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Powell v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 26, 2019

DONALD PAUL POWELL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

         OPINION & ORDER (1) OVERRULING COMMISSIONER’S OBJECTIONS (DKT. 13), (2) ACCEPTING THE RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE (DKT. 12), (3) DENYING COMMISSIONER’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DKT. 11), (4) GRANTING PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DKT. 8), AND REMANDING THIS MATTER FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS UNDER SENTENCE FOUR OF 42 U.S.C. § 205(G)

          MARK A. GOLDSMITH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Donald Paul Powell appeals from the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security that he is not entitled to Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. The matter was referred to Magistrate Judge R. Steven Whalen for a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”). The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment (Dkts. 8, 11), and Magistrate Judge Whalen issued an R&R recommending that the Court grant Powell’s motion for summary judgment and deny Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 12). Defendant filed objections to the R&R (Dkt. 13), Powell filed a response (Dkt. 14), and Defendant filed a reply brief (Dkt. 15-1).

         For the reasons that follow, the Court overrules Defendant’s objections and accepts the recommendation contained in the magistrate judge’s R&R. Powell’s motion is granted, and Defendant’s motion is denied. This matter is remanded to the administrative law judge for further proceedings.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         The Court reviews de novo those portions of the R&R to which a specific objection has been made. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court’s “review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner’s decision ‘is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.’” Ealy v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 594 F.3d 504, 512 (6th Cir. 2010) (quoting Rogers v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007)). “Substantial evidence is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Lindsley v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 560 F.3d 601, 604 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). In determining whether substantial evidence exists, the Court may “look to any evidence in the record, regardless of whether it has been cited by the [Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)].” Heston v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 535 (6th Cir. 2001). “[T]he claimant bears the burden of producing sufficient evidence to show the existence of a disability.” Watters v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 530 F. App’x 419, 425 (6th Cir. 2013).

         II. ANALYSIS

         Defendant makes three objections to the R&R. First, he argues that the magistrate judge erred by finding substantial evidence did not support the ALJ’s opinion that Powell’s treating-physician’s opinion was entitled to only partial weight. Second, he argues that the magistrate judge erred by considering the possible effect of the ALJ’s RFC finding on a future application for benefits. And, finally, he argues that the magistrate judge erred by finding Powell’s subjective complaints were not inconsistent with the record. The Court will address each argument in turn.

         A. Objection One

         Defendant argues that the magistrate judge erred by finding substantial evidence did not support the ALJ’s opinion that Powell’s treating-physician’s opinion was entitled to only partial weight. Obj. at 2. Powell argues that the magistrate found correctly that the ALJ failed to give good reasons for assigning only partial weight to Dr. Michael Martone’s opinion. Resp. at 1. Powell has the better part of the argument.

         The treating-physician rule provides for the amount of deference a decision-maker must give to the opinions of a claimant’s treating physician. Blakley v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2009). The regulations define medical opinions as, “statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of [the claimant’s] impairment(s), including [the claimant’s] symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what [the claimant] can still do despite [the] impairment(s), and [the claimant’s] physical or mental restrictions.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2).[1] The treating source’s opinion must be given “controlling weight” if the opinion is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record.” Id. § 404.1527(c)(2).

         If the ALJ does not give the treating physician’s opinion controlling weight, the ALJ must (i) determine how much weight to assign to the opinion, and (ii) support its determination of how much weight to give with “good reasons.” See Friend v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 375 F. App’x 543, 550 (6th Cir. 2010); Smith v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 482 F.3d 873, 875 (6th Cir. 2007). In declining to give less than controlling weight to a treating physician’s opinion, the ALJ must consider (1) “the length of the treatment relationship” (2) “the frequency of examination, ” (3) “the nature and extent of the treatment, ” (4) the “supportability of the opinion, ” (5) the “consistency . . . with the record as a whole, ” and, (6) “the specialization of the treating source.” Wilson v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2) (outlining factors to be applied in the event a treating physician’s opinion is not given controlling weight). The ALJ’s reasons must be “‘sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the treating source’s medical opinion and the reasons for that weight.’” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 242 (quoting SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *5). A failure to sufficiently identify those reasons or how those reasons affected the ALJ’s consideration of the treating-source opinion “denotes a lack of substantial evidence, even where the conclusion of the ALJ may be justified based upon the record.” Id. at 243.

         Here, Dr. Martone filled out a physical medical source statement describing Powell’s limitations. AR 440. He found that in a competitive work environment, Powell was limited to sitting or standing for only ten minutes at a time for a maximum of two hours in an eight-hour workday. AR 441. He also found that Powell would need to walk at least ten minutes every hour and would need unscheduled breaks three to four times a day for up to twenty minutes (due to his muscle weakness and pain). Id. He noted that Powell could only use his dominant hand and arm for approximately forty percent of the workday. AR 442. When asked how much Powell would likely be “off task” at work, Dr. Martone indicated more than twenty-five percent of the time and that he would miss four days of work a month. AR 443. The ALJ gave Dr. Martone’s opinion only partial weight. AR 15.

         The ALJ discounted Dr. Martone’s opinion based on a note at the top of the statement. In the ...


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