United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma
CRYSTAL G. G., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
F. JAYNE JUDGE.
Crystal G. G. seeks judicial review of the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying
her claims for disability insurance benefits under Titles II
and XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42
U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423, and 1382c(a)(3). In
accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1) & (3), the
parties have consented to proceed before a United States
Magistrate Judge. For reasons explained below, the Court
affirms the Commissioner's decision denying benefits. Any
appeal of this decision will be directly to the Tenth Circuit
Court of Appeals.
Standard of Review
reviewing a decision of the Commissioner, the Court is
limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the
correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported
by substantial evidence. See Grogan v. Barnhart, 399
F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). “Substantial evidence
is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence
as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Id. (citing Glass v.
Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1395 (10th Cir. 1994)). A
decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is
overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or if there is a
mere scintilla of evidence supporting it.” Hamlin
v. Barnhart, 365 F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004)
(quotations omitted). The Court must “meticulously
examine the record as a whole, including anything that may
undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to
determine if the substantiality test has been met.”
Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261 (citing Washington v.
Shalala, 37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). The Court
may neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment
for that of the Commissioner. See Hackett v.
Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2005). Even if
the Court might have reached a different conclusion, the
Commissioner's decision stands so long as it is supported
by substantial evidence. See White v. Barnhart, 287
F.3d 903, 908 (10th Cir. 2002).
case involves two sets of applications for disability
benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.
After the agency rendered a final decision denying her first
set of applications, Plaintiff appealed that decision to this
Court. While the appeal was pending, she filed a second set
of disability applications. This Court reversed and remanded
the Commissioner's decision on Plaintiff's first set
of applications. Upon remand, the Appeals Council remanded
the case to an administrative law judge (“ALJ”)
and directed that Plaintiff's two sets of applications be
consolidated by the ALJ.
January 12, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying
Plaintiff's consolidated claims, R. 911-933, and
Plaintiff filed exceptions with the Appeals Council, R.
1084-1112. The Appeals Council assumed jurisdiction and
rendered its own unfavorable decision on August 15, 2018. The
Appeals Council adopted the identical residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) as the ALJ, adopted the
ALJ's statements as the “evidentiary facts, as
applicable, ” and addressed Plaintiff's exceptions
in a written decision denying benefits. R. 738-749. Plaintiff
appealed the final agency action.
Issues and Analysis
appeal, Plaintiff raises three allegations of error: (1) the
ALJ failed to follow remand orders of this Court and the
Appeals Council by failing to adequately address the opinion
of Ashley Gourd, M.D., regarding Plaintiff's hand
limitations, and that the ALJ's RFC is therefore not
based on substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ failed to develop
and/or follow the testimony of the vocational expert
(“VE”); and (3) the decision was rendered by an
ALJ whose appointment was invalid.
first two allegations of error were addressed and rejected in
the Appeals Council's decision. R. 746. The Appeals
Council's decision represents the final decision of the
agency. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.984(b)(3),
416.1484(b)(3) (“If the Appeals Council assumes
jurisdiction, it will make a new, independent decision based
on the preponderance of the evidence in the entire record . .
. including a new decision. The new decision of the Appeals
Council is the final decision of the Commissioner.”).
Accordingly, although Plaintiff's first two allegations
of error are phrased in terms of the ALJ's errors, the
operative question is whether the final agency decision
denying benefits is free of legal error and supported by
Dr. Gourd's Opinion/Hand-Related Limitations in
addressing whether the ALJ followed this Court's and the
Appeals Council's prior directives to adequately address
Dr. Gourd's opinion, the Appeals Council concluded that
the ALJ's second decision was adequate. The Appeals
Council concluded the ALJ cited to specific evidence in the
record in support of his conclusion that Dr. Gourd's
opinion “‘exceeds what is reasonable based upon
the objective evidence either in the doctor's own exam or
in the file.'” R. 746 (quoting ALJ's decision).
Plaintiff contends that “[t]he ALJ, the Appeals Council
and the Defendant's brief do not explain” this
conclusion. ECF No. 19 at 3.
Court finds no error in the Appeals Council's decision or
in the ALJ's underlying reasoning, as discussed and
adopted by the Appeals Council. The ALJ concluded that, while
Plaintiff suffers some problems with her hands, she would not
have the extreme limitation provided by Dr. Gourd. Upon
review of the evidence cited by the ALJ, as well as contrary
record evidence cited by Plaintiff in her brief, the Court
finds no error. The ALJ was not required to specifically
address every contrary treatment note, and the ALJ's
weighing of Dr. Gourd's opinion was reasonable and in
compliance with this Court's prior orders. Specifically,
the ALJ cited lab tests negative for RA or ANA, the lack of
inflammation noted, and that ibuprofen was the recommended
treatment in 2014. Further, in April 2016, Plaintiff reported
no joint pain and had no focal weakness, numbness, or
paresthesia. R. 923 (ALJ's decision). The agency's
conclusion is therefore without legal error and supported by
substantial evidence. See R. 746 (Appeals
Council's conclusion that ALJ followed this Court's
directive, and its own directive, upon remand). Plaintiff
essentially asks the Court to reweigh the agency decision,
which the Court may not do. See Hackett, 395 F.3d at
same reasons, the Court finds no error in the agency's
RFC, which imposed less severe hand-related limitations than
those found by Dr. Gourd. Contrary to Plaintiff's
argument that Dr. Gourd's opinion mandates a more
restrictive RFC, an RFC must be based on the agency's
reasonable assessment of all the relevant medical and other
evidence. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(3),
416.945(a)(3). Here, the agency not only adequately discussed
reasons for discounting Dr. Gourd's opinion, the agency
also addressed the lack of consistency between
Plaintiff's subjective hand complaints and other evidence
in the record. R. 747 (Appeals Council's finding that
symptoms are inconsistent with ...