United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southwestern Division
ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION
GREG KAYS, Chief District Judge.
Plaintiff Cynthia Layne seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") decision denying her 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 had multiple severe impairments but retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform her past relevant work as a cabinet assembler, wire bender, filler, and hand presser.
Because 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 her pending applications on September 8, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of April 1, 2006. After the Commissioner denied her applications, Plaintiff requested an ALJ hearing. On December 20, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. The Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on December 20, 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), 1383(c)(3).
Standard of Review
A federal court's review of the Commissioner'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 Commissioner of Social Security 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). At Step Four, the claimant is deemed not disabled if the ALJ finds her RFC permits her to perform her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (f), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), (f). An RFC is the most an individual can still do despite her physical or mental limitations. Id. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). The ALJ here formulated an RFC for Plaintiff, R. at 14, then found that her RFC did not preclude her from performing past relevant work. R. at 18.
Plaintiff challenges how the ALJ formulated her RFC. She argues the ALJ erred by: (1) rejecting an opinion by Modaser Shah, M.D. ("Dr. Shah"); and (2) failing to specifically describe her physical limitations. Neither argument has merit.
I. The ALJ properly rejected Dr. Shah's mental medical source statement.
Dr. Shah completed a mental medical source statement opining that Plaintiff had marked limitations in many work-related, mental tasks. R. at 756-57. The ALJ rejected this statement, R. at 18, which Plaintiff claims was error.
An ALJ must determine a claimant's RFC based on all of the record evidence, including medical evidence. Perks v. Astrue, 687 F.3d 1086, 1092 (8th Cir. 2012). The ALJ should accord a treating physician's opinion controlling weight in this determination so long as it is well-supported by medically acceptable diagnostic techniques and not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c); Myers v. Colvin, 721 F.3d 521, 525 (8th Cir. 2013). Nonetheless, an ALJ may discount or disregard a treating physician's opinion where it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record, such as additional medical evidence or the claimant's testimony. Myers, 721 F.3d at 525.
The ALJ did not err in discounting Dr. Shah's statement for several reasons. First, Dr. Shah's statement is not supported by mental assessment findings elsewhere in the record. See Haught v. Astrue, 293 F.Appx. 428, 429 (8th Cir. 2008). Second, Dr. Shah's statement is based primarily on Plaintiff's subjective complaints, which the ALJ properly discounted. See Teague v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 611, 615-16 (8th Cir. 2011) (concluding an ALJ properly discounted a physician's report, in part because it "cited only limitations based on [the claimant's] subjective complaints, not his own objective findings"). Third, the medical source statement is conclusory. 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."). Fourth, Dr. Shah issued his opinion without reference to other salient record evidence, including Plaintiff's failure to take her medication as directed. R. at 286-87; see ...