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Smith v. Colvin

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

June 2, 2015

ROBERT SMITH, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


GREG KAYS, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff Robert Smith petitions for review of an adverse decision by Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"). Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. An administrative law judge ("ALJ") found Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, but retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work as general assembler or a table worker. 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 November 9, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of December 31, 2006. He last met the Act's insured status requirements on June 30, 2011.

After the Commissioner denied his application, Plaintiff requested an ALJ hearing. The ALJ conducted a hearing, after which he concluded that Plaintiff's mental RFC required him to be "limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks; he needed to work in an environment that did not involve teamwork, tandem work, or more than occasional interaction with coworkers although he could be around coworkers; and he could not have any interaction with the public." R. at 17. The ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled.

The Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, 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).

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).


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. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv).

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ rendered a flawed mental RFC at Step Four by: (1) failing to give controlling weight to the opinions of treating psychologist Richard Adams, Psy.D. ("Dr. Adams"); and (2) giving great weight to the opinion of consultative psychologist Lester Bland, Psy.D. ("Dr. Bland"). These arguments are meritless.

Dr. Adams began seeing Plaintiff on July 6, 2011, the month after Plaintiff's date of last insured. R. at 458. He submitted multiple statements asserting that Plaintiff has numerous moderate and marked limitations. R. at 312-13, 315, 458-60, 463, 465. He twice opined that Plaintiff had these limitations prior to June 30, 2011, his date of last insured. R. at 328, 539-40. In this appeal, Plaintiff focuses on only one of these opinions, which states, "It is clear from treatment, health records, and self report that client's limitations have and did exist prior to 6/30/11. In fact, the symptoms have reached a level that had left client disabled prior to 2011, although the exact day is unclear at this time." R. at 328.

The ALJ must rely on medical evidence to determine a claimant's RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(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 that states only that the claimant is "disabled." Vossen v. Astrue, 612 F.3d 1011, 1015 (8th Cir. 2010) ("[O]pinions that a claimant is disabled' or unable to work' concern issues reserved to the Commissioner and are not the type of opinions which receive controlling weight."). Moreover, "[w]here the impairment onset date is critical, ... retrospective medical opinions alone will usually not suffice unless the claimed disability date is corroborated, as by subjective evidence from lay ...

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