United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division
ROSEANN A. KETCHMARK, JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT.
the Court is Plaintiff's appeal brought under 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g) seeking review of Defendant Social Security
Administration's (“SSA”) denial of disability
benefits as rendered in a decision by an Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”). For the reasons below, the
decision of the ALJ is AFFIRMED in part and
REMANDED in part.
Court's review of the ALJ'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)). “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 [ALJ'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 detracts from
the [ALJ's] decision as well as evidence that supports
it.” Cline v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 1098, 1102 (8th
Cir. 2014) (citation 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) (citing Davis v. Apfel, 239 F.3d
962, 966 (8th Cir. 2001)). 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 must “defer heavily to the findings
and conclusions of the [ALJ].” Hurd v. Astrue,
621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).
of overview, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffers from
the following severe impairments: obesity; degenerative joint
disease in his bilateral knees and left hip; degenerative
disc disease in his lumbar spine; obstructive sleep apnea;
hammertoe; congestive heart failure; and hypertension. The
ALJ also determined that Plaintiff has the following
non-severe impairments: hepatitis C; renal cysts; depression;
and anxiety. However, the ALJ found that none of
Plaintiff's impairments, whether considered alone or in
combination, meet or medically equal the criteria of one of
the listed impairments in 20 CFR Pt. 404. Subpt. P, App. 1
(“Listing”). Additionally, the ALJ found that
despite his limitations, Plaintiff retained the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary
with the following limitations: Plaintiff can occasionally
climb ramps and stairs, but never ladder, ropes, or
scaffolds; Plaintiff can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch,
and crawl; and Plaintiff must avoid concentrated exposure to
hazards, such as unprotected heights and working around
dangerous moving machinery. Although the ALJ found that
Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work, the
ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled, and that
considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience,
and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in
the national economy that Plaintiff can perform.
presents the following argument on appeal: whether the
ALJ's RFC determination is supported by substantial
evidence. Plaintiff presents three sub-arguments concerning
the ALJ's RFC determination.
Plaintiff argues the ALJ's RFC determination is not
supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ erred in
discounting the weight given to consultative examiner Dr.
Jayendra Astik's opinion. The ALJ discounted Dr.
Astik's opinion because the opinion contained only
equivocal statements that Plaintiff “may have
difficulty” with particular actions. The ALJ also
discounted Dr. Astik's opinion as it related
Plaintiff's ability to learn new skills because Dr. Astik
is not a specialist in mental or behavioral health. Finally,
the ALJ discounted Dr. Astik's opinion because
Plaintiff's mental examinations were largely normal.
Substantial evidence exists in the record to support the
ALJ's decision to discount the weight given to Dr.
Astik's opinion. See Brown v. Astrue, 611 F.3d
941, 953 (8th Cir. 2010) (“[w]e generally give greater
weight to the opinion of a specialist about medical issues
related to his or her area of specialty than to the opinion
of a source who is not a specialist”) (quoting 20
C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(5)); Pearsall v. Massanari,
274 F.3d 1211, 1219 (8th Cir. 2001) (an ALJ may reject a
medical opinion when that opinion is inconsistent with the
record as a whole).
further argues that even if Dr. Astik's opinion was
properly discounted, the RFC determination concerning
Plaintiff's physical functional capabilities lacks
medical evidence because Dr. Astik provided the only medical
opinion as to Plaintiff's physical impairments. However,
substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC determination
because there is sufficient medical evidence in the record to
allow the ALJ to determine Plaintiff's physical
functional capabilities, even without a specific medical
opinion. See Stallings v. Colvin, 2015 WL
1781407, at *3 (W.D. Mo. April 20, 2015) (“an ALJ can
appropriately determine a claimant's RFC without a
specific medical opinion so long as there is sufficient
medical evidence in the record”).
Plaintiff argues the ALJ's RFC determination as to
Plaintiff's mental functional capabilities is not
supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, Plaintiff
argues it was error for the ALJ to award State agency
psychological consultant Dr. Hutson's opinion great
weight because Dr. Hutson did not treat or examine Plaintiff.
Plaintiff also argues that Dr. Hutson's opinion should
not be given great weight because Dr. Hutson only had forty
pages of the medical record at the time he formed his
opinion. Dr. Hutson's formed his opinion on December 31,
2014, almost two years prior to the ALJ's decision. After
Dr. Hutson formed his opinion and before the ALJ issued his
decision, licensed psychologist Dr. Gray provided a more
restrictive opinion than Dr. Hutson as to Plaintiff's
mental impairments. Dr. Hutson was unable to consider Dr.
Gray's opinion in forming his opinion. The ALJ discounted
Dr. Gray's opinion and awarded Dr. Huston's opinion
great weight in formulating the RFC.
Court disagrees with Plaintiff's argument that Dr.
Hutson's opinion should be discounted because he did not
examine or treat Plaintiff. See Brown v. Colvin,
2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59088, at *10-11 (W.D. Mo. Apr. 29,
2014) (“In appropriate circumstances, opinions from
State agency medical and psychological consultants and other
program physicians and psychologists may be entitled to
greater weight than the opinions of treating or examining
sources.”) (citing SSR 96-6p; 1996 SSR LEXIS 3 at
*6-7). However, there is not substantial evidence in the
record to support the ALJ's RFC determination as to
Plaintiff's mental impairments because Dr. Hutson formed
his opinion with consideration of only a small portion of the
record and later mental evaluations indicated that Plaintiff
has more restricted mental functional abilities. See Arn
v. Astrue, 2011 WL 3876418, at *6 (W.D. Mo. Sept. 1,
2011) (“[t]he ALJ must not rely on a non-examining
physician's RFC when his assessment was completed a year
before the hearing and is not based on a full record of the
case . . . [the report] was prepared around 12/30/08, but the
hearing was not held until 3/10/10, and other medical
evidence was received after 12/30/08, including reports by
treating physicians indicating possible worsening of
Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to properly assess the RFC on
a function by function basis before assessing the exertional
level as to Plaintiff's walking and standing abilities.
The ALJ's RFC determination utilized the Social Security
regulations' definition of sedentary work to address
Plaintiff's walking and standing abilities. Although the
RFC determination does not provide any additional walking or
standing limitations, this does not mean that the ALJ did not
consider all functional limitations. See Brown, 2010
WL 889835, at *25 (“an ALJ who specifically addresses
the areas in which he found a limitation and is silent as to
those areas in which no limitation is found is believed to
have implicitly found no limitation in the latter”);
Depover v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 563, 567-68 (8th Cir.
2003) (because the ALJ made explicit findings only as to
functions where the ALJ believed a limitation existed
suggested that the ALJ implicitly found no limitations as to
other functions). Accordingly, substantial evidence supports
the ALJ's RFC determination as to Plaintiff's walking
and standing capabilities.
remand, the ALJ should provide Dr. Hutson with the entire
medical record. Dr. Hutson shall review this record before
providing his opinion. If after considering the entire record
and Dr. Huston's opinion the ALJ makes the same RFC
determination on remand, ...