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Rowe v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

June 22, 2017

DEBORAH ROWE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.


          Robert E. Wier United States Magistrate Judge.

         The Court considers cross-motions for summary judgment under the District's standard briefing protocol. Plaintiff/Claimant, Deborah Rowe, by counsel, appeals the Commissioner's denial of Title II disability insurance benefits.[2] The Court GRANTS the Commissioner's motion (DE #21) and DENIES Rowe's motion (DE #19). The ALJ adequately justified his weighing of the various medical opinions, and substantial evidence supported his RFC formulation, other factual determinations, and ultimate decision.

         I. Relevant Facts and Procedural Overview

         , Rowe filed for a Title II period of disability and disability insurance benefits on October 17, 2012, alleging a disability beginning on October 12, 2012. R. at 40. She claimed that macular degeneration, IBS, phonic processing disorder, fibromyalgia, sleep apnea, fatty liver, neck pain, muscle spasms, depression, ADD, PTSD, osteoarthritis, and GERD, among other ailments, foreclosed her ability to work. R. at 244. In February 2013, the Social Security Administration denied her initial claim for benefits. R. at 106-128. On reconsideration in July 2013, the Administration again denied the claim. R. at 129-152. Upon Rowe's request pursuant to Part 404, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Jonathan Stanley conducted a video hearing on October 21, 2014. R. at 37-62. Vocational Expert Robert G. Piper also testified at the hearing. Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Rowe was not under a disability during the relevant period and denied her claim. Id. The Appeals Council denied Rowe's request for review, precipitating the instant Complaint. R. at 1; DE #1 (Complaint).

         In evaluating Rowe's disability claim, the ALJ conducted the recognized five-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The ALJ first determined that Rowe had not engaged in substantial gainful activity, a defined term, since October 12, 2012, the alleged onset date. R. at 42.[3] Next, the ALJ found that Rowe established nineteen severe impairments: (1) obesity; (2) degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine with cervicalgia/radiculopathy, status post fusion at ¶ 3-4, C5-6, and C6-7; (3) degenerative disc disease of the thoracic spine with pain; (4) degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with pain; (5) paresthesia of the upper extremities by report; (6) degenerative joint disease of the left hip with bursitis; (7) degenerative joint disease of the left knee with pain; (8) history of right foot pain; (9) fibromyalgia; (10) osteoarthritis by report; (11) asthma; (12) bipolar disorder; (13) major depressive disorder, not otherwise specified; (14) PTSD; (15) anxiety; (16) panic disorder by report; (17) ADHD; (18) personality disorder, not otherwise specified; and (19) memory loss. Id. The decision characterized and discussed twenty-four other impairments as non-severe. R. at 43-46. In the third step, the ALJ determined that Rowe's multiple impairments did not “meet[] or medically equal[] the severity of one of the listed impairments[.]” R. at 46. In assessing Rowe's residual functional capacity (RFC), the ALJ concluded that Rowe had the capacity “to perform light work . . . [and from] a mental standpoint, she can understand, remember, and carry out short simple instructions and make simple work-related judgments.” The ALJ made other specific findings as to Rowe's RFC. R. at 48-56. The ALJ next (step 4) found Rowe “unable to perform any past relevant work” based on the vocational expert's testimony. R. at 56. Under the final step, the ALJ found (taking into account the vocational expert's testimony) that “considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the claimant is capable of making a successful adjustment to the other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” R. at 57. The ALJ thus concluded that Rowe had not been under a disability, during the relevant period, [4] as defined in the Social Security Act, and denied the application for disability benefits and disability insurance benefits. Id.

         Rowe, by counsel, timely filed for review with the Appeals Council, which denied review. Plaintiff subsequently filed the instant action for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Rowe now moves for summary judgment, contending that the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinions of Claimant's treating physician and two examining medical sources and erred in failing to consider a diagnosis of borderline intellection functioning as an impairment when determining Rowe's RFC. The Commissioner filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. The motions stand ripe and ready for review. The Court has carefully evaluated the briefing and full record.

         II. Standard of Review

         Judicial review pursuant to § 405(g) is narrow. The Court confines itself to determining whether substantial evidence supported the ALJ's factual rulings and whether the Secretary properly applied the relevant legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Brainard v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 889 F.2d 679 (6th Cir. 1989) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427 (1971)). Per the Social Security Act's express terms, the Commissioner's findings are conclusive as to any fact supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Heston, 245 F.3d at 534 (quoting Perales, 91 S.Ct. at 1427); see also Osborne v. Colvin, No. 0:13-CV-174-EBA, 2014 WL 2506459, at *3 (E.D. Ky. June 3, 2014) (applying standard).

         Given the limited nature of substantial evidence review, the Court does weigh matters de novo, make credibility determinations, or resolve conflicts in the evidence. Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). Indeed, if substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the reviewing court must affirm the ALJ “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) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The deferential standard creates for the Commissioner a “zone of choice, ” which, in the presence of adequately supportive evidence, is immune from Court interference. Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986)). The Commissioner must, however, comply with the Agency's own procedural rules, and a prejudicial deviation from requisite procedures warrants remand. Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 545 (6th Cir. 2004).

         The ALJ's opinion was thorough, exhaustive, and fully compliant with the applicable law. Despite the numerical torrent of impairments, the ALJ carefully and expertly parsed the record and made a well-defended and reasonable decision counter to Rowe, which the Court here upholds.

         III. Analysis

         1. The ALJ did not commit reversible error in assigning weight to Dr. Ellis's April 2014 assessment.

         Rowe first argues that the ALJ “violated 20 CFR § 404.1527[(c)(2)] by failing to state good reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted medical opinion from” treating source, Dr. Ellis.

         DE #19-1, at 8. In his ruling, the ALJ stated:

Likewise, some weight is ascribed the treating source statement of attending family physician Brian Ellis, M.D. (19F), because his spartan finding of the claimant's inability to perform even a reduced range of sedentary work for 8 hours per day is patently incongruous with the overwhelming body of contradictory medical evidence encompassing exam findings (including his own), diagnostic test results, and correspondingly conservative treatment, in addition to details of the claimant's largely independent married lifestyle - all of which have been discussed and cited in detail above.

         R. at 54-55. Rowe's critique centers on the ALJ giving the opinion merely “some weight, ” “without explaining what weight was give[n] or the reasons for giving [the] opinion ‘some weight.'” DE #19-1, at 10-11 (emphasis removed). The Commissioner defends the ALJ's reasoning as adequate under the implementing rules and regulations.

         “An ALJ gives ‘controlling weight' to a treating physician's opinion if the opinion ‘is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the claimant's] case record.'” Maloney v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 480 Fed. App'x 804, 808-09 (6th ...

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