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Figures-Yarbrough v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

April 11, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, [1]Defendant.



         Before the court is the Report and Recommendation [Doc. No. 15');">5');">5');">5] of United States Magistrate Judge Frank H. McCarthy on the judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying Social Security disability benefits to plaintiff Lorraine M. Figures-Yarbrough (“Plaintiff”), and the Objections thereto [Doc. No. 16');">6');">6');">6]. The Magistrate Judge recommends the Commissioner's decision be affirmed. For the reasons set forth below, the court agrees, the objections are overruled, and the Report and Recommendation is adopted.

         I. Procedural Background

         On April 4, 2011, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income based upon disability beginning July 1, 2010. The SSA denied that application both initially and on reconsideration. As a result, Plaintiff requested and received a hearing before Administrative Law Judge David W. Engel on May 9, 2014. The ALJ issued a written decision denying benefits on May 27, 2014. The SSA Appeals Council denied review of that decision. Consequently, the ALJ's opinion represents the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this appeal. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416');">6');">6');">6.1481.

         II. Legal Standard

         Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3), the court “must determine de novo any part of [a] magistrate judge's disposition . . . properly objected to. The district judge may accept, reject, or modify the recommended dispositions; receive further evidence; or return the matter . . . with instructions.” In the disability benefits context, de novo review is limited to determining “whether [ ] factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Doyal v. Barnhart, 5');">5');">5');">58');">331 F.3d 75');">5');">5');">58, 76');">6');">6');">60 (10th Cir. 2003). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonably mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). On review, the court will “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” White v. Barnhart, 287 F.3d 903, 905');">5');">5');">5 (10th Cir. 2001) (quotation marks and citation omitted).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff lodges a series of objections to the ALJ's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination. RFC represents “the most [a claimant] can still do despite [her] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.15');">5');">5');">545');">5');">5');">5(a)(1). In making this assessment, “the ALJ must consider all of a claimant's impairments, whether or not they are ‘severe.'” Wall v. Astrue, 5');">5');">5');">56');">6');">6');">61 F.3d 1048, 106');">6');">6');">65');">5');">5');">5 (10th Cir. 2009). Nevertheless, “there is no requirement . . . for a direct correspondence between an RFC finding and a specific medical opinion on the functional capacity in question.” Chapo v. Astrue, 6');">6');">6');">682 F.3d 1285');">5');">5');">5, 1288 (10th Cir. 2012). RFC is an administrative determination, not a medical one. See id.; Dixon v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 477 (Table), 1999 WL 6');">6');">6');">65');">5');">5');">51389, at *2 (10th Cir. Aug. 26');">6');">6');">6, 1999) (“RFC is an administrative determination made on the basis of all of the evidence in the record, not only the medical evidence.”); 20 C.F.R. 404.15');">5');">5');">546');">6');">6');">6(c) (vesting RFC determination in ALJs).

         “An ALJ's RFC formulation must be supported by substantial evidence, ” Cowan v. Astrue, 5');">5');">5');">55');">5');">5');">52 F.3d 1182');">5');">5');">5');">55');">5');">5');">52 F.3d 1182, 1190 (10th Cir. 2008), including a “narrative discussion” which “cit[es] specific medical facts (e.g., laboratory findings) and nonmedical evidence (e.g., daily activities, observations)” Soc. Sec. R. 96');">6');">6');">6-8p, 1996');">6');">6');">6 WL 374184, at *7. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC determination here.

         First, Plaintiff objects that the ALJ failed to consider Dr. Snider's opinion, including a temporary total disability (“TTD”) determination. As a threshold matter, “the concept of TTD is distinguishable from the requirements to establish disability under federal law.” See White v. Colvin, No.15');">5');">5');">5-CV-27-CVE-FHM, 2016');">6');">6');">6 WL 1175');">5');">5');">5492, at *4 (N.D. Okla. Mar. 23, 2016');">6');">6');">6). Indeed, TTD determinations “constitute nonmedical opinion[s] on whether [a claimant] will be able to return to work, which is an issue reserved to the Commissioner.” See Wraspir v. Colvin, No. CIV-14-409-F, 2015');">5');">5');">5 WL 5');">5');">5');">5822048, at *10 (W.D. Okla. Oct. 5');">5');">5');">5, 2015');">5');">5');">5) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.15');">5');">5');">527(d)(1), (3)); see also Valdez-Powell, No. 13-cv-3145');">5');">5');">5-PAB, 2015');">5');">5');">5 WL 5');">5');">5');">57196');">6');">6');">646');">6');">6');">6, at *5');">5');">5');">5 (D. Colo. Sept. 30, 2015');">5');">5');">5). To that end, “[s]uch opinions . . . are never entitled to controlling weight or given special significance.” See Duncan v. Colvin, 6');">6');">6');">608 F. App'x 5');">5');">5');">56');">6');">6');">66');">6');">6');">6, 5');">5');">5');">573 (10th Cir. 2015');">5');">5');">5).

         And the medical information in Dr. Snider's TTD opinion does not change the result. To start, subsequent evaluation by Dr. Snider revealed most of Plaintiff's symptoms to be in remission. [Doc. No. 9-6');">6');">6');">6, p. 275');">5');">5');">5');">p. 275');">5');">5');">5]. And that which remained-lumbar discomfort-was neither described as disabling nor assigned permanent functional limitations. [Doc. No. 9-6');">6');">6');">6, p. 275');">5');">5');">5');">p. 275');">5');">5');">5]. In fact, the potential for further medical complications was purely speculative. [Doc. No. 9-6');">6');">6');">6, p. 276');">6');">6');">6] (explaining Plaintiff “may possibly be subject to recurrent problems”); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) (defining “disability” as an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity” based on impairment “which can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months”) (emphasis added). That comports with the remaining medical evidence of record and accounts of Plaintiff's daily activities. See Cleveland v. Callahan, 6');">6');">6');">6');">124 F.3d 216');">6');">6');">6 (Table) (10th Cir. 1997) (unpublished) (finding lack of substantial conflict between TTD determination and medical evidence of record). Accordingly, the ALJ's error-if any-was harmless.[2]

         Second, Plaintiff objects that the ALJ improperly weighed the medical evidence of record. With respect to physical limitations, Plaintiff claims the ALJ failed to assign specific weight to the medical opinions of record. True, the record does not contain an express weighing. But that does not warrant reversal. The ALJ notes that “[a]lleged treating sources report no records on claimant” with respect to physical disability. [Doc. No. 9-5');">5');">5');">5, p. 11');">p. 11]. In this way, “[t]he lack of impairments in the medical evidence” supports the ALJ's decision. See [id.]. More fundamentally, Plaintiff cannot establish prejudice. She identifies no medical opinion or evidence that would warrant additional functional limitations. See Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 6');">6');">6');">695');">5');">5');">5 F.3d 115');">5');">5');">56');">6');">6');">6, 116');">6');">6');">62-6');">6');">6');">63 (10th Cir. 2012). To the contrary, the ALJ actually “tempere[ed] the extremes [of certain opinions] for the claimant's benefit, ” which defeats any claim of prejudice. See Chapo v. Astrue, 6');">6');">6');">682 F.3d 1285');">5');">5');">5');">6');">6');">6');">682 F.3d 1285');">5');">5');">5, 1288 (10th Cir. 2012). Accordingly, the ALJ's decision stands.

         With respect to mental limitations, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not assess the impact of non-severe impairments. Not so. The ALJ discussed and credited the conclusion of state agency psychologists that Plaintiff's depression and anxiety were “non-severe” and “well[-] controlled with medication.” [Doc. No. 9-5');">5');">5');">5, p. 8]. Nevertheless, the ALJ still “imposed slight limitation[s] in the RFC for the[se] non[-]severe conditions.” [Id.]. Plaintiff responds that the ALJ failed to account for notations regarding mental health treatment in 2011 and 2012. But those records note a prior diagnosis of depression, without any discussion of functional limitations. [Doc. No. 9-6');">6');">6');">6, pp. 25');">5');">5');">51, 25');">5');">5');">56');">6');">6');">6, 26');">6');">6');">65');">5');">5');">5, 320]. Absent evidence of limitation, mere “diagnoses by themselves are not significantly probative evidence the ALJ had to reject in order to find [claimant] was not disabled.” See Fulton v. Colvin, 6');">6');">6');">631 F. App'x 498, 5');">5');">5');">501 (10th Cir. 2015');">5');">5');">5). Therefore, “the ALJ did not need to discuss them.” See id.[3]

         Plaintiff also suggests the ALJ inadequately performed the Psychiatric Review Technique (“PRT”) in assessing her mental limitations. But there is a difference between limited assessment and legally inadequate assessment. And Plaintiff offers no evidence or argument- besides a one-sentence innuendo-that the ALJ's opinion falls on the wrong side of the line. See [Doc. No. 16');">6');">6');">6, p. 2] (“The Magistrate Judge also admits the ALJ's ‘discussion of the PRT criteria was not extensive . . . ., ' but finds it ‘adequate and supported by substantial evidence.'”). The ALJ discussed Plaintiff's daily living, cognitive, and mental functioning, as well as the conclusions of state agency psychologists. [Doc. No. 9-5');">5');">5');">5, p. 8]. And in his RFC ...

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