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Couch v. Berryhill

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

March 19, 2018

JESSICA LEANN COUCH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SSA; Defendant.

          ORDER

          ROSEANN A. KETCHMARK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying disability benefits. The decision of the Commissioner is REMANDED.

         Standard of Review

         The Court's review of the Commissioner's decision to deny disability benefits is limited to determining if the decision “complies with the relevant legal requirements and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.” Halverson v. Astrue, 600 F.3d 922, 929 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Ford v. Astrue, 518 F.3d 979, 981 (8th Cir. 2008)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence, but is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind would find adequate to support the [Commissioner's] conclusion.'” Grable v. Colvin, 770 F.3d 1196, 1201 (8th Cir. 2014) (quoting Davis v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 962, 966 (8th Cir. 2001)). In determining whether existing evidence is substantial, the Court takes into account evidence that both supports and detracts from the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) findings. Cline v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 1098, 1102 (8th Cir. 2014) (quotation marks omitted). “If the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, [the Court] may not reverse even if substantial evidence would support the opposite outcome or [the Court] would have decided differently.” Smith v. Colvin, 756 F.3d 621, 625 (8th Cir. 2014) (quoting Davis, 239 F.3d at 966). The Court does not re-weigh the evidence presented to the ALJ. Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005) (citing Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 549, 555 (8th Cir. 2003)). The Court should “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions of the [Commissioner].” Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).

         Discussion

         By way of overview, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from the following severe impairments: migraine headaches, depression, and anxiety disorder. The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff has the following non-severe impairments: kidney stones and a musculoskeletal impairment. However, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, whether considered alone or in combination, meet or medically equals the criteria of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Pt. 404. Subpt. P, App. 1 (“Listing”). Additionally, the ALJ found that despite her limitations, Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with non-exertional limitations.[1] Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work experience, and that considering Plaintiff's age, education, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. The ALJ therefore found that Plaintiff was not disabled.

         On appeal, Plaintiff presents the following arguments in support of reversal: (1) whether the ALJ's RFC determination regarding Plaintiff's mental and physical impairments are supported by substantial evidence, and (2) whether the ALJ sustained his burden at step five of the Social Security appeals process.

         I. Whether the ALJ's RFC Determination is Supported by Substantial Evidence

         Substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's RFC determination regarding the Plaintiff's mental and physical impairments. The Court will first address the RFC in relation to the mental impairments and then address RFC in relation to the physical impairments.

         A. Mental Limitations

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in the weighing of Dr. McDaniel's, one time examining psychologist; Dr. Lewis', non-examining state agency physician; and Dr. Vauginaux's, Plaintiff's treating psychologist, opinions.

         Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision to give Dr. McDaniel's opinion significant weight because Dr. McDaniel's opinion was well-supported by the mental status testing and consistent with the other medical evidence of record. Plaintiff argues less weight should be given to Dr. McDaniel's opinion because Dr. McDaniel examined Plaintiff shortly after Plaintiff applied for disability benefits and without the benefit of the entire record. However, there is no indication any significant change in circumstances occurred after his examination and during the relevant period. Next, Plaintiff argues Dr. McDaniel's opined GAF score of sixty should not be given significant weight because GAF score are disfavored, and the ALJ acted inconsistently in giving Dr. McDaniel's GAF score significant weight while discounting other providers' GAF scores.[2] The ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Parsell's and the social worker Cynthia Taylor's scores of forty and thirty-four, respectively. The ALJ gave little weight to these scores because the low GAF scores were inconsistent with Plaintiff's treatment history and each score was issued at the beginning of treatment with the corresponding provider.[3]The ALJ also notes the Plaintiff's treatment records are more probative because the treatment records demonstrate the Plaintiff's good response to medications and Plaintiff's overall stability. Accordingly, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision to give Dr. McDaniel's opinion significant weight.

         Next, Plaintiff argues substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's consideration of Dr. Lewis' opinion. Plaintiff cites Arn v. Astrue for the proposition that the ALJ cannot rely on a state agency non-examining physician's opinion when the opinion was issued long before the hearing and not based on the full record, but Arn is distinguishable from this case. Arn v. Astrue, 2011 WL 3876418 (W.D. Mo. Sept. 1, 2011). In Arn, the ALJ relied heavily, and only, on the state agency non-examining physician. Id. at 6. Here, the ALJ did not solely rely on Dr. Lewis' opinion. Plaintiff next argues less weight should be given to Dr. Lewis' opinion because he examined Plaintiff shortly after Plaintiff applied for disability benefits and without the entire record; however, there is no indication that any significant change in circumstances occurred after this examination and during the relevant period. Further, the ALJ did not give Dr. Lewis' opinion weight as a medical opinion. Accordingly, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's consideration of Dr. Lewis' opinion.

         The Court is unable to determine if substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision to afford treating psychologist Dr. Vauginaux's opinion no weight. The ALJ may discount a treating psychologist's opinion when (1) a non-examining opinion is supported by superior medical evidence or (2) if the treating physician offered an opinion inconsistent with the treating physician's own treatment notes. Hogan v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 958, 961 (8th Cir. 2001). The ALJ contends Dr. Vauginaux's opinion is inconsistent with his own treatment notes, thus it was proper to discount Dr. Vauginaux's opinion. The Defendant cites to a provider's note that Plaintiff was able to go on a camping trip for one week without a panic attack. Specifically, Plaintiff did not have a panic attack on the trip beginning on 8/13/2015 and ending on 8/20/2015. However, shortly after the camping trip, Plaintiff had two panic attacks. The Court finds the above evidence insufficient to determine if Dr. Vauginaux's treatment notes are ...


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