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Tucker v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

December 28, 2017

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



         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 supplemental security income 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.


         Initially and on reconsideration, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application for benefits. Following an administrative hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 19-30). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (TR. 1-4). 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. § 416.920. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 29, 2013, the application date/amended onset date. (TR. 21, 40). At step two, the ALJ determined Ms. Tucker had the following severe impairments: Hepatitis C, overweight, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and substance abuse disorder. (TR. 21). 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. 21).

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Tucker retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

[P]erform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) meaning that she can perform no lifting or carrying more than 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently with pushing/pulling limitations consistent with lifting and carrying limitations; can stand/walk for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday; can sit for up to eight hours in an eight-hour workday; can perform simple and routine tasks but must be a habituated work setting and object oriented setting with only superficial contact with supervisors and incidental contact with co-workers. She can have no contact with the public.

(TR. 22-23). With this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (TR. 28). As a result, the ALJ made additional findings at 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. 71-72). Given the limitations, the VE identified three jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (TR. 72-73). The ALJ adopted the testimony of the VE and concluded that Ms. Tucker was not disabled based on her ability to perform the identified jobs. (TR. 29-30).


         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred in his consideration of the opinions of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Linda Cummings, M.D., as well as other medical evidence. Ms. Tucker also contends that these errors affected the RFC and the ALJ's step five findings.


         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).


         Ms. Tucker alleges that the ALJ erred in evaluating opinions from her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Linda Cummings. (ECF No. 14:6-9). Plaintiff is correct.

         A. ALJ's Duty to Assess a Treating Source's Opinion

         Specific SSA regulations govern the consideration of opinions by “acceptable medical sources.” See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.902, 416.913(a). The Commissioner generally gives the greatest weight to the medical opinions of a “treating source, ” which includes a physician who has “provided [the claimant] with medical treatment or evaluation” during a current or past “ongoing treatment relationship.” Id. §§ 416.902, 416.927(c); Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d 1116, 1119 (10th Cir. 2004).

         An ALJ must follow a particular analysis in evaluating a treating source'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 § 416.927.

         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, 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).

         “In choosing to reject the treating physician's assessment, an ALJ may not make speculative inferences from medical reports and may reject a treating physician's opinion outright only on the basis of contradictory medical evidence and not due to his or her own credibility judgments, speculation, or lay opinion.” Robinson v. Barnhart, 366 F.3d 1078, 1082 (10th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         B. Dr. Cummings' Opinions

         The record contains numerous treatment notes from Dr. Cummings dated August 2006 through July 2012 and February 2013 through June 2015. (TR. 293-325, 342-365, 402, 501-505, 560-564, 584-587, 628-641). All of those notes indicate that Dr. Cummings had diagnosed Plaintiff with schizoaffective disorder; bipolar disorder; anxiety with panic attacks; social anxiety; and agoraphobia with panic attacks. (TR. 293-325, 342-365, 402, 501-505, 560-564, 584-587, 628-641). Dr. Cummings treated Plaintiff's conditions by prescribing Prozac, Seroquel, Chlorpromazine, and Alprazolam. (TR. 293-325, 342-365, 402, 501-505, 560-564, 584-587, 628-641).

         On October 22, 2015, Dr. Cummings completed a “Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment” (MRFCA) and a “Mental Status Form.” (MSF). (TR. 642-645). In the MRFCA, Dr. Cummings stated that Plaintiff was “markedly” limited in her ability to:

• Remember locations and work-like procedures,
• Perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances,
• Make simple, work-related decisions,
• Complete a normal work-day and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable ...

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