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Welch v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri.

September 15, 2016

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



         Before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal of the Commissioner's denial of her application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies and the matter is now ripe for judicial review. After carefully reviewing the files and records, the Court finds the decision of the Commissioner is not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and the decision is REVERSED and REMANDED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The procedural history, facts, and issues of this case are contained in the record and the parties' briefs, so they are not repeated here. Plaintiff is a 62-year old woman (at the time of the ALJ's decision) who applied for benefits and the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from severe impairments of disorder of the back, hiatal hernia, history of heart disease, various GI-related diagnoses (e.g., interstitial cystitis, Barrett's esophagus, and gastritis), anxiety and depression. After finding Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds and can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs as well as stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, balance, and bend; she can have only occasional interaction with the public and with co-workers and supervisors.” The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as a sterilizer, stating “this work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity.” The ALJ found that claimant is able to perform the job of sterilizer as “actually performed.”

         Plaintiff argues on appeal that the ALJ erred in assessing Plaintiff's RFC and that the ALJ's step four determination is legally flawed.

         II. STANDARD

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is a limited inquiry into whether substantial evidence supports the findings of the Commissioner and whether the correct legal standards were applied. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(1)(B)(ii)(3). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence and requires enough evidence to allow a reasonable person to find adequate support for the Commissioner's conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Freeman v. Apfel, 208 F.3d 687, 690 (8th Cir. 2000). This standard requires a court to consider both the evidence that supports the Commissioner's decision and the evidence that detracts from it. Finch v. Astrue, 547 F.3d 933, 935 (8th Cir. 2008). That the reviewing court would come to a different conclusion is not a sufficient basis for reversal. Wiese v. Astrue, 552 F.3d 728, 730 (8th Cir. 2009). Rather, “[i]f, after review, we find it possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the Commissioner's findings, we must affirm the denial of benefits.” Id. (quoting Mapes v. Chater, 82 F.3d 259, 262 (8th Cir. 1996)). Courts “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions of the Social Security Administration” and will disturb the Commissioner's decision only if it falls outside the “zone of choice.” Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010); Casey v. Astrue, 503 F.3d 687, 691 (8th Cir. 2007).


         After full and careful review of the record and briefs, the Court finds the ALJ's findings are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.

         Generally, a treating physician's opinion is given at least substantial weight under the Social Security Administration regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c), see also Brown v. Colvin, 2014 WL 1687430 *2 (W.D. Mo. 2014). However, such an opinion “does not automatically control or obviate the need to evaluate the record as a whole.” Brown v. Colvin, 2014 WL 1687430, at *2 (W.D. Mo. April 29, 2014); citing, Brown v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 535, 540 (8th Cir. 2004). Rather, an “ALJ may discount or disregard the opinion of a treating physician where other medical assessments are more thoroughly supported or where a treating physician renders inconsistent opinions.” Id.; citing, Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 964 (8th Cir. 2010).

         “In determining how much weight to accord a physician's opinion, the ALJ must take into account a variety of considerations including: whether the opinion is supported with facts and evidence; whether the opinion is consistent with other evidence and opinions, including the physician's own notes; and whether the physician's specialty gives her[or him] greater credibility.” Id., citing, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c); and Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1065 (8th Cir. 2012). The Court does not re-weigh the evidence presented to the ALJ and defers to the ALJ's determinations regarding the credibility of testimony, so long as it is supported by substantial evidence. See Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005). Further, a claimant's subjective complaints may be discounted if there are inconsistencies in the record as a whole. Id.

         First, the Court finds the ALJ did not properly explain the weight given to the medical records. For example, the ALJ gave “partial weight” to two State agency medical opinions but little weight to the treating physician records. The ALJ gave partial weight to the “opinion” of Dr. Chopra. Dr. Chopra's medical opinion was one paragraph, which stated, in its entirety, :

61 year old claimant alleging disability due to degenerative spine, FM, heart disease. AOD=1 0/01/11.
Medical evidence currently in file reviewed. PRFC signed by Denise R. Trowbridge, MD, dated 1 0/29/12 is ...

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