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Scholten v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 3, 2019

Jeff L. Scholten, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This is a social security action brought under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3), seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that plaintiff was not entitled to disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits. Plaintiff filed his applications for DIB and SSI benefits on March 20, 2015. He alleged a September 29, 2014, onset of disability. (ECF No. 7-5, PageID.252, 260). Plaintiff's claims were denied on initial review. (ECF No. 7-4, PageID.155-71). On May 9, 2017, he received a hearing before an ALJ. (ECF No. 7-2, PageID.57-105). The ALJ issued his decision on July 6, 2017, finding that plaintiff was not disabled. (Op., ECF No. 7-2, PageID.38-50). On June 12, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review (ECF No. 7-2, PageID.29-30), rendering the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff timely filed a complaint seeking judicial review. Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner's decision should be overturned because the ALJ “failed to provide logical, let alone ‘good' rationales for dismissing the opinions of [p]laintiff's treating physician and the consultative examiner, ” which plaintiff contends contradicted the ALJ's findings regarding the residual functional capacity. (Plf. Brief, 1, ECF No. 10, PageID.1046). For the reasons stated herein, 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.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). 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). “The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security 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; 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.”).

         The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ found that plaintiff met the disability insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2015. (Op., 3, ECF No. 7-2, PageID.40). Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 29, 2014, the alleged onset of disability. Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis of the left ankle and right wrist, hip bursitis, left rotator cuff tear, atrial fibrillation, bradycardia, status-post dual chamber pacemaker, obstructive sleep apnea, and obesity.” (Id. at 4, PageID.41). Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the requirements of a listing impairment. (Id. at 5, PageID.42). The ALJ found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) for a range of light work with the following exceptions:

he requires the freedom to sit for ten minutes after standing/walking for one hour while remaining on-task and at the workstation. He can frequently push/pull with his right dominant upper extremity and his bilateral lower extremities. He can occasionally push/pull with his left non-dominant upper extremity. He can occasionally climb ramps or stairs and he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can frequently balance on level surfaces. He can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can occasionally reach overhead and in all directions with his left non-dominant upper extremity and frequently reach overhead and in all directions with his right dominant upper extremity. He can occasionally tolerate exposure to extreme cold and vibration. He can never tolerate exposure to workplace hazards such as unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts. The claimant can never operate a commercial motor vehicle. Due to chronic pain and side effects of medication, he can perform simple, routine tasks.

(Id. at 6, PageID.43).

         The ALJ found that plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record. (Id. at 7, PageID.44). Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 11, PageID.48).

         In response to a hypothetical question regarding a person of plaintiff's age with his RFC, education, and work experience, the vocational expert (VE) testified that there were approximately 476, 000 jobs[1] that exist in the national economy that he would be capable of performing. (ECF No. 7-2, PageID.91-94). The ALJ found that this constituted a significant number of jobs, and that plaintiff was not disabled. (Op., 12-13, PageID.49-50).


         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to give appropriate weight to the opinion of Bryan Kovas, M.D., under the treating physician rule, and that the ALJ's RFC finding was contrary to the opinions of Joseph Bechard, M.D., a consultative examiner. (Plf. Brief, 14-20, ECF No. 10, PageID.1059-65; Reply Brief, 1-5, ECF No. 17, PageID.1090-94).

         A. Dr. Kovas

         Generally, the medical opinions of treating physicians are given substantial, if not controlling weight. 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 Fed.Appx. 917, 921 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting Blakley v. Commissioner, 581 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2009)).

         “[T]he 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 at 773 (citation and quotation omitted). An opinion that is based on the claimant's reporting of his 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 Kepke v. Commissioner,636 Fed.Appx. 625, 629 (6th Cir. 2016) (“[A] a doctor cannot simply report what his patient says and re-package it as an opinion.”); Francis v. Commissioner, 414 Fed.Appx. 802, 804 ...

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