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Cox v. Colvin

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

September 16, 2016

TAMMY R. COX, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          GREG KAYS, CHIEF JUDGE

         This action seeks judicial review of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's (“the Commissioner”) decision denying Plaintiff Tammy Cox's applications for Social Security disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the 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 severe impairments of low back pain, obesity, and anxiety/depression, but retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform semi-skilled work as a cost clerk, data entry clerk, and administrative clerk.

         After carefully reviewing the record and the parties' arguments, the Court finds 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

         The complete facts and arguments are presented in the parties' briefs and are repeated here only to the extent necessary.

         Plaintiff filed her applications on March 25, 2012. Her amended applications alleged a disability onset date of June 9, 2012, her fiftieth birthday.

         The Commissioner denied the applications at the initial claim level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. The ALJ held a hearing, and on August 29, 2013, issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on January 28, 2015, 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) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         Standard of Review

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process[1] 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).

         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.

         Discussion

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by failing to properly: (1) weigh the medical opinion evidence; (2) evaluate her credibility; and (3) determine her RFC. Plaintiff also argues (4) the Appeals Council erred by failing to consider new and material evidence. These arguments are without merit.

         I. The ALJ did not err in weighing the medical opinion evidence.

         A. The ALJ did not err in weighing her treating physician's opinion.

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred in weighing the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Robert Buzard, M.D. (“Dr. Buzard”). Dr. Buzard treated Plaintiff from December 2011 through at least June 2013, with a one-year gap between May 2012 and May 2013 when Plaintiff apparently received no treatment for her back at all. Despite this treatment gap, on June 24, 2013, Dr. Buzard completed a “Multiple Impairment Questionnaire” for her in which he opined she was able to sit three hours total and stand/walk two hours total in an eight-hour workday. R. at 349. The ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Buzard's opinion because it was inconsistent with the treatment records, the “mostly normal” objective medical evidence, and Plaintiff's testimony. R. at 24.

         Plaintiff argues Dr. Buzard provided extensive support for his opinion, and the fact that she can walk and lift twenty pounds does not contradict his opinion that she cannot work forty hours a week. Plaintiff acknowledges she did not have any diagnostic imaging of her spine done, but contends this was because she could not afford it, and an inability to afford medical care cannot be held against her. Alternately, she contends that even if the ALJ did not err by declining to give Dr. Buzard's opinion controlling weight, ...


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