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Daniel C. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

December 18, 2019

Daniel C., Plaintiff,
Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          Karl E. Osterhout, Osterhout Disability Law, LLC, and Edward C. Olson, Disability Attorneys of Minnesota, (for Plaintiff);

          Kizuwanda Curtis, Assistant Regional Counsel, Social Security Administration, (for Defendant).



         Plaintiff Daniel C. brings the present action, contesting Defendant Commissioner of Social Security's denial of his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment and consented to a final judgment from a magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and D. Minn. LR 7.2. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion, denies Defendant's motion, and remands this matter for further consideration.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff initiated his claim on August 27, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of March 3, 2015. Plaintiff alleges impairments of major depressive disorder, anxiety with panic attacks, short-term memory loss, high cholesterol, and shortness of breath. Plaintiff was found not disabled and that finding was affirmed upon reconsideration. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. A hearing was held and, on February 7, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claim for benefits. Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision through the Appeals Council, which denied review. Plaintiff now seeks review in this Court.

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ found Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements through December 31, 2019. (Tr. 14). Through the date last insured, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the severe impairments of memory disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, and obstructive sleep apnea. (Tr. 14). The ALJ next concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listing in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. (Tr. 15). The ALJ looked at Listings 12.02 (neurocognitive disorders), 12.04 (anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders), and 12.06 (anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders). (Tr. 15-16). The ALJ determined Plaintiff has the residual functioning capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following nonexertional limitations: “limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks involving only simple work-related decisions with few, if any, workplace changes. The claimant's work should consist of quota-based tasks (as opposed to strict production requirements). The claimant should have no more than occasional contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the public.” (Tr. 16). While Plaintiff could not perform his past work, the ALJ concluded that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform when considering his age, education, work experience, and RFC. (Tr. 23). Accordingly, Plaintiff was found not disabled from March 3, 2015 through the date of decision. (Tr. 24).

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Legal Standard

         Disability benefits are available to individuals determined disabled. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1); accord 20 C.F.R. § 404.315. An individual is disabled if he is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). This standard is met when a severe physical or mental impairment, or impairments, renders the individual unable to do his previous work or “any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy” when taking into account his age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C.§§ 423(d)(2)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). Disability is determined according to a five-step, sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

To determine disability, the ALJ follows the familiar five-step process, considering whether: (1) the claimant was employed; (2) she was severely impaired; (3) her impairment was, or was comparable to, a listed impairment; (4) she could perform past relevant work; and if not, (5) whether she could perform any other kind of work.

Halverson v. Astrue, 600 F.3d 922, 929 (8th Cir. 2010) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)). In general, the burden of proving the existence of disability lies with the claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a); Thomas v. Sullivan, 928 F.2d 255, 260 (8th Cir. 1991).

         If “substantial evidence” supports the findings of the Commissioner, then these findings are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is deferential because the decision is reviewed “only to ensure that it is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.” Hensley v. Barnhart, 352 F.3d 353, 355 (8th Cir. 2003). The Court's task is “simply to review the record for legal error and to ensure that the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Id. This Court must “consider evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision as well as evidence that supports it.” Burnside v. Apfel, 223 F.3d 840, 843 (8th Cir. 2000). A court cannot reweigh the evidence or “reverse the Commissioner's decision merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite conclusion or merely because [a court] would have decided the case differently.” Harwood v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 1039, 1042 (8th Cir. 1999).

         Plaintiff asserts the ALJ erred in weighing the June 2016 and October 2016 opinions of neurologist Dr. Kenneth B. Hoj and the June 2016 opinion of therapist Eric Trudell. Under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c), medical opinions from treating sources are weighed using several factors: (1) the examining relationship; (2) the treatment relationship, such as the (i) length of the treatment relationship and frequency of examination and the (ii) nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (3) supportability; (4) consistency; (5) specialization; and (6) other factors.

         If a treating source's medical opinion on the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record, ” it is given controlling weight. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). Treating sources are defined as licensed physicians, licensed or certified psychologists, licensed optometrists, licensed podiatrists, and qualified speech-language pathologists. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1513(a). A “treating physician's own inconsistency may . . . undermine his opinion and diminish or eliminate the weight given his opinions.” Hacker v. Barnhart, 459 F.3d 934, 937 (8th Cir. 2006) (citing Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1013 (8th Cir. 2000)).

         B. The Opinions of Dr. Hoj and Trudell

         1. Dr. Hoj

         Dr. Hoj completed a medical source statement on June 10, 2016. (Tr. 833-40). Dr. Hoj noted Plaintiff's medical diagnosis was memory loss and depression and he had been treating Plaintiff since April 10, 2015. (Tr. 833, 837). Dr. Hoj did not identify any clinical findings or objective signs of the condition diagnosed. (Tr. 833). Dr. Hoj provided no opinion as to whether Plaintiff's ailments or medication interfered with his attention and concentration. (Tr. 833). Dr. Hoj rated Plaintiff as incapable of tolerating low stress work. (Tr. 834). In his opinion, Plaintiff's symptoms would interfere to the extent Plaintiff would be unable to maintain persistence and pace for competitive employment. (Tr. 834). Dr. Hoj also opined Plaintiff was incapable of part-time competitive work. (Tr. 834). Dr. Hoj indicated Plaintiff may need to lie down in the workday if stressed out. (Tr. 836). Dr. Hoj found it “difficult to answer” the amount of days Plaintiff might miss from work per month due to symptoms because he felt Plaintiff “would have difficulty” with making quick decisions and multitasking. (Tr. 836). Plaintiff would experience fatigue that would moderately impair his ability to work. (Tr. 836). Dr. Hoj opined Plaintiff would not need any extra breaks or rest periods in the workday. (Tr. 836). Plaintiff's depression moderately impacted his ability to perform activities of daily living, ability to maintain social functioning, and ability to maintain concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 837). Dr. Hoj did not state whether Plaintiff experienced episodes of decompensation but nonetheless indicated they occurred on a “seldom” basis, meaning once or twice per year lasting for two weeks. (Tr. 838). Dr. Hoj did not rate Plaintiff's ability to understand, remember, and carry out simple job instructions, but rated it as poor or no ability as to detailed or complex job instructions. (Tr. 838). Dr. Hoj opined Plaintiff had fair ability to deal with coworkers, supervisors, and the public in an employment setting, fair ability to tolerate normal routine supervision associated with competitive work, including accepting instructions and criticism, and poor or no ability to deal with changes in a routine work setting. (Tr. 838). Dr. Hoj indicated Plaintiff had a fair ability to make basic decisions and exercise proper judgment in a work setting; sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision; work with or near others without being distracted; and perform activities within a schedule, be punctual, and adhere to basic work-place standards. (Tr. 839). Dr. Hoj rated Plaintiff as having poor or no ability to maintain attention and concentration for a two-hour segment and complete a normal workday or work week without interruptions from psychological symptoms. (Tr. 839). Finally, Dr. Hoj rated Plaintiff as having a good ability to maintain socially appropriate behavior. (Tr. 839).

         Dr. Hoj completed a statement of disability form on October 7, 2016. (Tr. 439- 40). Dr. Hoj noted Plaintiff was diagnosed with memory loss that had been shown via neuropsychometric testing. (Tr. 439). Dr. Hoj noted he sees Plaintiff every six months. (Tr. 439). Dr. Hoj indicated he does not treat Plaintiff's depression, anxiety, or chemical dependency. (Tr. 440). Dr. Hoj noted Plaintiff has “not changed” under his care. (Tr. 440). Dr. Hoj opined Plaintiff was not released to return to work and would never return to work. (Tr. 440). Dr. Hoj noted no physical barriers to return to work and further noted that any rating of the degree of Plaintiff's mental impairments would have “to be through [a] psychiatrist.” (Tr. 440). Dr. Hoj believed Plaintiff was competent to endorse checks and use the proceeds. (Tr. 440).

         For Dr. Hoj's October 2016 opinion, the ALJ found it to be of “little probative value given its limited scope and purpose.” (Tr. 21). But the ALJ noted that Dr. Hoj's opinion that Plaintiff was not released to work was supported by his prior treatment notes wherein he opined that Plaintiff would not be able to perform the demands of his past job due to limited capacity for significant multitasking. (Tr. 21). The ALJ also noted that Dr. Hoj's opinion that Plaintiff does not require physical work restrictions is consistent with the longitudinal medical record. (Tr. 21).

         With respect to Dr. Hoj's June 2016 opinion, the ALJ gave it limited weight because the “degree of functional limitations he proposes are unsupported by the evidentiary record.” (Tr. 21). The ALJ noted that Dr. Hoj's June 2016 opinion was inconsistent with his October 2016 opinion, with the former reporting physical restrictions and the latter reporting none. (Tr. 21). The ALJ also contrasted Dr. Hoj's opined limitations with Plaintiff's activities, other medical records, and Dr. Hoj's treatment notes. (Tr. 21). The ALJ concluded that these considerations “coupled with the relative stability of symptomology” do not support Dr. Hoj's conclusions regarding Plaintiff's ability to perform low stress jobs, deal with changes in work setting, or maintain persistence and pace necessary to engage in competitive employment. (Tr. 21- 22).

         2. ...

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