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Crissinger v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

May 31, 2017

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



         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. The Commissioner has answered and filed a transcript of the administrative record (hereinafter TR.__). The parties have consented to jurisdiction over this matter by a United States magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         The parties have briefed their positions, and the matter is now at issue. Based on the Court's review of the record and the issues presented, the Court REVERSES AND REMANDS the Commissioner's decision for further administrative development.


         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits initially and on reconsideration. Following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 22-40). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (TR. 1-3). Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner.


         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by agency regulations. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 731 (10th Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 5, 2012, the alleged disability onset date. (TR. 24). At step two, the ALJ determined Mr. Crissinger had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, disorders of the spine, anxiety, and depression. (TR. 24). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the presumptively disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (TR. 24).

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work. (TR. 38). The ALJ further concluded that Mr. Crissinger had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

[P]erform less than a full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). The claimant occasionally can lift/carry/push/pull 20 pounds and frequently lift/carry/push/pull 10 pounds; stand/walk 4 hours total in an 8 hour work day; sit 6 hours total in an 8 hour work day; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally climb stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; occasionally reach overhead; and perform simple instructions (understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions) with superficial interaction with coworkers and supervisors, but no interaction with the public.

(TR. 35).

         Based on the finding that Mr. Crissinger could not perform his past relevant work, the ALJ proceeded to step five. There, the ALJ presented several limitations to a vocational expert (VE) to determine whether there were other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (TR. 78-80). Given the limitations, the VE identified three jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (TR. 80). The ALJ adopted the testimony of the VE and concluded that Mr. Crissinger was not disabled based on his ability to perform the identified jobs. (TR. 39-40).


         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred: (1) in the evaluation of medical evidence and (2) in the credibility determination.


         This Court reviews the Commissioner's final “decision to determin[e] whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1140 (10th Cir. 2010). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted).

         While the court considers whether the ALJ followed the applicable rules of law in weighing particular types of evidence in disability cases, the court will “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Vigil v. Colvin, 805 F.3d 1199, 1201 (10th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).


         In his first proposition, Mr. Crissinger argues that the ALJ erred in his evaluation of the medical evidence, namely in his consideration of: (1) an opinion from treating physician Hamid Mahmood, and (2) of an opinion from medical expert Dr. Eppstein, who testified at the hearing. The Court agrees.

         A. The ALJ's Evaluation of Dr. Mahmood's Opinion

         As alleged by Plaintiff, the ALJ erred in his evaluation of opinion evidence from Plaintiff's treating physician.

         ALJ's Duty to Assess a Treating Physician's Opinion

         An ALJ must follow a particular analysis in evaluating a treating physician's opinion. First, the ALJ has to determine, then explain, whether the opinion is entitled to controlling weight. Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1119 (10th Cir. 2004). An opinion is entitled to controlling weight if it is “well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is consistent with the other substantial evidence in the record.” Allman v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 1326, 1331 (10th Cir. 2016) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “But if the ALJ decides that the treating physician's opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, the ALJ must then consider whether the opinion should be rejected altogether or assigned some lesser weight.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         In doing so, the ALJ must assess the opinion under a series of factors which include: (1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, including the treatment provided and the kind of examination or testing performed; (3) the degree to which the physician's opinion is supported by relevant evidence; (4) consistency between the opinion and the record as a whole; (5) whether or not the physician is a specialist in the area upon which an opinion is rendered; and (6) other factors brought to the ALJ's attention which tend to support or contradict the opinion. Id. at 1331-1332 (internal quotation marks omitted); Krausner v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1330 (10th Cir. 2011); 20 C.F.R § 404.1527.

         Ultimately, an ALJ “must give good reasons for the weight assigned to a treating physician's opinion, ” and “[t]he reasons must be sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the [ALJ] gave to the treating source's medical opinion and the reason for that weight.” Allman v. Colvin, 813 F.3d at 1332. If the ALJ rejects an opinion completely, he must give “specific, legitimate reasons” for doing so. Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1300 (10th Cir. 2003) (internal citations omitted).

         Opinion from Dr. Mahmood

         Dr. Mahmood treated Plaintiff as a primary care physician from April 2007 to May 2014. (TR. 415-453, 508-509, 653-655, 684-688, 710, 781-787). On May 17, 2012, Dr. Mahmood diagnosed Plaintiff with fibromyalgia after noting that Plaintiff tested positive on 16 of 18 “trigger points” on Plaintiff's body which are used to test for the presence of the disease. (TR. 509). On March 8, 2013, Dr. Mahmood completed a “Physical Capacities Evaluation” where the physician documented Mr. Crissinger's various work-related abilities and limitations. (TR. 684-688). There, the physician diagnosed Mr. Crissinger with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, osteoarthritis, cervical spondylosis, PTSD, depression, and a sleep disorder. (TR. 686, 688). According to Dr. Mahmood, Plaintiff had the ability to:

• sit, stand, and walk for 1 hour during an 8-hour workday,
• frequently lift and/or carry up to 5 pounds, and
• occasionally lift and/or carry between 6-10 pounds.

(TR. 684-685). Dr. Mahmood also stated that Mr. Crissinger ...

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