United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville
DANIEL L. MILLER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
JAMES D. MOYER, Magistrate Judge.
The plaintiff, Daniel L. Miller, filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g), seeking judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, who denied his application for disability insurance benefits. At issue is whether the administrative law judge erred by failing to properly evaluate the opinion evidence regarding Mr. Miller's mental residual functional capacity and by failing to properly evaluate the results of a 2010 MRI when determining Mr. Miller's physical residual functional capacity.
After reviewing the parties' fact and law summaries and the administrative record, the court concludes that the ALJ erred in her assessment of the opinions of Mr. Miller's treating physician, Dr. Chandra Reddy, and that this case must be remanded to the Commissioner of Social Security for further evaluation.
Mr. Miller filed an application for disability insurance benefits in December 2008 and alleged he became disabled in January 2003. After his application was denied by the state agency, he requested a hearing with an administrative law judge (an "ALJ"). Following the evidentiary hearing, at which Mr. Miller and a vocational expert testified, the ALJ issued an opinion in which she determined that Mr. Miller suffers from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the cervical, lumbar and thoracic spine; a panic disorder; and anxiety disorder; a depressive disorder; and substance abuse in remission, none of which, either singly or in combination, meet or equal the criteria of any of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. The ALJ further determined that Mr. Miller retains the residual functional capacity to perform light work with certain limitations to accommodate his physical and mental limitations. Based on hypotheticals presented by the ALJ at the hearing, the vocational expert testified that Mr. Miller is not capable of returning to his past relevant work, but can perform certain jobs that exist in the national economy.
Mr. Miller asserts that the ALJ erred in her evaluation of the opinion evidence and by failing to properly evaluate a 2010 MRI of his spine. This court may not try a Social Security appeal de novo, but it need not affirm the conclusions of the Commissioner of Social Security if an administrative law judge failed to apply the correct legal standards or made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Jordan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 548 F.3d 417, 422 (6th Cir. 2008).
In determining Mr. Miller's mental residual functional capacity, the ALJ gave the opinions of Dr. Reddy, Mr. Miller's physician who had treated Mr. Miller for years, and the opinions consultative examining psychologist, little weight. She accorded great weight, however, to the opinions of the record reviewing consultants, who never examined Mr. Miller. Mr. Miller asserts that this was in error, because the ALJ dismissed the opinions of his doctor solely on the basis of the fact that she is not a mental health specialist.
The ALJ's discussion of Dr. Reddy's opinions regarding Mr. Miller's mental health and capabilities consists, in its entirety, of the following statements:
As for the opinion evidence, the undersigned accords little weight to the opinions expressed by the claimant's treating internist, Dr. Reddy (Exhibits 35F, 36F).... Dr. Reddy indicated in the mental assessment that the claimant had poor functioning in his occupational adjustments, performance adjustments and personal social adjustments (Exhibit 36F). The undersigned notes that Dr. Reddy is an internist, not a specialist. Therefore, Dr. Reddy is not qualified to give an assessment regarding the claimant's mental functioning.... Dr. Reddy's determination that the claimant is disabled from full-time competitive employment is also inconsistent with the objective evidence and claimant's level of functioning. Furthermore, pursuant to Social Security Ruling 96-5p, all opinions rendered as to a claimant's status as "disabled" are clearly reserved to the Commissioner.
Dr. Reddy did not actually state that Mr. Miller is "disabled" as a matter of law, but she effectively did so by noting: "Patient has a H/O anxiety disorder/PTSD and cannot be gainfully employed." And, the ALJ was correct-that issue is reserved for the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d).
The problem lies with the ALJ's decision not to give controlling weight to Dr. Reddy's more specific opinions ( e.g., that Mr. Miller has difficulty maintaining focus and has a poor ability to behave appropriately, deal with other persons, and respond to stress). The standards imposed on an administrative law judge's treatment of medical evidence are set forth in 20 C.F.R. §404.1527. Pursuant to the treating physician rule, "the administrative law judge will' give a treating source's opinion controlling weight if it is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in your case record.'" Cole v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 661 F.3d 931, 937 (6th Cir. 2011)(citing 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(d)(2)).
If the administrative law judge does not accord controlling weight to the opinion of a treating physician, she must then balance the following factors to ...