United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington
MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
EDWARD B. ATKINS, Magistrate Judge.
The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. [Rs. 10-11]. Subsequently, District Court Judge Gregory F. VanTatenhove referred the matter to the undersigned for preparation of a report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). [R. 13]. Initially, the Plaintiff, Kenneth Jarman, listed three arguments in support of his summaryjudgment motion. The undersigned determined that Jarman did not adequately develop his argument that a reasonable person could not conclude that Jarman is not disabled. [R. 14 at 2]. Accordingly, the undersigned recommended that the Court deny that portion of Jarman's summary-judgment motion advancing the "reasonable-person" argument. [R. 14 at 2]. Additionally, after finding that Jarman's other deficiently briefed arguments involved potentially colorable claims, the Court ordered him to rebrief his two remaining claims that: (1) the ALJ violated the treating-physician rule and (2) the ALJ did not consider the cumulative effect of Jarman's impairments. [R. 14 at 2-3]. Because the record following rebriefing reveals that the ALJ did not violate the treating-physician rule and did consider the cumulative effect of the Jarman's impairments, the undersigned will recommend that the Commissioner's summaryjudgment motion be granted and Jarman's motion be denied.
Jarman alleges that he has been unable to work since January 10, 2007 due to degenerative disc disease and numbness in his legs. [Tr. at 219-221, 254]. Due to those medical issues, he filed for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on October 23, 2008. [Tr. at 219]. The Social Security Administration denied his application [Tr. at 100-01] and his request for reconsideration [Tr. at 124-27]. Jarman then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") [Tr. at 131-37], who also denied his claim [Tr. at 76-99, 102-11]. Thereafter, Jarman requested review of the ALJ's decision, and the Appeals Council remanded the case back to the ALJ. [Tr. at 116-20]. After another hearing, the ALJ issued a decision on August 7, 2012, denying his application for disability benefits. [Tr. at 9-20, 26-75]. Jarman again requested review of the ALJ's decision, but, this time, the ALJ denied review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. [Tr. at 1-8]. Jarman filed his complaint in this Court on December 19, 2013. [R. 1].
The Court notes that, as required by the regulations, the ALJ considered Jarman's claim in accordance with the Social Security Administration's five-step sequential evaluation process. See C.F.R. § 404.1520; Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003); [Tr. at 9-20]. First, the ALJ found that Jarman had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 10, 2007. [Tr. at 14]. Second, the ALJ determined that he had the following severe impairments: "lumbar disc disease and bulging discs with peripheral neuropathy, and obesity." [Tr. at 15]. Third, the ALJ found that Jarman did not "have an impairment or combination of impairments" that met or medically equaled one of the Commissioner's listed impairments. [Tr. at 15]. Fourth, the ALJ determined that Jarman's residual functional capacity allowed him to perform a reduced range of light work, although he could not return to any of his past relevant work. [Tr. at 16-18]. Fifth, and finally, the ALJ concluded that, given Jarman's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, he could perform certain light-work jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. [Tr. at 18-19].
A reviewing court must uphold the findings of the ALJ if they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)(2006); see also Kirk v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6th Cir. 1981). The Sixth Circuit has held that "substantial evidence exists when a reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate to support a conclusion." Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). The scope of judicial review is limited to the record itself, and the reviewing court "may not try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in evidence, nor decide questions of credibility." Hogg v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 328, 331 (6th Cir. 1993).
The limited nature of substantial evidence review prevents the reviewing court from substituting its judgment for that of the ALJ. Rather, so long as substantial evidence exists, the reviewing court should affirm the ALJ's decision "even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion." Longworth v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Sixth Circuit precedent suggests that a finding of "no substantial evidence" would be appropriate in situations where the ALJ ignores uncontested, compelling evidence for one side, makes no express findings on witness credibility and makes a ruling based on facts with "little if any evidentiary value." Noe v. Weinberger, 512 F.2d 588 (6th Cir. 1975); see also Glass v. Sec'y of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 517 F.2d 224 (6th Cir. 1975). Otherwise, if there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision, "it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide the matter differently." Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). With these standards in mind, the undersigned will now address Jarman's arguments.
A. The Treating-Physician Rule
In his court-ordered supplemental brief [R. 15-1], Jarman argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of Dr. Maria Castro, a treating physician, without adequately explaining why he afforded her opinion lesser weight. Jarman also claims that Castro's opinion should not have been given lesser weight because an MRI dated July 22, 2009, which showed a small disc herniation, supported the restrictions identified in Castro's opinion. Additionally, Jarman contends that the ALJ should not have discounted Castro's opinion because some of the conclusions of two consultative examiners, Drs. Helen O' Donnell and Jennifer Cook, supported Castro's opinion. Castro opined that Jarman could sit, stand, and walk for one hour each in an eight-hour workday and lift or carry up to ten pounds occasionally. [Tr. at 427].
A treating physician's opinion receives controlling weight where it is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and [consistent with] other substantial evidence." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). An ALJ may assign less than controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion, but only upon satisfying two requirements. First, the ALJ must provide "good reasons" for why the opinion does not deserve controlling weight. Id .; see also Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004). Second, he must explain what weight, if any, he assigns to the opinion. See 20 C.F.R. § 1527(c)(2). In performing this analysis, the ALJ should evaluate the length, frequency, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship; the evidence supporting the opinion; the consistency of the opinion with the records as a whole; and the physician's specialization. Id . § 404.1527(c)(2)-(c)(6); see also Cole v. Astrue, 661 F.3d 931, 937 (6th Cir. 2011). While an ALJ must consider these factors, he need not provide "an exhaustive factor-by-factor analysis" in his decision. Francis v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 414 F.Appx. 802, 804 (6th Cir. 2011).
In reviewing Castro's opinion, the ALJ found that Jarman's own statements, made directly to Castro, contradicted her findings. [Tr. at 17]. Although Jarman informed Castro that he could walk two miles a day when feeling well, Castro found that he could walk for no more than one mile. [Tr. at 17, 755]. Further, while Jarman described his physical activity as limited, he admitted to Castro that he was capable of increasing his activity. [Tr. at 17]. Indeed, he volunteered to do so as a means of improving his health that was more preferable to him than smoking cessation. [Tr. at 17]. Moreover, Jarman informed Castro that he was not currently taking medication and that he regularly walked his dog. [Tr. at 17]. For these reasons, the ALJ determined that the record did not support the restrictions contained in Castro's opinion. Thus, the ALJ provided a "good reason" for not affording controlling weight to the opinion of Castro. See Wilson, 378 F.3d at 544 (explaining that the obligation to provide "good reasons" is met when the ALJ supports, with evidence, his finding that the medical opinion is inconsistent with the case record).
Having found a "good reason" not to afford controlling weight to the opinion of Castro, the ALJ was then required to explain his decision to afford lesser weight to her opinion using the factors outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2) (i.e., length and extent of treatment relationship, supportability, consistency with the record, and the treating source's specialization). Id. at 544-46. In his supplemental brief, Jarman asserts that the ALJ failed in this regard by not addressing the length and extent of the treatment relationship and ...