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Nixon v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 30, 2019

AVASHA ROSHEA NIXON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Alan N. Bloch, United States District Judge.

         AND NOW, this 30th day of September, 2019, upon consideration of the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment, the Court, upon review of the Commissioner of Social Security’s final decision, denying Plaintiff’s claim for disability insurance benefits under Subchapter II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., and denying Plaintiff’s claim for supplemental security income benefits under Subchapter XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq., finds that the Commissioner’s findings are supported by substantial evidence and, accordingly, affirms. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Jesurum v. Sec’y of U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995); Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied sub nom., 507 U.S. 924 (1993); Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988); see also Berry v. Sullivan, 738 F.Supp. 942, 944 (W.D. Pa. 1990) (if supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner’s decision must be affirmed, as a federal court may neither reweigh the evidence, nor reverse, merely because it would have decided the claim differently) (citing Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981)).[1]

         Therefore, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 10) is DENIED and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 12) is GRANTED.

---------

Notes:

[1] Plaintiff argues that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by: failing to give adequate weight to the medical opinion evidence provided by Plaintiff’s treating physicians in formulating Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity assessment (“RFC”); and failing to evaluate properly Plaintiff’s credibility. The Court disagrees and finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s findings as well as his ultimate determination, based on all the evidence presented, of Plaintiff’s non-disability.

First, the Court finds no merit in Plaintiff’s contention regarding the ALJ’s decision not to give controlling weight to the opinion evidence provided by treating physicians Noah Bass, M.D., Minhduc Tran, D.O., and Eileen Boyle, M.D. At the outset, the Court notes that it is well-established that “[t]he ALJ-not treating or examining physicians or State agency consultants- must make the ultimate disability and RFC determinations.” Chandler v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d 356, 361 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e)(1), 404.1546(c)). Moreover, “[t]he law is clear . . . that the opinion of a treating physician does not bind the ALJ on the issue of functional capacity.” Brown v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 193, 197 n.2 (3d Cir. 2011). Thus, a treating physician’s opinion is only entitled to controlling weight if it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the claimant’s] case record.” Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 43 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)). “If, however, the treating physician's opinion conflicts with other medical evidence, then the ALJ is free to give that opinion less than controlling weight or even reject it, so long as the ALJ clearly explains [his or] her reasons and makes a clear record.” Salles v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 229 Fed.Appx. 140, 148 (3d Cir. 2007). A treating physician’s opinion on the ultimate issue of disability is therefore not entitled to any “special significance, ” and an ALJ is not required to accept it since the determination of whether an individual is disabled “is an ultimate issue reserved to the Commissioner.” Smith v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 178 Fed.Appx. 106, 112 (3d Cir. 2006).

In the present case, the Court finds that the ALJ provided a sufficient explanation of his reasons for giving the opinions of Dr. Boyle, Dr. Bass, and Dr. Tran less than controlling weight in his analysis. The ALJ did not provide an inadequate rationale for discounting the doctors’ opinions, nor did he simply substitute his own lay analysis for the doctors’ judgments in formulating Plaintiff’s RFC. Rather, the ALJ fulfilled his duty as fact-finder to evaluate the doctors’ opinions, considering a number of factors, and in light of all the evidence presented in the record. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927.

The Court emphasizes, first, that all three of the opinions at issue here were provided on extremely short, simple check-box forms which consisted solely of questions with options for the doctors to check or circle and blanks to fill. (R. 413-14, 415-17, 418-19). The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has stated that “[f]orm reports in which a physician’s obligation is only to check a box or fill in a blank are weak evidence at best.” Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1065 (3d Cir. 1993). Further, the Third Circuit has affirmed that an ALJ may discount a treating physician’s opinion where it consists of a conclusory check-box form. See, e.g., Colvin v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec 675 Fed.Appx. 154, 156-57 (3d Cir. 2017) (noting that a treating physician’s opinion that was set forth in a check-box form was weak evidence at best). Accordingly, the Court finds that the three opinions at issue here lack support or details to justify the statements made therein.

Nevertheless, the ALJ addressed the three opinions and explained the weight he gave to each one after providing a summary of the evidence of record, including treatment records and other objective medical evidence, Plaintiffs reported symptoms, and her significant activities of daily living. (R. 16-19). The ALJ then discussed his consideration of each of the medical opinions, beginning with that of primary care physician Dr. Boyle. Dr. Boyle filled out a checkbox form in November 2015 indicating that Plaintiff had various limitations, including often experiencing headaches and often having difficulties with concentration due to pain. (R. 413-14). In his decision, the ALJ explained that he gave Dr. Boyle’s opinion little weight, based on the fact that it was not supported by the record, which he had previously described. The ALJ further explained that, more importantly, he gave Dr. Boyle’s opinion little weight because the restrictions she identified were not reflected in her own treatment notes. (R. 19). In fact, the ALJ noted in his decision that the record showed minimal treatment for headaches, no referral for specialist care for headaches, and minimal diagnostic care for headaches. (R 15). Further, despite the record showing no concentration deficits, the ALJ noted that he addressed any concerns regarding a loss of concentration due to pain by restricting her exposure to hazards. (R. 19). Thus, the Court finds that the ALJ did not err in giving the opinion of Dr. Boyle, which did not include support or details to justify the statements made therein, and was not well-supported by the evidence of record, little weight in his analysis.

Next, the ALJ indicated in his decision that he gave Dr. Bass’s check-box form from October 2016 partial weight, and he accounted for some of the limitations included therein in the RFC, including restrictions on crawling and operating foot controls. (R. 20, 418-19). The ALJ explained that Dr. Bass’s findings of limitations of “often” handling and fingering, however, were inconsistent with the record as a whole, which revealed that Plaintiff had engaged in a broad array of activities that were inconsistent with such limitations. (R. 20). For instance, the ALJ noted in his discussion that Plaintiff continued her work as a nurse on a part-time basis, remained independent in personal care activities, managed daily tasks including caring for a son with autism, prepared meals, washed dishes, did ironing and cleaning, did laundry, shopped in stores, safely operated an automobile, read, and socialized with others on a regular basis. (R. 18). The ALJ also explained that the longitudinal records indicated that Plaintiff retained greater manipulative, postural and exertional abilities than Dr. Bass checked off on his form. (R. 20). For example, in his summary of the medical evidence, the ALJ noted that Plaintiffs degenerative disc disease was generally characterized as mild, and that she retained normal reflexes, sensation and a generally intact range of motion throughout the spine. (R. 17). The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff retained adequate range of motion within the hips, and that any reduction in range of motion of the neck was mild. (R. 17). Moreover, the ALJ noted that recent records showed normal range of motion, strength, and lack of tenderness throughout her musculoskeletal system. (R. 17). The Court therefore concludes that the ALJ did not err in giving partial weight to Dr. Bass’s opinion as it, like Dr. Boyle’s opinion, does not include

support or details to justify the statements made therein, nor does the evidence of record support it.

The ALJ also explained that he gave Dr. Tran’s opinion little weight in his analysis. (R. 20). The Court notes that Dr. Tran’s opinion was provided on a Pennsylvania Department of Welfare form and did not include reference to any functional abilities. (R. 415-17). In fact, the form, as filled in by Dr. Tran, simply indicated that Plaintiff would have limited employability because she could only work 10 hours a week and would need frequent rest breaks. (R. 416). The ALJ explained that Dr. Tran’s opinion did not provide a function-by-function assessment of Plaintiff’s abilities and was conclusory and inconsistent with Plaintiff’s performance of a variety of activities during the period at issue. (R. 20). Moreover, as noted, supra, a conclusion as to the ultimate issue of disability is not entitled to any special significance since the determination of whether he was disabled “is an ultimate issue reserved to the Commissioner.” Smith v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 178 Fed.Appx. 106, 112 (3d Cir. 2006). Thus, as Dr. Tran’s opinion did not include specific functional limitations and merely opined as to Plaintiff’s limited employability, the Court finds that the ALJ did not err in giving little weight to that opinion in his analysis.

Additionally, the ALJ noted in his decision that he afforded partial weight to state agency medical consultant James Caramanna, M.D., who opined that Plaintiff could engage in light exertional work with certain additional limitations. (R. 20, 66-70). The ALJ explained that, while Dr. Caramanna’s opinion was generally consistent with his own RFC assessment, the doctor did not have access to the full medical record, nor did he have the opportunity to examine Plaintiff. (R. 20). Thus, the ALJ determined that, based on his review of all the evidence, a more restrictive RFC than that found by Dr. ...


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