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Rhinebolt v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

January 22, 2018

Connie L. Rhinebolt, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          James L. Graham United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Connie L. Rhinebolt brings this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for supplemental security income disability benefits. In his September 26, 2016, decision, the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) found that plaintiff had severe impairments consisting of vertigo and syncope, paroxysmal atrial tachycardia, status post ablation of the right atrium, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, and obesity.[1] PAGEID 99. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, to sit for six of eight hours and to stand and walk for two of eight hours, to engage in the occasional climbing of ramps or stairs, to occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl, and to have frequent exposure to extremes of temperature and humidity. The RFC precluded the climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and any work around hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. PAGEID 102. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff was capable of performing jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and that she is not disabled. PAGEID 109-110. This matter is before the court for consideration of plaintiff's December 12, 2017, objections to the November 28, 2017, report and recommendation of the magistrate judge, recommending that the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.[2]

I. Standard of Review

         If a party objects within the allotted time to a report and recommendation, the court “shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). Upon review, the court “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         The 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)); see also, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.”). Even if supported by substantial evidence, however, “‘a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the [Commissioner] fails to follow its own regulations and where that error prejudices a claimant on the merits or deprives the claimant of a substantial right.'” Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007)).

         II. Plaintiff's Objections

         A. ALJ's Analysis of Dr. Lee's Opinions

         Plaintiff argues that the magistrate judge erred in concluding that the ALJ's decision to give little weight to the RFC questionnaire completed by Dr. Ken W. Lee, plaintiff's treating cardiologist, on June 25, 2013, was supported by good reasons which were stated in his ruling. On this questionnaire, Dr. Lee noted that during a working day, plaintiff could sit eight hours and stand or walk one hour, and that she would require a thirty-minute break one to two times per day. Ex. B21F. He further indicated that plaintiff could frequently lift less than ten pounds and occasionally lift ten to twenty pounds, and that she would likely be absent from work three or four times per month. Dr. Lee concluded that plaintiff was not physically capable of working an eight-hour day.

         Under Social Security Ruling 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188 (Soc. Sec. Admin. July 2, 1996), treating-source opinions must be given “controlling weight” if: (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.” See 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(c)(2); Soc. Sec. Rul. No. 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188 at *2-3. If the Commissioner does not give a treating-source opinion controlling weight, then the opinion is weighed based on factors such as the length, frequency, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship, the treating source's area of specialty, and the degree to which the opinion is consistent with the record as a whole and is supported by relevant evidence. 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(c)(2)-(6); Gayheart v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 710 F.3d 365, 376 (6th Cir. 2013). The Commissioner is required to provide “good reasons” for discounting the weight given to a treating-source opinion. §404.1527(c)(2). However, a formulaic recitation of factors is not required. See Friend v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.App'x 543, 551 (6th Cir. 2010).

         The court agrees with the magistrate judge that the ALJ did not err in assigning little weight to Dr. Lee's opinions, and that he provided good reasons for doing so. The ALJ noted that Dr. Lee's opinions were

inconsistent with the medical evidence of record and based on the claimant's subjective complaints. Notes from this cardiologist do not support a limited standing and walking ability as she has had normal findings on physical exam, she has reported considerable activities of daily living, and she has had infrequent treatment with large gaps and noncompliance issues. Notably, after the completion of this residual functional capacity, with [the] last visit in 2013, the claimant failed to continue regular cardiology appointments for nearly two years. When she returned nearly two years later, she reported findings suggesting she was asymptomatic from her atrial tachycardia with no syncopal events for those past two years. Although she has alleged an increase in her symptoms, she has not resumed regular treatment, has not had the recommended one-week monitoring, and is not on any medications other than Lipitor. Dr. Lee did not have the benefit of the claimant's apparent improvement in symptomology with no further cardiology visits for nearly two years after he last saw the claimant.


         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not adequately explain what he meant by “inconsistent with the medical evidence of record.” Although an ALJ need not discuss every piece of evidence in the record for his decision to stand, see Kornecky v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 167 F.App'x 496, 508 (6th Cir. 2006), the ALJ's decision does include a thorough discussion of plaintiff's medical records, including her history of treatment with Dr. Lee through her last appointment with Dr. Lee on May 6, 2013, a month and a half before Dr. Lee completed the RFC questionnaire.

         For example, the ALJ noted that the records of plaintiff's April 26, 2011, appointment with Dr. Lee reported normal findings on exam. PAGEID 103, citing Exhibit B9F/12. The ALJ observed that limitations recorded by plaintiff on a September 13, 2011, functional report were never reported to Dr. Lee. PAGEID 104. Thus, these reported limitations could not have supported Dr. Lee's assessment on the questionnaire. The ALJ also noted that after plaintiff's May 6, 2013, appointment with Dr. Lee, she stopped her cardiology follow-up appointments and did not return until April 7, 2015, when she was seen by Tim Nuss, CNP, a nurse practitioner. The ALJ discussed the April 7, 2015, report of CNP Nuss, which indicated that plaintiff's exam findings were normal and that plaintiff denied any near syncope or syncopal events. PAGEID ...

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