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Monroe v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah Division

March 28, 2017

JAMES A. MONROE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Thomas B. Russell, Senior Judge

         James A. Monroe brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision to deny his application for disability insurance benefits. The Court referred Monroe's action for a report and recommendation regarding its appropriate disposition. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Subsequently, the Magistrate Judge recommended that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision and dismiss Monroe's complaint. Monroe objects to that course of action, arguing that the ALJ erred when she failed to discuss, or even mention, the medical opinions of a nontreating (but examining) source before deciding that he was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Having reviewed the record, the Court agrees. Accordingly, the Court REJECTS the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation, [R. 30], and SUSTAINS James A. Monroe's Objection, [R. 31]. The Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion.

         I.

         A.

         James A. Monroe, a United States Marine Corps veteran, applied for disability benefits on January 3, 2014. [A.R. at 31.] He claims that he has been unable to work since September 17, 2013. [Id.] Monroe's alleged disabilities include degenerative disc disease, migraine headaches, obesity, traumatic brain injury, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. [Id. at 33.] The Social Security Administration denied Monroe's initial claim for disability insurance benefits on March 4, 2014, and, upon reconsideration, adhered to that decision. [Id. at 31.] Upon his request, Administrative Law Judge Marci P. Eaton held a hearing on May 9, 2014. [Id.] In addition to Monroe, the ALJ heard testimony from Dr. Tom L. Wagner, a psychological expert, and James B. Adams, a vocational expert. [Id. at 64, 68.]

         The ALJ denied Monroe's claim. [Id. at 39.] Using the traditional five-step evaluation for disability benefits, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ made the following findings. First, the ALJ found that Monroe had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. [A.R. at 33.] Second, Monroe has several severe impairments, namely degenerative disc disease, migraine headaches, obesity, traumatic brain injury, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. [Id.] Third, the ALJ found that Monroe's impairments do not meet or equal one of the Commissioner's recognized impairments. [Id. at 34.] Fourth, Monroe retains the residual functional capacity to perform a range of sedentary work, although not any past relevant work. [Id. at 34-38.] Fifth, in light of his age, education, and work experience, Monroe is able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. [Id. at 38-39.] The ALJ, therefore, determined that Monroe is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. [Id. at 39.]

         The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on October 20, 2014. [Id. at 10-13.] Accordingly, the ALJ's denial became the final decision of the Commissioner. Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 543-44 (6th Cir. 2004) (citing Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1399 (11th Cir. 1996)). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Monroe brought this action to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. [See R. 1 (Complaint).]

         B.

         The Court referred Monroe's action to Magistrate Judge Lanny King for a report and recommendation regarding its appropriate disposition. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The Magistrate Judge recommended that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision and dismiss Monroe's complaint. [See R. 30 at 6 (Report and Recommendation).] Monroe objects to that course of action. [See R. 31 (Monroe's Objection).] Despite enjoying the benefit of two extensions of time, the Commissioner has declined to respond to Monroe's objection. [See R. 34 (Order of December 13, 2016); R. 35 (Order of December 13, 2016).]

         II.

         It is well-settled that the Court reviews the objected-to portions of a report and recommendation de novo. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). Its review of the Commissioner's determination is, of course, more deferential. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009). The scope of that inquiry is limited to (1) “whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence” and (2) “whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.” Miller v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 811 F.3d 825, 833 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting Blakley, 581 F.3d at 405-06). “Substantial evidence” means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lindsley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 560 F.3d 601, 604 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Even if supported by substantial evidence, however, “a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the [Social Security Administration] fails to follow its own regulations and where that error prejudices a claimant on the merits or deprives the claimant of a substantial right.” Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007)).

         III.

         In this case, Monroe argues that the ALJ erred when she failed to discuss, or even mention, the opinions of Dr. Krista Brooks-Horrar before deciding that he was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. [See R. 24 at 12-15 (Monroe's Memorandum of Law).] While conceding that the ALJ never addressed Dr. Brooks-Horrar's opinions, the Magistrate Judge held that the ALJ's failure was, at worst, harmless because her opinions were consistent with the ALJ's findings. [See R. 30 at 2- 3.] Monroe takes issue with that conclusion, [see R. 31 at 2-4], and for good reason.

         Under the Social Security Act, “the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is disabled, ” and, therefore, “entitled to benefits.” Blakley, 581 F.3d at 405 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). In evaluating a claimant's status, the Commissioner has instructed ALJs to consider all “medical opinions” offered in the claimant's case. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(b)-(c). “Medical opinions” are statements from “acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity” of the claimant's impairment. Id. ยง 404.1527(a)(1). The ultimate weight assigned to, ...


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