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Messer v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 26, 2019

Nicholas S. Messer, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          James L. Graham United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Nicholas S. Messer brings this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for supplemental security income. In a decision rendered on March 16, 2018, the ALJ found that plaintiff has severe impairments consisting of major depressive disorder, schizoid personality disorder, autism spectrum disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, asthma, and obesity. PAGEID 60. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work. The ALJ specified the additional restrictions that plaintiff must avoid hazards; that he was limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a static work environment, with no production-paced or quota-driven work, but could perform goal-oriented jobs such as an office cleaner and could make simple workplace decisions; and that he must avoid interacting with the general public and coworkers, but could have occasional, superficial interaction with supervisors. PAGEID 61-62. Relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that there are jobs which plaintiff can perform and that plaintiff is not disabled. PAGEID 66-67.

         This matter is before the court for consideration of plaintiff's June 6, 2019, objections to the May 30, 2019, report and recommendation of the magistrate judge, recommending that the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.

         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.”). “Substantial evidence exists when ‘a reasonable mind could accept the evidence as adequate to support a conclusion [and] ... presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which the decision-makers can go either way, without interference by the courts.'” Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2009)(internal citation omitted). A reviewing court will affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on substantial evidence, even if substantial evidence would also have supported the opposite conclusion. Gayheart v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 710 F.3d 365, 376 (6th Cir. 2013). 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

         Plaintiff objects to the conclusion of the magistrate judge that the ALJ provided good reasons for assigning less than controlling weight to the opinions of Andrew J. Boyd, M.D., plaintiff's primary care physician, concerning his mental impairments.

         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 (Soc. Sec. Admin. July 2, 1996). If the opinion of the treating doctor does not meet these “controlling weight” criteria, this does not mean that the opinion must be rejected; rather, it “may still be entitled to deference and be adopted by the adjudicator.” Soc. Sec. Rul. No. 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188 at *1. 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, 710 F.3d at 376. However, the ALJ is not required to address each of these factors in the written decision. Tilley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 394 Fed.Appx. 216, 222 (6th Cir. 2010); see also Friend v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 Fed.Appx. 543, 551 (6th Cir. 2010)(a formulaic recitation of factors is not required).

         The Commissioner is required to provide “good reasons” for discounting the weight given to a treating-source opinion. §404.1527(c)(2). These reasons must be “supported by the evidence in the case record, and 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.” Soc. Sec. Rul. No. 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188 at *5; Rogers, 486 F.3d at 242. An ALJ need not discuss every piece of evidence in the record for his decision to stand, see Thacker v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 99 Fed.Appx. 661, 665 (6th Cir. 2004), and the failure to cite specific evidence does not indicate that it was not considered, see Simons v. Barnhart, 114 Fed.Appx. 727, 733 (6th Cir. 2004). An ALJ may also accomplish the goals of the “good reasons” requirement by indirectly attacking the supportability of the treating physician's opinion or its consistency with other evidence in the record. Coldiron v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 391 Fed.Appx. 435, 439-41 (6th Cir. 2010); Nelson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 195 Fed.Appx. 462, 470-72 (6th Cir. 2006).

         Plaintiff, who is now twenty-five years old, began treating with Dr. Boyd on July 29, 2014. The treatment note states that plaintiff wanted a “paper stating there is something wrong with him so they can get food stamps.” PAGEID 318. On September 9, 2016, Dr. Boyd completed a mental impairment questionnaire. PAGEID 385. The indicated diagnoses were schizoid personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and depression. Dr. Boyd's clinical findings included odd affect, poor personal grooming, symptoms of depression and mild paranoia; he noted that plaintiff sees himself as “nothing” and sees others as “less than nothing.” PAGEID 385. Dr. Boyd completed a checkbox form, indicating marked and extreme limitations in completing a workday, maintaining regular attendance, working with others, interacting with the public, getting along with co-workers, accepting instructions from supervisors, maintaining socially appropriate behavior, responding to changes in routine and dealing with work stress. PAGEID 386-87. This checkbox form contained no explanation of how Dr. Boyd concluded that plaintiff's mental impairments would result in the noted functional limitations. See Price v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 342 Fed.Appx. 172, 176 (6th Cir. 2009)(ALJ properly discounted treating physician's opinion where physician failed to provide any explanation for his responses to interrogatories regarding plaintiff's impairments); Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 530 (6th Cir. 1997)(treating physician's mere documentation of impairments was not sufficient to support his opinion that claimant could not perform past job).

         In a May 11, 2016, letter to plaintiff's counsel, Dr. Boyd stated that plaintiff had a personality disorder with traits from both narcissistic and schizoid types and a depressive disorder, that his personality disorder makes personal interactions extremely difficult, that plaintiff has never been employed or experienced close personal relationships, and that his ability to interact in a normal workplace or tolerate normal workplace stressors is extremely impaired. PAGEID 382. Dr. Boyd also expressed the opinion that plaintiff was unemployable and totally and permanently disabled. PAGEID 379.

         After summarizing those documents, the ALJ accorded little weight to Dr. Boyd's opinion because: 1) the limitations posed by Dr. Boyd were not consistent with and unsupported by the medical evidence of record as a whole, including plaintiff's conservative and routine treatment and the benign findings in Dr. Boyd's own treatment notes; 2) Dr. Boyd is a primary care physician, not a mental health specialist; and 3) Dr. Boyd's assertions that plaintiff is disabled and unemployable are findings reserved for the Commissioner. PAGEID 64-65.[1]

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to adequately explain how Dr. Boyd's opinion was inconsistent with the evidence in the record. The ALJ is not required to explain every piece of evidence in the record or to address each check mark from the doctor's opinion. Bayes v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 757 Fed.Appx. 436, 445 (6th Cir. 2018). The ALJ's decision includes a discussion of the records bearing on the treatment of plaintiff's mental disorders, with citations to specific exhibits. The ALJ noted that: 1) plaintiff's symptoms improved with medications and conservative, routine treatment (plaintiff reported on October 2, 2017, that Zoloft was helping) and his symptoms were well managed by his primary care physician; 2) although the mental status evaluations showed some depression, anxiety, and transient findings of grandiosity, his mental evaluation findings were generally within normal limits, including no auditory or visual hallucinations, no suicidal or homicidal ideations, adequate judgment, and the ability to appropriately answer questions; 3) records from August 5, 2014, through September 25, 2015, showed routine appointments with no significant findings; 4) plaintiff was referred for a psychiatric evaluation on February 9, 2015, but did not engage in psychiatric treatment because he did not want to take medications; and 5) ...

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