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Anderson v. Colvin

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

July 17, 2015

VANESSA ANDERSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER’S DECISION

GREG KAYS, CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

Plaintiff Vanessa Anderson 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, and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381–1383f. An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) found Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including residuals of C5–7 fusion, fibromyalgia, and obesity, but retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work as a counter attendant, photocopy machine operator, or cafeteria attendant. The ALJ thus found her not disabled.

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

Background

A complete summary of the record is presented in the parties’ briefs and repeated here only to the extent necessary. Plaintiff filed her applications on August 23, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 1994. After the Commissioner denied her applications, Plaintiff requested an ALJ hearing. On April 15, 2013, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. The Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied her request for review on June 25, 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. §§ 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. 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 evidence also points to an alternate outcome. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011).

Discussion

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 only stage at issue here, the ALJ determines whether a claimant, given her RFC, can perform her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv).

The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light work, with a few modifications. R. at 15–16; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b).[1] Plaintiff challenges the ALJ’s RFC formulation. She argues that the ALJ improperly weighed two sets of evidence in formulating her RFC: (1) medical opinions, and (2) her own testimony. Each argument lacks merit.

I. The ALJ properly weighed the medical opinions.

Treating physician Toni Almond, M.D. (“Dr. Almond”) and treating chiropractor Stephanie Marsden, D.C. (“Dr. Marsden”) each completed a physical medical source statement[2]opining that Plaintiff had various work-related, physical limitations. R. at 293–94, 282–83. The ALJ gave each opinion “little weight, ” R. at 17, 18, and instead relied on other opinions by Drs. Almond and Marsden. Plaintiff argues this was error.

The ALJ must rely on the medical evidence to determine a claimant’s RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(3), 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. The 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). Whatever weight the ALJ decides to give a physician’s opinion, he must “always give good reasons.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2).

The ALJ gave four “good reasons” for rejecting Dr. Almond’s opinion. First, Dr. Almond’s opinion lacks meaningful explanation and discernable support from clinic findings. See Strongson v. Barnhart, 361 F.3d 1066, 1070–71 (8th Cir. 2004). For instance, her statement claims that Plaintiff cannot stand more than two hours throughout an eight-hour workday, R. at 293, but Dr. Almond makes no effort to explain the basis for that claim. Cf. R. at 286–87, 290– 91 (finding Plaintiff had a strong grip, normal reflexes, and a normal gait). Indeed, some of the claims in her medical source statement contradict other reports she authored. See Bernard, 774 F.3d at 487. For instance, her medical source statement claims that Plaintiff ...


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