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Mulzet v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

August 16, 2019

SHARLA MULZET, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration,[1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SHON T. ERWIN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         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 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 AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Initially and on reconsideration, the Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Plaintiff's application for benefits. Following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision. (TR. 13-24). Subsequently, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (TR. 1-3).

         II. THE ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         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 October 19, 2015, her alleged onset date. (TR. 15). At step two, the ALJ determined that Ms. Mulzet had the following severe impairments: obesity; diabetes mellitus II; hypertension; chronic headaches; complex partial seizure disorder; major depressive disorder; and mild neurocognitive disorder. (TR. 15). 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. 16).

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

[P]erform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she needs to avoid exposure to hazards, machinery and heights; no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant is limited to simple tasks with routine supervision; no more than occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors and no public interaction.

(TR. 18). With this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Mulzet was unable to perform her past relevant work. (TR. 23). Thus, the ALJ proceeded to step five and presented the RFC limitations to a vocational expert (VE) to determine whether there were other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (TR. 46-47). Given the limitations, the VE identified three jobs from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (TR. 47). The ALJ adopted the VE's testimony and concluded that Ms. Mulzet was not disabled at step five. (TR. 24).

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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). Under the “substantial evidence” standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains “sufficien[t] evidence” to support the agency's factual determinations. Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019). “Substantial evidence … is more than a mere scintilla … and means only-such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. at 1154 (internal citations and quotation marks 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).

         IV. ISSUES PRESENTED

         On appeal, Ms. Mulzet alleges the ALJ erred in evaluating opinions from: (1) consultative examining psychologist, Dr. Kara Rodgers and (2) State Agency psychologist, Dr. Lisa Swisher. (ECF No. 13:3-11).

         V. THE ALJ'S EVALUATION OF MEDICAL OPINIONS

         The ALJ: (1) committed legal error in evaluating the opinion of Dr. Rodgers, but the error was harmless and (2) did not err in evaluating the opinion from Dr. Swisher.

         A. The ALJ's Duty to Evaluate Medical Opinions

         An ALJ must evaluate every medical opinion in the record, although the weight given each opinion will vary according to the relationship between the disability claimant and the medical professional. Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1215 (10th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d). In determining what weight to accord any medical opinion, an ALJ must consider:

(1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination;
(2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship,
(3) the degree to which the physician's opinion is supported by relevant evidence;
(4) the 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 ...

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