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Scuggins v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

March 9, 2018

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



         Before the Court is the Report & Recommendation (“R&R”) (Doc. 19) of United States Magistrate Judge Paul J. Cleary on review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying the Plaintiff, Patricia Scuggins, disability benefits. Judge McCarthy recommends that the Court affirm the Commissioner's decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Ms. Scuggins filed a timely Objection (Doc. 20) to the R&R. Reviewing the Objection de novo, the Court has considered the Administrative Record (“Record”) (Doc. 13), the parties' briefs, the R&R, Plaintiff's Objection, and the Commissioner's Response (Doc. 21), and concludes that the Commissioner's determination should be affirmed and the R&R should be accepted.

         I. Background

         Judge Cleary accurately summarized the background of plaintiff's disability claim and the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (Doc. 19 at 3-5), and the Court adopts that summary. Plaintiff objects to the R&R on two grounds, which will be addressed below.

         II. Standard of Review

          Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3), “[t]he district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to. The district judge may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.” The Court's task of reviewing the Commissioner's decision involves determining “whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied.” Doyal v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. “It is ‘more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.'” Newbold v. Colvin, 718 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2013) (quoting Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007)). The Court will “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the agency.” Martinez v. Barnhart, 444 F.3d 1201, 1204 (10th Cir. 2006) (quoting Casias v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 800 (10th Cir. 1991)).

         III. Specific Objections

         A. Medical Opinion Evidence

         Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ erred in giving greater weight to the opinions of non-examining agency consultants than to the opinions of Ms. Scuggins' treating physicians. Plaintiff points out that, due to when the non-examining agency reports were completed, those consultants were unable to consider her most recent medical reports (R. 691-757, 770-806).

         “Generally the opinion of a treating physician is given more weight than that of an examining consultant, and the opinion of a non-examining consultant is given the least weight.” Tietjen v. Colvin, 527 F. App'x 705, 708 (10th Cir. 2013) (unpublished); see also Robinson v. Barnhart, 366 F.3d 1078, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007)), 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(1)-(2). In some circumstances, however, the opinion of a non-examining source “may be entitled to greater weight than the opinions of treating or examining sources.” SSR 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180, at *3 (superseded by SSR 17-2p, 2017 WL 3928306 (effective March 27, 2017)). In that case, the ALJ must provide a “legally sufficient explanation” for rejecting the opinion of a treating physician in favor of the opinion of a non-examining source. Robinson, 366 F.3d at 1084.

         In regard to Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ thoroughly explained her reasoning for giving the medical opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians, Dr. Jeannette Ramos-Fast and Dr. Charles D. Van Tuyl, diminished weight. (R. 101, 103-04). Specifically, she found that Dr. Ramos-Fast's opinion was inconsistent with the record of her treatment of Plaintiff and that Dr. Van Tuyl's opinions were not supported by the totality of the medical evidence. (R. 101, 103).

         The ALJ also determined that the non-examining medical opinion at the reconsideration level was consistent with Plaintiff's Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score, her level of daily activities, and her interaction with family, as reported by Dr. Peter Ciali, the consultative examiner. (R. 105). Moreover, the Court finds nothing in the Plaintiff's most recent medical records that show a material change in her condition that would render the non-examining source opinion stale. See Tarpley v. Colvin, 601 F. App'x 641, 644 (10th Cir. 2015) (unpublished). On June 12, 2014, Plaintiff reported that she was “doing fine” on her current medications and that her moods were stable and she was happy. (R. 738). On July 10, 2014, Plaintiff reported that “her depression [was] under good control, no problems, and no manic episodes.” (R. 740). She reported feeling depressed on July 18, 2014 (R. 744), but then stated that her moods were stable and that she felt happy on September 2, 2014. (R. 776). On December 4, 2014, she stated that her moods were “basically stable” and that she had no manic episodes, despite experiencing some seasonal depression. (R. 778). On December 31, 2014, she reported symptoms of PTSD, schizoaffective disorder, anxiety, panic, and insomnia. (R. 780). However, her physician noted on that date-as he had in previous treatment notes-that her thought process was logical; her thought content was normal; hallucinations, delusions, and obsessions were absent, her recent and remote memory was good; her attention span and concentration was good, her fund of knowledge was good; she had reported no problem concentrating; and her judgment and insight was good. (R. 780-81). Also, far from ignoring these more recent medical records, the ALJ discussed them rather thoroughly in her decision. (R. 95, 103).

         Overall, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ'S RFC assessment that Plaintiff is “limited to simple routine tasks, ” that “she is able to perform superficial and incidental work-related interaction with coworkers and supervisors, ” but that she “should have no significant public interaction required for completion of job tasks.” (R. 98). The Court finds no reversible error in ALJ's decision to give greater weight to the non-examining psychologist's opinion than to the other medical opinions.

         As to Plaintiff's physical impairments, the ALJ explained that she was giving the treating physician's opinion diminished weight because it was inconsistent with that physician's own treatment notes and with the consultative examiner's findings. (R. 101). She also determined that the non-examining medical consultant's RFC assessment of medium work was consistent with the findings of the consultative examiner. (R. 105). Furthermore, the ALJ ...

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