United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division
MISTY L. VANTREASE, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
PAUL L. MALONEY, Chief District Judge.
This is a social security action brought under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiff's claims for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits. On April 1, 2010, plaintiff filed her applications for DIB and SSI benefits. (Page ID 199-209). She alleged an August 16, 2009, onset of disability. (Page ID 199, 203). Her claims were denied on initial review. (Page ID 108-23). On January 31, 2012, she received a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), at which she was represented by counsel. (Page ID 55-104). On February 3, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled. (Page ID 34-43). On June 11, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review (Page ID 23-25), and the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision.
Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claims for DIB and SSI benefits. She asks the court to overturn the Commissioner's decision on the following grounds:
1. The ALJ committed reversible error when he failed to give controlling weight to the opinions of Curtis Simmons, M.D., a treating physician;
2. The ALJ committed reversible error when he "failed to assess the effects of plaintiff's fibromyalgia and migraine headaches on her residual functional capacity[;]" and
3. The ALJ committed reversible error by "finding that plaintiff could return to a made work' job[.]"
(Statement of Errors, Plf. Brief at 5-6, docket # 13, Page ID 410-11). The Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.
Standard of Review
When reviewing the grant or denial of social security benefits, this court is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner correctly applied the law. See Elam ex rel. Golay v. Commissioner, 348 F.3d 124, 125 (6th Cir. 2003); Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 772 (6th Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Heston v. Commissioner, 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)); see Rogers v. Commissioner, 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). The scope of the court's review is limited. Buxton, 246 F.3d at 772. The court does not review the evidence de novo, resolve conflicts in evidence, or make credibility determinations. See Ulman v. Commissioner, 693 F.3d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012); Walters v. Commissioner, 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997). "The findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact if supported by substantial evidence shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see McClanahan v. Commissioner, 474 F.3d 830, 833 (6th Cir. 2006). "The findings of the Commissioner are not subject to reversal merely because there exists in the record substantial evidence to support a different conclusion.... This is so because there is a zone of choice' within which the Commissioner can act without fear of court interference." Buxton, 246 F.3d at 772-73. "If supported by substantial evidence, the [Commissioner's] determination must stand regardless of whether the reviewing court would resolve the issues of fact in dispute differently." Bogle v. Sullivan, 998 F.2d 342, 347 (6th Cir. 1993); see Gayheart v. Commissioner, 710 F.3d 365, 374 (6th Cir. 2013) ("A reviewing court will affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on substantial evidence, even if substantial evidence would have supported the opposite conclusion."). "[T]he Commissioner's decision cannot be overturned if substantial evidence, or even a preponderance of the evidence supports the claimant's position, so long as substantial evidence also supports the conclusion reached by the ALJ." Jones v. Commissioner, 336 F.3d 469, 477 (6th Cir. 2003); see Kyle v. Commissioner, 609 F.3d 847, 854 (6th Cir. 2010).
The ALJ found that plaintiff met the disability insured requirement of the Social Security Act from August 16, 2009, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Op. at 3, Page ID 36). Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity on or after August 16, 2009. ( Id. ). Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity, spina bifida occulta, small L4/5 disc protrusion, and minimal anterior wedging of lower thoracic vertebral bodies. ( Id. ). Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments which met or equaled the requirements of the listing of impairments. (Op. at 6, Page ID 39). The ALJ found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) for a limited range of light work:
Claimant has the residual functional capacity to lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently, and stand/walk 2 hours and sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; frequently push/pull with all extremities, balance, and climb ramps or stairs; occasionally stoop, kneel, crawl and crouch; and never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds.
( Id. ). The ALJ found that plaintiff's testimony regarding her subjective functional limitations was not fully credible. ( Id. at 7-8, Page ID 40-41). The ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled at step 4 of the sequential analysis because she was capable of performing her past relevant work as a bookkeeping clerk. ( Id. at 8, Page ID 41).
Alternatively, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled at step 5 of the sequential analysis. Plaintiff was 36 years old as of her alleged onset of disability and 39 years old as of the date of the ALJ's decision. Thus, at all times relevant to her claims for DIB and SSI benefits, plaintiff was classified as a younger individual. (Op. at 8, Page ID 41). Plaintiff has at least a high-school education and is able to communicate in English. ( Id. ). The transferability of job skills was not material to a disability determination. ( Id. ). The ALJ then turned to the testimony of a vocational expert (VE). In response to a hypothetical question regarding a person of plaintiff's age, and with her RFC, education, and work experience, the VE testified that there were approximately 6, 200 jobs in Michigan's Lower Peninsula that the hypothetical person would be capable of performing. (Page ID 99-101). The ALJ found that this constituted a significant number of jobs. Using Rule 202.21 of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines as a framework, the ALJ held that plaintiff was not disabled. (Op. at 9-10, Page ID 42-43).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed reversible error when he failed to give controlling weight to the opinions of Curtis Simmons, M.D., a treating physician. (Plf. Brief at 8-11, Page ID 413-16; Reply Brief at 1-2, Page ID 439-40). The issue of whether the claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is reserved to the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(1), 416.927(d)(1); see Warner v. Commissioner, 375 F.3d 387, 390 (6th Cir. 2004). A treating physician's opinion that a patient is disabled is not entitled to any special significance. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(1), (3), 416.927(d)(1), (3); Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 511 (6th Cir. 2007); Sims v. Commissioner, 406 F.Appx. 977, 980 n.1 (6th Cir. 2011) ("[T]he determination of disability [is] the prerogative of the Commissioner, not the treating physician."). Likewise, "no special significance" is attached to treating physician opinions regarding the credibility of the plaintiff's subjective complaints, RFC, or whether the plaintiff's impairments meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment because they are administrative issues reserved to the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2), (3), 416.927(d)(2), (3); see Allen v. Commissioner, 561 F.3d 646, 652 (6th Cir. 2009).
Generally, the medical opinions of treating physicians are given substantial, if not controlling, deference. See Johnson v. Commissioner, 652 F.3d 646, 651 (6th Cir. 2011). "[T]he opinion of a treating physician does not receive controlling weight merely by virtue of the fact that it is from a treating physician. Rather, it is accorded controlling weight where it is well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques' and is not inconsistent... with the other substantial evidence in the case record.'" Massey v. Commissioner, 409 F.Appx. 917, 921 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting Blakley v. Commissioner, 581 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2009)). A treating physician's opinion is not entitled to controlling weight where it is not "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques" and is "inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2). The ALJ "is not bound by conclusory statements of doctors, particularly where they are unsupported by detailed objective criteria and documentation." Buxton v. Halter, 246 F.3d 762, 773 (6th Cir. 2001). An opinion that is based on the claimant's reporting of her symptoms is not entitled to controlling weight. See Young v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 925 F.2d 146, 151 (6th Cir. 1990); see also Francis v. Commissioner, 414 F.Appx. 802, 804 (6th Cir. 2011) (A physician's statement that merely regurgitates a claimant's self-described symptoms "is not a medical opinion at all.").
Even when a treating source's medical opinion is not given controlling weight, it should not necessarily be completely rejected; the weight to be given to the opinion is determined by a set of factors, including treatment relationship, supportability, consistency, specialization, and other factors. See Titles II and XVI: Giving Controlling Weight to Treating Source Medical Opinions, SSR 96-2p (reprinted at 1996 WL 374188 (SSA July ...