United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma
ARIC B. PATTERSON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
J. CAUTHRON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
January 22, 2019, United States Magistrate Judge Gary M.
Purcell issued his Report and Recommendation
(“R&R”) in this action in which Plaintiff
challenges the decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security's decision to deny him Social Security benefits.
Judge Purcell recommended that the case be remanded back to
the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) for proper
consideration of the opinions of Plaintiff's treating
psychiatrist, Dr. Steve Skarky. Defendant's objection to
the R&R was timely filed, and the Court reviews the
matter de novo.
2013, Plaintiff has suffered from a range of severe
impairments, including: migraines, muscle spasms in his lower
back and legs, bipolar disorder, panic disorder without
agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, and ADHD.
(Dkt. 13-2, p. 20.) From this time until 2016, Plaintiff was
observed and treated by psychiatrist Dr. Steve Skarky. (Dkt.
No. 13-8, p. 187.) In a series of three opinions between 2015
and 2016, Dr. Skarky expressed concern about how Plaintiff
would function in a reasonable work environment, and found
that Plaintiff would experience a range of moderate, marked,
and extreme limitations in the workplace. (Id. at
pp. 118, 137-138, 185-186.) According to Dr. Skarky,
Plaintiff's impairments would render him unable to
effectively respond to workplace pressures or even remember,
comprehend, and carry out simple instructions on an
independent basis. (Id. at p. 118.)
formally applied for disability benefits on June 30, 2015.
(Dkt. No. 13-2, p. 18.) His request was denied both initially
and upon reconsideration. (Id.) He thereafter
requested a hearing, which took place in November 2016.
(Id.) Then in July 2017 the ALJ concluded that
Plaintiff was “not disabled under sections 216(i) and
223(d) of the Social Security Act, ” and thus not
entitled to disability benefits. (Id. at 30.)
Consistent with the five-step sequential evaluation process
mandated by agency regulations, the ALJ found: (1) Plaintiff
had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March
25, 2013-his alleged onset date; (2) Plaintiff had several
severe impairments, including migraine headaches, generalized
anxiety disorder, and ADHD, among others; (3) Plaintiff did
not have an impairment severe enough to equal any impairments
listed at 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1; (4)
Plaintiff did not have the residual functional capacity to
perform his prior relevant work; and (5) Plaintiff could
perform a significant number of other jobs that exist in the
national economy. (See id. at pp. 20-30.)
fourth step of the analysis, the ALJ accorded limited weight
to the opinions of Dr. Skarky. She did so because, in her
view, Dr. Skarky's opinions contained some
inconsistencies and were based on statements made by
Plaintiff, rather than medical evidence. (Id. at
28.) Plaintiff subsequently appealed the ALJ's ruling to
this Court, where the Magistrate Judge recommended that the
ALJ's decision be reversed and remanded. (See
generally Dkt. No. 23.) The Magistrate Judge largely
took issue with the ALJ's reasoning for according limited
weight to the opinions of Dr. Skarky. The Magistrate Judge
noted that treating sources are generally accorded greater
deference, and criticized the ALJ's “flawed”
reasoning in declining to do so. (Id. at 11-13.) The
Magistrate Judge concluded that if the ALJ would have
appropriately considered Dr. Skarky's opinions, Plaintiff
likely would have been awarded disability benefits.
(Id. at 15-16.)
objects to the Magistrate Judge's conclusion. First,
Defendant defends the authority of the ALJ to reject a
treating source's opinions when based on a claimant's
subjective descriptions, rather than objective medical
evidence. (Dkt. No. 24, p. 2.) Defendant further maintains
that-even if this Court disagrees with the ALJ's ultimate
decision-it was nonetheless supported by substantial
evidence. (Id. at 5.)
Security appeals ask courts to determine: (1) whether the
ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and
(2) whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards.
See Grogan v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th
Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence means “such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Mays v. Colvin, 739
F.3d 569, 574 (10th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks and
citation omitted). “A decision is not based on
substantial evidence if it is overwhelmed by other evidence
in the record.” Knight ex rel. P.K. v. Colvin,
756 F.3d 1171, 1175 (10th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation
marks and citation omitted).
assessing medical opinions in these cases, the opinions of
treating sources are generally entitled to more weight than
non-treating sources. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2),
416.927(c)(2). In deciding whether to give treating-source
opinions “controlling weight, ” an ALJ must first
consider whether the opinion is “well-supported by
medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic
techniques.” Id. §§ 404.1527(c)(2),
416.927(c)(2); see also Watkins v.
Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1300 (10th Cir. 2003). If so,
then the ALJ must find that the opinion is “not
inconsistent” with other substantial evidence in the
record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2).
In all cases, the regulations require that the ALJ
“give good reasons” in the notice of
determination or opinion for the weight that is given the
treating physician's opinion. 20 C.F.R. §
416.927(d)(2). See Drapeau v. Massanari, 255 F.3d
1211, 1213 (10th Cir. 2001) (quotation omitted) (requiring
the ALJ to supply “specific, legitimate reasons”
for rejecting the opinion of the treating physician).
Court finds that the ALJ's decision should be reversed
and remanded. The ALJ's justification for discounting Dr.
Skarky's opinion-namely, that his opinions were
inconsistent and based on subjective opinion rather than
objective medical evidence-is unsupported by the factual
record. First, Dr. Skarky twice noted that his opinions were
based on direct observation and treatment of Plaintiff. (Dkt.
No. 13-8, pp. 139, 187.) And there is no indication that Dr.
Skarky's opinion is not based on medically acceptable
methods. Moreover, the Court is unable to discern any
legitimate inconsistencies between Dr. Skarky's opinions
worthy of calling into question the reliability of his
opinions. Plaintiff indisputably suffers from a range of
conditions-including bipolar disorder- which could explain
the slightly varying medical observations. (See,
e.g., Dkt. No. 13-2, p. 20.) Accordingly, the Court
agrees with the Magistrate Judge that the ALJ's reasoning
is flawed and unsupported by the record.
is generally correct that an ALJ's decision must only be
supported by substantial evidence. The Court finds, however,
that the ALJ's decision is not so supported.
Significantly, Dr. Skarky's opinions were discounted at
step four of the ALJ's analysis. At this step, Plaintiffs
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) was
determined. This step is crucial-the assessment here largely
determines whether a claimant will be awarded disability
benefits. As a result, considering the deference treating
source opinions are typically given, had Dr. Skarky's
opinions been properly evaluated, Plaintiff would ...