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Wright v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

August 30, 2019

GINA M. WRIGHT, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff, Gina M. Wright, seeks judicial review of the Social Security Administration's (SSA) denial of her application for supplemental security income (SSI). The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction over this matter by a United States Magistrate Judge. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The Commissioner has filed the Administrative Record (AR) [Doc. No. 12], and both parties have briefed their positions.[1] For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         I. Procedural Background

         On September 16, 2011, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and, therefore, not entitled to SSI. AR 13-21. After denial by the Appeals Council, on August 26, 2014, this court reversed and remanded the case. AR 769-86. The Appeals Council then vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded with specific instructions for further proceedings, including the instruction to consolidate the remanded claim with a claim filed on April 1, 2014, and to create a single record and issue a new decision on the consolidated claims. AR 791. Subsequently, on February 26, 2016, the ALJ issued a second unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. AR 696-711. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. AR 680-85. Accordingly, the ALJ's second decision constitutes the Commissioner's final decision. See Krauser v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1327 (10th Cir. 2011). Plaintiff timely commenced this action for judicial review.

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by agency regulations. See Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1051 (10th Cir. 2009) (explaining process); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. Following this process, the ALJ first determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 14, 2009, her application date. AR 698.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff suffers from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease/arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, hypertension, dysthymic disorder, depression, PTSD, anxiety with panic attacks, and histrionic personality disorder. AR 699. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. AR 699-701.

         The ALJ next determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC), concluding that:

[T]he claimant has the [RFC] to lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently. The claimant can sit for about six hours during an eight-hour workday and can stand and walk for at least two hours during an eight-hour workday. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps/stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can frequently handle and finger. The claimant is to avoid all exposure to hazards, such as unprotected heights and heavy machinery. The claimant can understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. The claimant can relate to supervisors and co-workers on a superficial work basis. The claimant can respond appropriately to usual work situations. The claimant can have no contact with the general public.

         AR 701-10.

         At step four, relying on a vocational expert's (VE) testimony, the ALJ determined Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. AR 710. Proceeding to the fifth step and relying on the VE's testimony, the ALJ found Plaintiff can perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. AR 710-11. Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff can perform the requirements of representative jobs such as addressor, tube operator, and document preparer. AR 711. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act. AR 711.

         III. Claims Presented for Judicial Review

         Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred in: (1) failing to properly evaluate medical evidence and (2) failing to properly evaluate Plaintiffs credibility. Pl.'s Br. [Doc. No. 17] at 3-8, 8-15. As explained below, the Court finds no grounds for reversal.

         IV. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Poppa v. Astrue, 569 F.3d 1167, 1169 (10th Cir. 2009); see also Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008) (holding that the court only reviews an ALJ's decision “to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the correct legal standards were applied” and in that review, “we neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute our judgment for that of the agency” (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)). Under such review, “common sense, not technical perfection, is [the Court's] guide.” Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1167 (10th Cir. 2012).

         V. Analysis

         A. Evaluation of medical evidence

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ did not properly evaluate medical evidence from A.N. Bhandary, M.D.; J.A. Saidi, M.D.; and State agency reviewers.

         1. Dr. Bhandary

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to evaluate a letter written by Dr. Bhandary according to the rules for evaluation of a treating physician's opinion. Pl.'s Br. at 3-4; see also Krauser, 638 F.3d at 1330-32 (explaining process for evaluating opinion of a treating physician). As an initial matter, the record does not support the conclusion that Dr. Bhandary's letter was, in fact, a treating physician opinion. Though Plaintiff testified at the administrative hearing that she had seen Dr. Bhandary for “approximately maybe six months or something” prior to the closing of his practice, the administrative record does not include any treatment records from him. See AR 735, 736. And more importantly, when Plaintiff's case was previously litigated before this Court, it was determined that Dr. Bhandary was not a treating physician but was, instead, a “nontreating source.” AR 775-76 (discussing the lack of medical records from Dr. Bhandary, noting that “Plaintiff acknowledges that Dr. Bhandary is not a treating source within the meaning of SSA regulations, ” finding that the “evidence indicates that Dr. Bhandary saw Plaintiff only one time before issuing his opinion, ” and concluding that Dr. Bhandary was not a treating physician). Thus, under the law of the case, Plaintiff's argument that the ALJ erred in failing to evaluate Dr. Bhandary's letter as a treating physician opinion fails.[2]

         Moreover, even as a nontreating source, under the law of the case doctrine, Dr. Bhandary's letter is not entitled to any weight. See AR 776-77 (finding that Dr. Bhandary's opinion “is entirely general and conclusory”; “lacks any discussion or reference to medical testing or observations”; includes a statement of disability, which is an issue reserved for the ALJ; and is “not entitled to any weight”). As such, even if the Court were to find that the ALJ did not adequately explain his rejection of Dr. Bhandary's letter, such error would not result in harm to the Plaintiff. Cf. Harris v. Astrue, 496 Fed.Appx. 816, 819 n.1 (10th Cir. 2012) (“The burden to show prejudicial error on appeal rests with [the claimant].” (citing Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409 (2009)). Accordingly, the court finds no reversible error in the ALJ's evaluation of Dr. Bhandary's letter.

         2. Dr. Saidi

         Plaintiff next argues that reversal is required because the ALJ did not properly evaluate the opinion of treating physician Dr. Saidi. Pl.'s Br. at 4-5. Under Tenth Circuit authority, and the SSA's regulations, the evaluation of a treating physician's opinion follows a two-step procedure. Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1300 (10th Cir. 2003). First, the ALJ must determine whether the treating physician's opinion should be given “controlling weight” on the matter to which it relates. See id.; 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2). The opinion of a treating physician must be given controlling weight if it is both well supported by medically acceptable clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques and not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record. Watkins, 350 F.3d at 1300 (applying SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *2 (July 2, 1996)); 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2).

         Second, if the ALJ has determined that the medical opinion of a treating physician is not entitled to controlling weight, the ALJ must determine what lesser weight should be afforded the opinion. Watkins, 350 F.3d at 1300-01; Langley v. Barnhart,373 F.3d 1116, 1120 (10th Cir. 2004). A treating physician opinion not afforded controlling weight is still entitled to deference. Watkins, ...

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