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Clagg v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio

January 11, 2018

DIANE M. CLAGG, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER [Resolving Doc. 1]

          JAMES S. GWIN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Diane M. Clagg seeks review of the denial of supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits.[1] Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Parker recommended affirming the denial of benefits.[2] Plaintiff raises three objections.[3]

         For the following reasons, this Court OVERRULES Plaintiff's first and third objections and SUSTAINS Plaintiff's second objection. The Court therefore ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) as it pertains to Plaintiff's first and third objections, but REJECTS the R&R as it pertains to the second objection. The Court VACATES the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ's) decision and REMANDS the case to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On March 31, 2014, Plaintiff Clagg applied for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits.[4] She alleged she was disabled as of November 1, 2013.[5]

         The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Clagg's application initially[6] and on reconsideration.[7] On April 27, 2016, ALJ Susan G. Giuffre held a hearing on her application.[8]

         At the hearing, Clagg testified, among other things, that she performs most of the household chores with her family's help.[9] She uses a neck brace to drive her daughter to school and a back brace to go grocery shopping.[10] She also testified she uses a cane that a doctor prescribed for her[11]and wrist braces when her hands hurt.[12] Clagg testified she spends much of the time lying in bed due to constant pain.[13] Prior to November 1, 2013, Clagg worked from home as a medical claims processor.[14] After receiving a voluntary severance package on October 31, 2013, Clagg said she tried to find part-time work.[15]

         Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Jason Komitau, submitted a medical source statement regarding Clagg's abilities and limitations.[16] He stated that Clagg reported she was limited to 15 minutes of standing, walking, or sitting at one time.[17] He opined that she was occasionally able to carry 5 pounds, could occasionally use her fingers for fine manipulation and handling items, and could occasionally reach.[18] He also opined that Clagg's depression, anxiety, and chronic widespread pain limited her ability to work.[19]

         On June 17, 2016, the ALJ found that Clagg was not disabled.[20]

         The Appeals Council denied review on December 7, 2016, rendering the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision.[21]

         On January 31, 2017, Clagg filed this action seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision.[22] On December 12, 2017, the Magistrate Judge filed an R&R, recommending that the Court affirm the Commissioner's final decision.[23] Plaintiff asserts three objections to the R&R.[24]

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The Federal Magistrates Act requires a district court to conduct a de novo review only of those portions of the R&R to which the parties object.[25] The district court may “accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.”[26]

         When reviewing an ALJ's disability determination under the Social Security Act, a district court reviews whether the ALJ's decision is “supported by substantial evidence and [is] made pursuant to proper legal standards.”[27] Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”[28] Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance.[29]

         A district court should not try to resolve “conflicts in evidence[] or decide questions of credibility.”[30] A district court also may not reverse an ALJ's decision when substantial evidence supports it, even if the court would have made a different decision.[31]

         To establish disability under the Social Security Act, a plaintiff must show that she cannot engage in any substantial gainful activity because of a “medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.”[32]

         III. DISCUSSION

         This Court adopts in part and rejects in part the Magistrate Judge's analysis. The Court overrules Plaintiff's first and third objections to the R&R. But the Court sustains Plaintiff's second objection to the R&R.

         A. The ALJ stated “good reasons” for discounting Dr. Komitau's opinion.

         First, Plaintiff Clagg objects to the Magistrate Judge's finding that the ALJ properly discounted the opinion of Dr. Komitau, Clagg's treating physician, when concluding Clagg was not disabled.[33]

         This Court, however, agrees with the Magistrate Judge: the ALJ substantiated her decision to discount Dr. Komitau's opinion with “good reasons.” Under the treating physician rule, “[t]reating-source opinions must be given ‘controlling weight' if two conditions are met: (1) the opinion ‘is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques;' and (2) the opinion ‘is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record.'”[34]

         An ALJ can give a treating source's opinion less than controlling weight, however, if she gives “good reasons” for doing so.[35] “Good reasons” are reasons that are sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight given to the treating physician's opinion and the reasons for that weight.[36]

         In deciding the weight to give to a treating physician's opinion, the ALJ must consider factors such as (1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of the examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (3) the supportability of the opinion; (4) the consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole; (5) the specialization of the source; and (6) any other factors that tend to support or contradict the opinion.[37] An ALJ is not required to provide “an exhaustive factor-by-factor analysis.”[38]

         The ALJ's reasons for discounting Dr. Komitau's opinion were “good reasons.” As an initial matter, the ALJ was entitled to reject Dr. Komitau's conclusory assertion that the Plaintiff was disabled and/or unable to work. The issue of disability is a legal question reserved for the Commissioner, not the treating physician.[39]

         Moreover, the ALJ sufficiently explained why Dr. Komitau's opinion was inconsistent with the evidence as a whole. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not cite specific parts of the medical record in this part of her decision (which the Magistrate Judge also notes).[40] But as the Magistrate Judge explained, [41] this perceived procedural failure is not dispositive.

         The ALJ had already explained in a previous part of her decision what medical records contradicted Dr. Komitau's opinion. The ALJ cited X-rays showing mild findings and little progression of Clagg's degenerative disc disease.[42] The ALJ noted that there was no evidence showing Clagg was ever prescribed a cane.[43] And the ALJ cited numerous records showing Clagg chose not to follow prescribed treatments for her physical impairments.[44]

         In the relevant part of her decision, the ALJ also specifically noted that treatment records revealed that claimant was able to drive, shop, and sew.[45] The records also showed that Clagg obtained relief from medication and chiropractic therapy.[46]

         Moreover, the ALJ adequately explained how Dr. Komitau's opinion was not supported by any medical evaluations or supportive diagnostic testing. The ALJ noted that Dr. Komitau's opinion about her ability to stand, walk, or sit was based on Plaintiff's own reports of her pain.[47]

         Accordingly, it was reasonable for the ALJ to discount Dr. Komitau's opinion. The Court therefore OVERRULES Plaintiff's first objection and ADOPTS the Magistrate's recommendation on this issue.

         B. The ALJ failed to consider the combined effects of Plaintiff's mental and physical impairments.

         Second, Clagg objects to the Magistrate Judge's finding that the ALJ had considered both Clagg's mental impairments and physical impairments in determining her residual functional capacity.[48] Clagg argues that the ALJ improperly considered only her physical impairments in determining her residual functional capacity.[49]

         Residual functional capacity reflects “the most a claimant can do despite her limitations.”[50]In determining Plaintiff Clagg's residual functional capacity, the ALJ was required to “consider the combined effect of all of the claimant's impairments.”[51] This means the ALJ must consider all impairments, regardless of whether they are deemed severe or non-severe.[52]

         Accordingly, the ALJ was required to factor Plaintiff Clagg's depression and anxiety into Clagg's residual functional capacity, even though the ALJ had already deemed these mental impairments non-severe.[53] The ALJ's opinion gives no indication that she did so.

         Rather, the ALJ seems to have dismissed the effects that Plaintiff's mental impairments had on her residual functional capacity because the ALJ already found the mental impairments non-severe.[54] But this analysis says nothing about what level of impact Plaintiff's mental impairments, albeit non-severe, had on what Plaintiff could do in a work setting.[55] In her residual functional assessment, the ALJ focused on Plaintiff's physical impairments.[56] As a result, the ALJ either failed to account for the limitations stemming from Plaintiff's mental impairments, or to explain, in a way that the Court can review, why she thought they had no effect on Plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity beyond the fact that they were not severe. The ALJ did not consider or describe what limitations followed the combination of all of the claimant's impairments.

         The Court therefore finds that the ALJ's decision regarding Clagg's residual functional capacity is not supported by substantial evidence. The Court therefore SUSTAINS Plaintiff's second objection and REJECTS the Magistrate Judge's recommendation on this issue. The Court VACATES ...


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