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Allen v. Berryhill

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

October 23, 2019




         Before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of Defendant Commissioner of 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.

         Standard of Review

         The 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).


         By way of overview, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffers from the following severe impairments: degenerative disk disease and degenerative joint disease of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spines; remote history of bilateral carpel tunnel syndrome status post right side release; history of cerebral infarction; major depressive disorder, recurrent, severe without psychotic features; generalized anxiety disorder; attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”); and personality disorder. The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff has the following non-severe impairments: hypertension, and right elbow lateral epicondylitis. 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 her limitations, Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently; stand and/or walk 6 hours in an 8hour workday; sit up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; no repetitive pushing/pulling with the right dominant upper extremity; no climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolding; occasionally climbing of ramps and stairs; occasional balancing and stooping; no kneeling, crouching or crawling; can perform frequent reaching, handling, fingering and feeling with the right dominant upper extremity; must avoid concentrated exposure to vibrations and hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery; and can perform simple, routine repetitive tasks, in other than fast-paced production environment, requiring no contact with the general public and occasional, superficial interaction with co-workers and supervisors. Although the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work, the ALJ found that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, Plaintiff can perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy.

         On appeal, Plaintiff argues the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ improperly discounted the medical opinions of Mr. Shawn Brown, Mr. Seth Jackson, and Dr. Steven Adams. Mr. Brown is Plaintiff's nurse practitioner. Mr. Jackson, is Plaintiff's licensed counselor and social worker. Dr. Adams is Plaintiff's examining psychologist. The ALJ found Mr. Brown's opinions less persuasive. The ALJ found the opinions of Mr. Jackson and Dr. Adams not persuasive.

         An ALJ is required to weigh all medical source opinions and “always give good reasons for the weight given to a treating source's opinion.” SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188 at *5 (Soc. Sec. Admin. July 2, 1996). Agency rules concerning the evaluation of medical opinions changed significantly for claimants who filed their claims on or after March 27, 2017. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520c. Here, the application was filed on May 4, 2017, and thus, the new agency rules apply. Among the new changes, the agency explained that it will “not defer or give any specific evidentiary weight, including controlling weight, to any medical opinion(s) … including those from your medical sources.” Id. Further, the new regulations eliminated the term “treating source, ” as well as the treating physician rule. See id.; see also Jones v. Berryhill, No. 2:18-CV-10 PLC, 2019 WL 1597411, at *3 (E.D. Mo. April 15, 2019). “Under current regulations, a treating physician's opinion is entitled to no special deference.” Jones, 2019 WL 1597411 at *3 n.3. Specifically, under the new regulations, an ALJ is directed to articulate how persuasive he finds all of the medical opinions in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520c(b). The most important factors in evaluating medical opinions are supportability and consistency. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520c(b)(2). While there are other factors, an ALJ is not required to articulate each and every factor for every medical opinion. See Id. The parties do not dispute the ALJ articulated how persuasive he found each medical opinion and that the ALJ considered the relevant factors in coming to his decision. Thus, the only issue on appeal is whether the ALJ's evaluation of the medical opinions was supported by substantial evidence.

         I. There was Substantial Evidence to Support the ALJ's Evaluation of Mr. Brown's Opinion

         Regarding the medical source statement (“MSSP”) opinions of Mr. Brown, the ALJ found the opinions to be less persuasive. (Tr. 19.) The ALJ found Mr. Brown's MSSP opinions to be inconsistent with (1) Mr. Brown's own physical examination, (2) Mr. Brown's 2018 MSSP opinion, which noted improvement in Plaintiff's abilities, and (3) the overall record which failed to document significant debilitating abnormalities. (Tr. 19.) First, Mr. Brown opined that Plaintiff could do light work, needs to shift positions from sitting, standing or walking, would need to take unscheduled breaks, and be absent or leave early; the ALJ noted these opinions. (Tr. 19, 690-92.) Second, the ALJ also noted that Mr. Brown's opinions were inconsistent with Mr. Brown's own physical examinations which found normal gait and station; normal spine alignment with no deformity; normal range of motion of all four extremities with no joint enlargement or tenderness; no focal deficits; intact cranial nerves; normal sensation, reflexes and coordination; and normal muscle tone and strength, and no real pain of the musculoskeletal system. (Tr. 19, 531, 550, 568, 836-37, 859-60, 886-87.) Additionally, the ALJ noted that Mr. Brown's 2018 MSSP opinion noted improvement from his 2017 MSSP opinion. (Tr. 19, 689-92, 826-29.) Third, the ALJ found Mr. Brown's opinions less persuasive because it was inconsistent with the record as whole, which failed to document debilitating abnormalities. (Tr. 19, 494, 504, 780, 801, 810, 1308, 1395.) The ALJ properly considered the consistency of the opinion with other evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520c(c)(2).

         Finally, the ALJ noted the opinion was in the form of a check box type form with little narrative to support. (Tr. 19.) The Eighth Circuit has held a check box type of form may be afforded less weight. Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 964 (8th Cir. 2010) (“The ALJ properly discounted Dr. Burstain's opinion because it was conclusory. The opinion consists of three checklist forms, cited no medical evidence, and provides little to no elaboration.”) Therefore, there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's finding that Mr. Brown's opinion was less persuasive.

         II. There was Substantial Evidence to Support the ALJ's Evaluation of Mr. Jackson's Opinion

         The ALJ found Mr. Jackson's opinion not persuasive. (Tr. 19.) Mr. Jackson opined Plaintiff would be off task 25% or more, would miss work approximately 4 days per month, is limited in her ability to work in coordination with others, has markedly limited ability to complete a normal workday and workweek, and has marked and extreme limitations in her abilities to interact and adapt. The ALJ found Mr. Jackson's opinion was not supported by Mr. Jackson's own mental status examination findings. (Tr. 20.) Those mental status examination findings noted that Plaintiff was generally polite; interactive, with good eye contact; casual appearance; no suicidal or homicidal ideations; and normal rate and tone of voice. (Tr. 20 (citing Tr. 495, 498, 510, 524, 538, 831, 842, 845, 854, 864, 866, 876, 897, 911, 917.)) Further, the ALJ found Mr. Jackson's opinion was inconsistent with the overall record. (Tr. 20, citing (Tr. 595, 598, 600, 602, 605, 641, 673, 708, 780, 801, 810, 1308.)) Moreover, the ALJ noted additional inconsistencies between Mr. Jackson's opinion with Plaintiff's daily activities and with Mr. Jackson's advice that Plaintiff consider looking for work or a volunteer opportunity. (Tr. 20, (citing Tr. 496, 847, 854, and Plaintiff's testimony.)) The ALJ properly evaluated the consistency of Mr. ...

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