ollila seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of his applications for disability insurance 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 suffered from several severe impairments, including degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and degenerative joint disease of the knees and elbows, but retained the RFC to perform his past relevant work.
Because the Court cannot conclude that substantial record evidence supports the ALJ's decision, it REMANDS the case for further proceedings.
Factual and Procedural Background
A summary of the entire record is presented in the parties' briefs and is repeated here only to the extent necessary.
Plaintiff filed his disability applications on April 11, 2011, alleging an onset date of July 2, 2008. The Commissioner denied his applications, and Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing with an ALJ. On February 13, 2013, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. Plaintiff sought review from the Appeals Council, and on July 11, 2013, it denied Plaintiff's request, 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), 1383(c)(3).
Standard of Review
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.
In determining 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 not less than twelve months, 42 U.S.C. § 423(d), the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process.
Plaintiff raises a variety of interrelated attacks on the ALJ's consideration of his depression and anxiety at Step Four. Plaintiff first contends the ALJ erred in formulating his RFC by not including any limitations related to these two non-severe impairments. Then, according to Plaintiff, the ALJ compounded this error by not including any mental limitations in the hypothetical posed to the vocational expert ("VE"). This resulted in a disability determination unsupported by substantial evidence.
At Step Two of the sequential process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's depression and anxiety, although diagnosed and treated by medication, were non-severe, that is, they did not impose more than a minimal limitation on Plaintiff's ability to function in the workplace. R. at 15-17; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521, 416.921 (establishing the standard for determining whether or not an impairment is severe). To reach this determination, the ALJ analyzed examining psychiatrist Dr. Sharol McGehee, Psy.D.'s ("Dr. McGehee") first opinion that Plaintiff's depression and anxiety rendered him disabled. R. at 246-49. The ALJ found internal inconsistencies between her examination observations and conclusion. R. at 15-16. Specifically, the ALJ observed that despite noting no overt evidence of depression or anxiety, Dr. McGehee still found Plaintiff disabled. R. at 16. Due to this inconsistency, the ALJ accorded little weight to Dr. McGehee's opinion. R. at 17.
In lieu of relying on this opinion, the ALJ gave significant weight to the opinion of state agency reviewing psychologist Dr. Lester Bland, Psy.D. ("Dr. Bland"). R. at 17. After extensively reviewing the record evidence, including Dr. McGehee's opinion, Dr. Bland found that Plaintiff's depression and anxiety were "non-severe" impairments. R. at 318. Dr. Bland based this conclusion on the observations throughout the record in which treating and examining sources repeatedly documented relatively benign mental health findings. R. at 318 (citing R. at 247-48, 262, 296). Although Dr. Bland found Plaintiff's anxiety and depression to be nonsevere, he still opined that they mildly limited Plaintiff's ability to maintain social functioning, concentration, persistence, and pace. R. at 316. The ALJ ultimately "concurred" with this opinion. R. at 17.
Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ should have adopted the opinion of Dr. McGehee instead of relying on Dr. Bland's opinion. The Court finds Plaintiff's focus on this issue misplaced. Dr. McGehee, who only examined Plaintiff once before penning her first opinion, does not qualify as a "treating source" under the regulations, and thus her opinion is not entitled to controlling weight. See Randolph v. Barnhart, 386 F.3d 835, 840 (8th Cir. 2004) (holding that a doctor who rendered a medical opinion after only three visits did not qualify as a treating source). Moreover, Dr. McGehee's opinion is arguably internally inconsistent while Dr. Bland's opinion appears to be more consistent with the remainder of the record evidence presented to the ALJ. Cf. Myers v. Colvin, 721 F.3d 521, 525 (8th Cir. 2013) (noting that an ALJ may discount a treating physician's opinion if it is internally inconsistent); Brown v. Astrue, 611 F.3d 941, 951 (8th Cir. 2010) ("Moreover, an ALJ may credit other medical evaluations over that of the treating physician when such other assessments are supported by better or more thorough medical evidence." (internal quotation marks omitted) (emphasis added)). These opinions unquestionably conflict, ...