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Hopkins v. Colvin

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

March 31, 2017

TRACIE SUE HOPKINS, PLAINTIFF
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Thomas B. Russell, Senior Judge

         Tracie Sue Hopkins 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 her applications for disability benefits, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. After Hopkins filed a motion for summary judgment, [DN 11; DN 12], the Magistrate Judge filed 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, deny Hopkins' motion, and dismiss her complaint. [DN 19.] Hopkins objects to that course of action, arguing that the ALJ erred when he improperly weighed the medical opinion evidence of Hopkins' treating physician and when he improperly evaluated Hopkins' credibility. [DN 20.] The Commissioner responded to Hopkins' objection. [DN 22.] Having reviewed the record, the Court agrees that the ALJ failed to properly consider the medical opinion evidence of Hopkins' treating physician. Accordingly, the Court REJECTS the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation, [DN 19], and SUSTAINS IN PART Hopkins' Objection. [DN 20.] Hopkins' motion for summary judgment [DN 11] is therefore GRANTED IN PART. 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.

         BACKGROUND

         Tracie Sue Hopkins filed an application for disability and disability insurance benefits and an application for supplemental security income on July 30, 2012. [A.R. at 44.] She claims that she has been disabled since November 1, 2011. [Id.] Her alleged disabilities include fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, obesity, and a history of MRSA infections. [Id. at 47.] The Social Security Administration initially denied both of Hopkins' applications on November 19, 2012, and, upon reconsideration, adhered to that decision. [Id. at 44.] At Hopkins' request, Administrative Law Judge Scott T. Morris held an initial hearing on December 17, 2014, but Hopkins did not appear. [Id.] However, the ALJ found good cause for Hopkins' failure to appear, and held a supplemental hearing on March 4, 2015. [Id.] In addition to Hopkins, the ALJ heard testimony from vocational experts Stephanie Barnes and James B. Adams. [Id. at 44.]

         The ALJ denied Hopkins' claims on April 10, 2015. [Id. at 45.] 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 Hopkins had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. [A.R. at 46.] Second, Hopkins has multiple severe impairments, including fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).[1][Id. at 47.] Third, the ALJ found that Hopkins' impairments do not meet or equal one of the Commissioner's recognized impairments. [Id. at 50.] Fourth, Hopkins retains the residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work, although not any of her past relevant work. [Id. at 50, 53.] Fifth, in light of her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, Hopkins is able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. [Id. at 53-54.] The ALJ, therefore, determined that Hopkins is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. [Id. at 54.]

         The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on August 6, 2015. [Id. at 2- 4.] 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), Hopkins brought this action to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. [See DN 1 (Complaint).]

         The Court referred Hopkins' 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, deny Hopkins' motion for summary judgment, and dismiss Hopkins' complaint. [See DN 19 (Report and Recommendation).] Hopkins objects to that course of action. [See DN 20 (Hopkins' Objection).] The Commissioner responded to Hopkins' objection. [See DN 22 (Commissioner's Response).]

         STANDARD

         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)).

         DISCUSSION

         In this case, Hopkins argues that the ALJ erred when he failed to properly consider the medical opinions of Hopkins' treating physician, Dr. Christopher King, and when he failed to properly evaluate the credibility of Hopkins' testimony. [See DN 12 at 14-22 (Hopkins' Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment).]

         Dr. King, a board-certified neurologist, first treated Hopkins for her fibromyalgia and migraine headaches on February 17, 2011. [Id. at 400, 638.] Dr. King diagnosed Hopkins with “[u]nspecified myalgia and myositis, ” “[c]hronic migraine without aura, ” and insomnia. [Id. at 400.] Hopkins then saw Dr. King for follow up appointments every three months, [Id. at 638], including on May 17, 2011, August 22, 2012, October 22, 2012, May 17, 2013, and August 15, 2013. [Id. at 403, 470, 514, 517, 524.] Dr. King filled out a Headache Impairment Questionnaire and a Fibromyalgia Impairment Questionnaire for Hopkins on December 30, 2013. [Id. at 540- 45, 546-51.] On the Headache Impairment Questionnaire, Dr. King noted that Hopkins' prognosis was “good, ” but that “she often has migraines that last as long as three days, ” her pain is “severely intense, ” that the approximate frequency of her migraines was “weekly, ” and that Hopkins was unable to tolerate “even ‘low stress'” at work. [Id. at 638-42.] With regard to “other limitations that would affect your patient's ability to work at a regular job on a sustained basis, ” Dr. King checked the following limitations: psychological limitations, need to avoid wetness, need to avoid noise, need to avoid fumes, need to avoid gases, limited vision, need to avoid temperature extremes, no pushing, no pulling, no kneeling, no bending, and no stooping. [Id. at 642.]

         On the Fibromyalgia Impairment Questionnaire. Dr. King again stated that Hopkins' prognosis was “good, ” but identified Hopkins' primary symptoms as “pain, loss of sensation, fatigue, depression, IBS, [and] weakness.” [Id. at 646.] Dr. King identified the locations of Hopkins' pain as in her lumbrosacral spine, cervical spine, thoracic spine, chest, shoulders, arms, hands/fingers, hips, legs, and knees/ankles/feet. [Id. at 646-47.] Dr. King described the frequency of Hopkins' pain as “daily, ” the severity of her pain as a nine out of ten, and opined that Hopkins could only sit between 0-1 hours in an eight-hour day and could only stand/walk between 0-1 hours in an eight-hour day. [Id. at 647-48.] Moreover, Dr. King opined that Hopkins must get up to move around every twenty minutes and could not sit again for twenty minutes. [Id.] As far as lifting, Dr. King stated that Hopkins could occasionally lift or carry between 0-20 pounds but could never lift or carry more than that. [Id.] Dr. King further estimated that Hopkins would sometimes need to take unscheduled breaks during an eight-hour workday, and that these unscheduled breaks would occur “at least every 30 mins” and would last twenty minutes. [Id. at 649.] Moreover, Hopkins would need to be absent from work due to her limitations approximately “two to three times a month.” [Id.] Dr. King again noted that Hopkins is unable to tolerate any stressful situations.” [Id.]

         The ALJ gave Dr. King's medical opinions “little weight.” [Id. at 52.] In doing so, the ALJ stated that, although Dr. King opined that Hopkins was “severely limited due to her impairments, ” these assessments were not supported by objective medical evidence, were inconsistent with the opinions of the examining and reviewing physicians, and relied heavily on ...


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