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Susan Jane Beehler v. Commissioner of Social Security

November 22, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge William H. Baughman, Jr.



This is an action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying the applications of the plaintiff, Susan Jane Beehler, for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI).*fn1 The parties have consented to magistrate judge's jurisdiction.*fn2

Essentially, as will be discussed below, the key issue in this case is whether there is substantial evidence to support the residual functional capacity (RFC) finding of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), whose decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Because I will conclude that substantial evidence does exist to support this finding, the Commissioner's decision will be upheld.


A. Background facts; the ALJ's decision

Beehler, a high school graduate born in 1957 who previously worked as a cook, applied for benefits in 2006.*fn3 In support of her application, she claimed that she did not have the capacity for light or sedentary work because of multiple physical impairments, as well as depression.*fn4 Specifically, she relied on reports from treating physician Paul Scheatzle, D.O., who completed an RFC assessment in 2001; treating physician Anne Harper, M.D., who completed a functional capacity evaluation in 2003; and treating physician Bharat Oza, M.D., who completed a functional capacity evaluation in 2008.*fn5

The ALJ found first that Beehler had severe impairments consisting of degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine and depressive disorder.*fn6 The ALJ then made the following finding regarding Beehler's residual functional capacity:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she can lift up to 20 lbs occasionally, and lift and carry up to 10 lbs frequently. She can walk, stand and sit, each, for approximately 6 hours in an 8 hour workday, with normal breaks. However, prolonged standing and walking are limited, meaning that the claimant must be allowed to sit or stand alternatively, at will, provided that she is not off task more than 10 percent of the work period. The claimant is limited to work with simple, routine and repetitive tasks; in a work environment free of fast paced production requirements; involving only simple, work-related decisions; with few, if any, work place changes.*fn7 In determining Beehler's RFC, the ALJ gave no weight to Dr. Scheatzle's opinion on the grounds that it was "unreliable" in light of certain, identified medical findings of Dr. Scheatzle that were inconsistent with the medical record.*fn8 Further, the ALJ noted but then gave "minimal weight" to Dr. Harper's report for the reason that the opinion "appear[ed] to be based primarily on the claimant's complaints" and is not supported in Dr. Harper's treatment notes.*fn9 Finally, the ALJ also took note of Dr. Oza's assessment, assigning it "minimal weight" because it was "specifically ... based on 'subjective responses by the claimant, rather than clinical examination."*fn10

Instead of relying on those sources, the ALJ assigned "great weight" to two assessments from state agency reviewing sources.*fn11 The articulated reason given by the ALJ was that these assessments -- which indicated Beehler was capable of doing light work -- were both "supported by the evidence of record which shows mild pathology on MRI and a normal EMG of the claimant's right leg."*fn12

Having made the above-noted RFC finding based on the stated weight given to the various reports, the ALJ determined that Beehler was incapable of performing her past relevant work as cook, dishwasher, and food preparer.*fn13

Considering the medical-vocational guidelines in Appendix 2 of the regulations, and based on an answer to a hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert at the hearing setting forth the RFC finding quoted above, the ALJ determined that a significant number of jobs existed locally and nationally that Beehler could perform.*fn14 The ALJ, therefore, found Beehler not under a disability.*fn15

B. Claimant's argument

Beehler asks for reversal of the Commissioner's decision on the ground that it does not have the support of substantial evidence in the administrative record. Specifically, Beehler argues that because "all treating and examining physicians who completed functional capacity assessments limited [Beehler] to less than a full range of sedentary work," the "ALJ erred by substituting the opinions of non-examining physicians for the opinions of the treating and examining physicians...."*fn16


A. Standards of review

1. Substantial evidence ...

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