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Nowacki v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southern Division

May 20, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


GREG KAYS, District Judge.

Plaintiff Thomas L. Nowacki petitions for review of an adverse decision by Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"). Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. An administrative law judge ("ALJ") found Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including major depressive disorder, gender identity disorder, and intermittent explosive disorder, but retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work as a cleaner, injection molding machine operator, or poultry dresser. The ALJ thus found him not disabled.

Because the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


A complete summary of the record is presented in the parties' briefs and repeated here only to the extent necessary. Plaintiff filed his pending application on March 23, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of March 12, 2010. After the Commissioner denied his application, Plaintiff requested an ALJ hearing. On January 7, 2013, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. The Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on March 24, 2014, 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. § 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. Bernard v. Colvin, 774 F.3d 482, 486 (8th Cir. 2014). 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. Id. 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; 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 v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011).


In reviewing Plaintiff's appeal, the Court issued a show cause order prompted by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 (Doc. 15). Having reviewed his response (Doc. 16), the Court is satisfied that Plaintiff's error was inadvertent and considers the matter concluded. The Court turns to the merits of his appeal.

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). At Step Four, the ALJ determines whether a claimant, given his RFC, can perform his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv).

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ rendered a flawed mental RFC at Step Four by: (1) rejecting an opinion by his treating psychiatrist; and (2) determining that his subjective testimony was not fully credible. Neither argument has merit.

I. The ALJ properly weighed the medical opinions.

Treating psychologist Salvador Ceniceros, M.D. ("Dr. Ceniceros") completed a mental medical source statement[1] opining that Plaintiff had moderate and marked limitations in many work-related, mental tasks. R. at 359-60. As used on the form, a "moderate" limitation is one where the "[i]mpairment levels are compatible with some, but not all, useful functioning." R. at 359. A "marked" limitation is "[m]ore than Moderate, but less than extreme[, ] resulting in limitations that seriously interfere[] with the ability to function independently." R. at 359. Although the ALJ endorsed other opinions by Dr. Ceniceros, R. at 51-52, he gave the mental medical source statement "little weight." R. at 52. The ALJ still incorporated significant other mental limitations into Plaintiff's RFC determination. R. at 52. Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred in rejecting Dr. Ceniceros's medical source statement.

The ALJ must rely on medical evidence to determine a claimant's RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(3). "Since the ALJ must evaluate the record as a whole, the opinions of treating physicians do not automatically control." Bernard, 774 F.3d at 487. An ALJ may discount or disregard a treating physician's opinion "where other medical assessments are supported by better or more thorough medical evidence, or where a treating physician renders inconsistent opinions that undermine the credibility of such opinions." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). The ALJ may also discount a treating physician's opinion that conflicts with the claimant's account of his daily activities. ...

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