United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, Ashland
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
GREGORY F. VAN TATENHOVE, District Judge.
The Plaintiff, Larry McLaughlin, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying McLaughlin's application for Supplemental Security Income. The Court, having reviewed the record and for the reasons set forth herein, will deny McLaughlin's Motion for Summary Judgment [R. 12] and grant the Commissioner's [R. 14].
McLaughlin filed his application for SSI on October 15, 2010. [Transcript (Tr.) 26-27]. He alleges a disability beginning on July 20, 2005, due to problems anxiety, depression, and agoraphobia. [Tr. 26-17, 141-146, 161]. McLaughlin's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration [Tr. 26, 36]. Subsequently, at McLaughlin's request, an administrative hearing was conducted before Administrative Law Judge Maria Hodges (ALJ) on August 9, 2012. [Tr. 335-363]. During the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from McLaughlin and vocational expert (VE) Leah Salyers. [ Id. ] McLaughlin, who was thirty-two years old as of the date of the ALJ's decision, has a tenth grade education. [Tr. 13, 131, 162]. McLaughlin has past relevant work as a night watchmen, production assembler, and kitchen helper, and though the VE testified that he could no longer perform that work, she found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that McLaughlin could perform, and the ALJ accepted that testimony. [Tr. 162, 357-60].
In evaluating a claim of disability, an ALJ conducts a five-step analysis. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. First, if a claimant is working at a substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, if a claimant does not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limit his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, then he does not have a severe impairment and is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Third, if a claimant's impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, he is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Fourth, if a claimant's impairments do not prevent him from doing past relevant work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Fifth, if a claimant's impairments (considering her residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work) prevent him from doing other work that exists in the national economy, then she is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).
In this case, at Step 1, the ALJ found that McLaughlin has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 15, 2010, the application date. [Tr. 18.] At Step 2, the ALJ found that McLaughlin has the following severe impairments: "anxiety, depression, and borderline intellectual functioning." [ Id. ] At Step 3, the ALJ found that McLaughlin's impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix I. [Tr. 19]. At Step 4, the ALJ determined that McLaughlin is unable to perform any past relevant work. [Tr. 24]. However, at Step 5 the ALJ relied on the testimony of the VE to find that, based on McLaughlin's residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that McLaughlin could perform. [Tr. 24-25]. Accordingly, on August 15, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that McLaughlin was not disabled, and therefore, ineligible for SSI. [Tr. 25]. The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on August 14, 2012 [Tr. 7-9] and McLaughlin now seeks judicial review in this Court.
This Court's review is limited to whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Wright v. Massanari, 321 F.3d 611, 614 (6th Cir. 2003); Shelman v. Heckler, 821 F.2d 316, 319-20 (6th Cir. 1987). "Substantial evidence" is "more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). The substantial evidence standard "presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which decision makers can go either way, without interference from the court." Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) ( en banc ) (quotes and citations omitted).
In determining the existence of substantial evidence, courts must examine the record as a whole. Id. (citing Kirk v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6th Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 957 (1983)). However, courts are not to conduct a de novo review, resolve conflicts in evidence, or make credibility determinations. Id. (citations omitted); see also Bradley v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 862 F.2d 1224, 1228 (6th Cir. 1988). Rather, if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently, and even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion. See Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999); see also Casey v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 987 F.2d 1230, 1233 (6th Cir. 1993); Kinsella v. Schweiker, 708 F.2d 1058, 1059 (6th Cir. 1983); Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545.
McLaughlin's argues on appeal that the ALJ erred in rejecting two examining opinions and relying on a non-examining source who did not have the opportunity to review the entire file. [R. 12-1 at 1]. According to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d) and 416.927, ALJs are required to evaluate all submitted medical opinions. In performing this evaluation, the ALJ considers the following factors: the examining relationship, the treatment relationship, the length of the treatment relationship, the frequency of examination, the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, the supporting medical basis of the opinion, the consistency with the larger record, the specialization of the source, the source's understanding of the Commissioner's disability programs and their evidentiary requirements, and the medical source's familiarity with the other information in the case record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d) and 416.927; see also Norris v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 461 F.Appx. 433, 438-39 (6th Cir. 2012).
The regulations also provide "a presumptive sliding scale of deference, " which operates as follows:
An opinion from a treating physician is accorded the most deference by the SSA because of the ongoing treatment relationship between the patient and the opining physician. A nontreating source, who physically examines the patient but does not have, or did not have an ongoing treatment relationship with the patient, falls next along the continuum. A nonexamining source, who provides an opinion based solely on review of the patient's existing medical records, is afforded the least deference.
Norris, 461 F.Appx. at 438-39 (citing Smith v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 482 F.3d 873, 875 (6th Cir.2007)) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Importantly, however, "it is not a per se error of law.... for the ALJ to credit a nonexamining source over a nontreating source." Id. at 439. In some circumstances, an ALJ is justified in relying on a nonexamining source over an examining source. See Ealy v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 594 F.3d 504, 514 (6th Cir. 2010); Barker v Shalala, 40 F.3d 789, 794 (6th Cir. 1994). Further, "[i]n 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." SSR 96-6P. After all, "[a]ny record opinion, even that of a treating source, may be rejected by the ALJ when the source's opinion is not well supported by medical diagnostics or if it is inconsistent with the record." Norris, 461 F.Appx. at 439 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927; Ealy, 594 F.3d at 514).
Therefore, it is not inherently improper under the aforementioned regulations and legal standards for the ALJ to give greater weight to the state agency physician who did not examine McLaughlin than the other medical sources who did. The important inquiry is whether, in light of these regulations and standards, substantial evidence from the record supports the weight that ...