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Baker v. Commissioner of Social Security

April 13, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable David M. Lawson


Plaintiff Christopher Baker is a twenty-eight-year-old single male who was diagnosed with autism when he was fifteen years old. He filed the present action on December 18, 2008 seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying his application for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. On December 18, 2008, the case was referred to United States Magistrate R. Steven Whalen pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and E.D. Mich. LR 72.1(b)(3), and then reassigned to Magistrate Judge Mark. A. Randon by Administrative Order 09-AO-027. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment to reverse the decision of the Commissioner or for remand and the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment to affirm the Commissioner's decision. Magistrate Judge Randon filed a report on December 31, 2009 recommending that the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be denied, the defendant's motion for summary judgment be granted, and the decision of the Commissioner affirmed. The plaintiff filed timely objections to the recommendation, the defendant filed a response to the objections, and the plaintiff filed more objections. This matter is now before the Court.

The Court has reviewed the file, the report and recommendation, the plaintiff's objections and the parties' responses thereto, and has made a de novo review of the administrative record in light of the parties' submissions. In his objections, the plaintiff challenges the magistrate judge's conclusion that substantial evidence supported the administrative law judge's (ALJ) determination that the plaintiff was not disabled. First, he argues that the magistrate judge erred by upholding the ALJ's decision to discount the opinions of the plaintiff's treating sources, psychologist Sally Bloch, Ph.D., and Dr. G. Christopher Popp. Second, the plaintiff contends that in approving as adequate the ALJ's discussion of the listing of impairments in 10 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, the magistrate judge failed to address the plaintiff's argument that the ALJ improperly assessed the special technique findings and ignored many of the plaintiff's mental limitations, including the plaintiff's inability to deal with stress. Finally, the plaintiff argues that the magistrate judge erred by upholding the ALJ's adverse credibility finding. The defendant responds by pointing to evidence in the record that conflicts with the conclusions of the two treating physicians.

The plaintiff applied for SSI on September 22, 2005, when he was twenty-four years old. He was diagnosed with autism at age fifteen. He completed high school with special education assistance and obtained an associate's degree in accounting from a community college. He has held part-time jobs as a customer service representative, an office worker, a special program tutor at a special school, and a bookkeeper at a library, although the ALJ found -- correctly -- that none of this constituted substantial gainful activity. The plaintiff lives with his parents and continues to take classes at a community college. He did not allege in his application that he had any exertional limitations on performing work; however, he alleged that his learning disability and depression render him disabled.

The plaintiff's application for supplemental security income was denied initially. He made a timely request for an administrative hearing. On June 20, 2008, the plaintiff appeared before ALJ Michael D. Quayle, when he was twenty-seven years old. ALJ Quayle filed a decision on July 15, 2009 in which he found the plaintiff was not disabled and consequently not entitled to SSI benefits. The ALJ reached that conclusion by applying the five-step sequential analysis prescribed by the Secretary in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). The ALJ concluded that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 22, 2005, the date he filed his application (step one); the plaintiff suffers from impairments consisting of autism and a history of dysthymia (depression), an affective disorder, which are "severe" within the meaning of the Social Security Act (step two); neither of these impairments alone or in combination met or equaled a listing in the regulations (step three); and the plaintiff had no past relevant work (step four).

In applying the fifth step, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff has the capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: only unskilled work involving brief, infrequent, and superficial contact with the public; no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and no exposure to hazards (machinery, heights, etc.). Relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that there were a significant number of jobs in the regional and national economy that fit within these limitations including bench assembler, packager, and sorter. Based on that finding and using the Medical Vocational Guidelines found at 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2 § 204.00 as a framework, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Following the decision by the ALJ, the plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied the plaintiff's request for review on October 14, 2008.

All parties agree with the magistrate judge that the plaintiff has the burden of proving disability in order to qualify for supplemental security income benefits, and that "disability" is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity" due to a "physical or mental impairment" that could cause death or might reasonably be expected to last continuously for at least twelve months. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Of course, a person is not disabled merely because his limitation prevents him from performing some types of work if that person can perform other "substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The parties also accept the rule that the authority of this Court to review administrative decisions of the Commissioner is limited to deciding whether the proper legal standards were used and "'whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the findings.'" Wright v. Massanari, 321 F.3d 611, 614 (6th Cir. 2003) (quoting Duncan v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 801 F.2d 847, 851 (6th Cir. 1986)).

The plaintiff argues that he met his burden of proof that his impairments prevent him from engaging in substantial gainful activity by presenting evidence from Dr. Bloch and Dr. Popp, both of whom signed letters regarding the plaintiff's limitations. The ALJ acknowledged but rejected those conclusions, and the plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed error in doing so. The Rule promulgated by the Secretary states: "[M]ore weight [will be given] to opinions from your treating sources, since these sources are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of your medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations or brief hospitalizations." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). The Sixth Circuit consistently has applied this rule. A treating physician's opinion should be given greater weight than those opinions of consultative physicians who are hired for the purpose of litigation and who examine the claimant only once or not at all. See Jones v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 945 F.2d 1365, 1370 & n.7 (6th Cir. 1991); Farris v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 773 F.2d 85, 90 (6th Cir. 1985). If a treating physician's opinion is not contradicted, complete deference must be given to it. Walker v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 980 F.2d 1066, 1070 (6th Cir. 1992); King v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 968, 973 (6th Cir. 1984). However, a treating physician's opinion may be rejected if there is good reason to do so. Hall v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 272, 276 (6th Cir. 1988). The Sixth Circuit has held that treating physicians' opinions "are only given such deference when supported by objective medical evidence." Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004) (citing Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 477 (6th Cir. 2003). Where a treating physician renders an opinion using legal language as opposed to medical terminology, the Court may likewise reject it if it is not supported by clinical evidence in the record. See Casey v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 987 F.2d 1230, 1234-35 (6th Cir. 1993).

The Sixth Circuit has held that reversal is required in a Social Security disability benefits case where the ALJ rejects a treating physician's opinion as to the restrictions on a claimant's ability to work and fails to give good reasons for not giving weight to the opinion. Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004). That is not the case here. The ALJ wrote that he could not "find the opinions of Dr. Popp and Dr. Bloch to be well supported by clinical findings, laboratory diagnostic techniques, and they [are] not consistent with other substantial evidence . . . ." Tr. 20. The record supports that view. Dr. Popp's evidence consists of two letters, one dated November 27, 2002 in which he states that "[d]ue to Christopher's autism he needs to attend Minnesota Life College to mitigate the impact that autism has on his ability to perform normal life skills," Tr. 429; and one dated May 23, 2005, which states:

Christopher is disabled and unable to personally provide his own transportation. Therefore, he would benefit from public-assisted transportation for the disabled. Thank you for your consideration.

Tr. 334. Neither of these opinions are supported by any evidence of physical examinations, tests or other diagnostic techniques.

The information from Dr. Bloch is more extensive but not very illuminating. The record contains her progress notes of psychotherapy sessions, a medical residual functional capacity assessment check-off form, and a letter dated May 27, 2008, which states:

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing on behalf of my client Chris Baker. I am a fully licensed psychologist in private practice in Farmington Hills, Michigan. My area of ...

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