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Rankin v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

March 30, 2018

JOHN RANKIN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          Patricia T. Morris Judge

          OPINION AND ORDER ACCEPTING MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S RECOMMENDATION [23], DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [15], AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [19]

          LAURIE J. MICHELSON U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         From the 1980s until 2012, John Rankin worked as a stacker in a steel mill. Rankin long had deformities to his toes that limited his ability to stand for long shifts. And in 2012, the pain drove him to stop working at the mill. His foot problems continued to worsen. Since 2014, Rankin has suffered from serious pain and trouble walking.

         He applied for Social Security disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits, claiming the foot pain kept him from full-time employment since 2014. After the Commissioner of Social Security denied Rankin's applications, Rankin requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. In January 2016, the ALJ ruled that Rankin was not disabled as that term is defined in the Social Security Act. The Commissioner denied Rankin's request for further review, making the ALJ's disability determination the Commissioner's final decision.

         Rankin then filed this suit, asking the Court to reverse the Commissioner's determination that he is not disabled. (R. 1, PID 3.) The Court referred the parties' motions for summary judgment to Magistrate Judge Patricia T. Morris. She recommends that this Court affirm the decision that Rankin is not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. 23.)

         Rankin objects. He says the magistrate judge erred by concluding that (1) the ALJ properly applied the treating-physician rule and (2) the ALJ rightly found no objective medical evidence to support three of the treating physician's opinions. (R. 23, PID 537-42.)

         The Court takes the objections in order. And having conducted a de novo review of each one, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3), the Court will overrule them.

         I.

         Rankin's first objection concerns the magistrate judge's conclusion that the ALJ properly applied the treating-physician rule. (R. 26, PID 537-38.) Rankin's treating physician opined on a medical-assessment form that, even if Rankin had to work a job falling within the sedentary-exertion classification, Rankin's foot problems necessitated several, unscheduled breaks during an eight-hour shift. (R. 11, PID 403.) The ALJ discounted the treating physician's opinion as to Rankin's ability to work at the sedentary level, as that conclusion is one reserved to the Commissioner's discretion (R. 11, PID 48). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d); SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *1-2 (July 2, 1996).[1]

         In reviewing the ALJ's decision, the magistrate judge noted that, as a rule, an ALJ ought to give controlling weight to the treating physician's opinion. (R. 23, PID 521-22.) See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c) (2), 416.927(c)(2). And the magistrate judge agreed that the Commissioner need not give controlling weight to a physician on an issue reserved to the Commissioner's discretion (R. 23, PID 521-22). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d). Because the magistrate judge-like the ALJ- believed the treating physician's opinion went to whether Rankin could work at the sedentary level, the magistrate judge agreed that the ALJ properly discounted it.

         Resisting that conclusion, Rankin says the magistrate judge improperly broadened the Commissioner's discretion.[2] (R. 26, PID 537.) Rankin argues only that “the ALJ and MJ's opinions are inconsistent with the uncontradicted medical evidence of record requiring reversal.” (R. 26, PID 539.)

         Yet taking a fresh look at the record, the ALJ only discounted the treating physician's opinion to the extent the physician opined that Rankin could not work at the sedentary level. (R. 11, PID 48.) When a doctor offers an opinion on a claimant's ability to work at the sedentary level, the ALJ is right to consider that opinion an intrusion into the Commissioner's discretion. See SSR 96-5P, 1996 WL 374183 at *5 (July 2, 1996) (“The judgment regarding the extent to which an individual is able to perform exertional ranges of work goes beyond medical judgment regarding what an individual can still do and is a finding that may be dispositive of the issue of disability.”)[3]Accordingly, the ALJ need not give controlling weight to the opinion that Rankin could not work a sedentary job. Id.

         In other words, the ALJ rightly decided to discount the treating physician's opinion because he properly considered a portion of the opinion an encroachment on the Commissioner's discretion. See SSR 96-2P, 1996 WL 374188 at *2. And the ALJ provided a “sufficiently specific” explanation of his decision. See S.S.R. 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *4-5. Thus, the ...


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