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Lindy T. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 11, 2019

Lindy T., Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Edward C. Olson, Esq., Disability Attorneys of Minnesota, and Karl E. Osterhout, Esq., Osterhout Disability Law, LLC, counsel for Plaintiff.

          Elvi D. Jenkins, Esq., United States Attorney's Office, counsel for Defendant.



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits. This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, in accordance with D. Minn. LR 7.2(c)(1). (Doc. Nos. 17, 21.) For the reasons stated below, the Court concludes that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Therefore, Plaintiff's motion is denied and Defendant's motion is granted.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of July 31, 2014. (Tr. 27, 74.)[1] In a decision dated February 1, 2017, the ALJ conducted the five-step sequential analysis[2] and found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 27-43.) At step 2 of the sequential analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; and cubital tunnel syndrome on the left. (Tr. 29.) However, between steps 3 and 4, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, except with the following limitations: no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; occasional overhead reaching; frequent reaching in all other directions; and no power gripping or torqueing type activities using the hands or wrists. (Tr. 33.) At steps four and five, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a server or, in the alternative, other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 41-42.)[3]

         II. Standard of Review

          The ALJ's decision will be upheld if the decision is supported substantial evidence in the record a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Kluesner v. Astrue, 607 F.3d 533, 536 (8th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough so that a reasonable mind might find it adequate to support the conclusion.” Robinson v. Sullivan, 956 F.3d 836, 838 (8th Cir. 1992). All evidence in the record is considered, whether it supports or detracts from the ALJ's decision. Pelkey v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 578 (8th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). In doing so, the Court does not “reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ, and [the Court] defer[s] to the ALJ's determinations regarding the credibility of testimony, as long as those determinations are supported by good reasons and substantial evidence.” Gonzales v. Barnhart, 465 F.3d 890, 894 (8th Cir. 2006) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). If, after reviewing the record, it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the ALJ's findings, the ALJ's decision must be affirmed. Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065, 1068 (8th Cir. 2000).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ improperly weighed the opinion of Plaintiff's longtime treating physician, Dr. Petry, contrary to agency policy and Eighth Circuit precedent. (Doc. No. 18, Pl.'s Mem. 4-30.) Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to address the factors set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)[4] before determining the weight given. (Pl.'s Mem. 14.)

         “A treating physician's opinion regarding an applicant's impairment will be granted controlling weight, provided the opinion is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence on the record.” Singh v. Apfel, 222 F.3d 448, 452 (8th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted). Although a treating physician's opinion is usually entitled to great weight, it “do[es] not automatically control, since the record must be evaluated as a whole.” Bentley v. Shalala, 52 F.3d 784, 785-86 (8th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).

         The regulations require that the ALJ must “always give good reasons” for the weight given to a treating physician's opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). “Good reasons for assigning lesser weight to the opinion of a treating source exist where the treating physician's opinions are themselves inconsistent, or where other medical assessments are supported by better or more thorough evidence.” Chesser v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 1161, 1164 (8th Cir. 2017) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). An ALJ may “justifiably discount the opinion of a treating physician where it is inconsistent or contrary to the medical evidence as a whole.” Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 925 (8th Cir. 2011) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). Moreover, a treating physician's opinion does not deserve controlling weight when it is nothing more than a conclusory statement. See Piepgras v. Chater, 76 F.3d 233, 236 (8th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted).

         Plaintiff points to the Medical Source Statement (“MSS”) filled out by Dr. Petry, asserting it is generally at odds with the RFC assessment provided by the ALJ. (Pl.'s Mem. 6; Tr. 33, 381-86.) There, Dr. Petry set forth his opinion that Plaintiff could not function in a competitive work setting, even on a part-time[5] basis. (Tr. 382-83.)[6] The ALJ gave “little weight” to Dr. Petry's opinion, reasoning that the opinion was not supported by Dr. Petry's own June 3, 2015 examination of Plaintiff or the overall course of treatment. (Tr. 40.) The ALJ also found other evidence in the record, such as Plaintiff's daily activities, Dr. Neil Johnson's[7] findings, and the findings of the physicians employed by the State Disability Determination Services (“SDDS”), did not support Dr. Petry's opinion. (Tr. 35-36, 39-40, 53-60, 73-84, 86-97, 352-62.)

         In particular, the ALJ explained that Dr. Petry's opinion lacked citation or reference to any objective findings or data to support or corroborate his opinion. (Tr. 40.)[8] Further, the ALJ found that Dr. Petry's opinion did not provide any rationale as to why Plaintiff would miss work at the frequency he indicated. (Tr. 40.) Instead, the opinion appeared to be based “primary [sic] on [Plaintiff]'s self-report of symptoms and limitations . . .”, such as Plaintiff's self-report of not being able to walk 200 feet. (Tr. 40- 41.) Treating opinions based ...

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