United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma
GINA M. WRIGHT, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
BERNARD M.JONES, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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. For the reasons set forth below, the Court
affirms the Commissioner's decision.
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
The ALJ's Decision
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.
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.
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.
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.
Claims Presented for Judicial Review
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
Standard of Review
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).
Evaluation of medical evidence
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.
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.
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.
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).
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, ...