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Hullum v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 30, 2019

EDWARD MARKUS HULLUM, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          WILLIAM H. BAUGHMAN, JR. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Introduction

         Before me[1] is an action by Edward Markus Hullum under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income.[2] Because substantial evidence supports the ALJ's no disability finding, the ALJ's decision is affirmed.

         Issues Presented

         This case presents two related issues for decision:

         •The ALJ found that Hullum's impairments did not require limitations in the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) for a need to elevate his legs “as often as reasonable.”[3] Does substantial evidence support that finding?

         •The ALJ gave the opinion of treating physician Dr. Andrew Brobbey that Hullum needed “to elevate his legs as often as reasonable” little weight.[4] Did the ALJ properly weight the opinion of Dr. Brobbey?

         Analysis

          A. Applicable law

          1. Substantial evidence

          The Sixth Circuit in Buxton v. Halter reemphasized the standard of review applicable to decisions of the ALJs in disability cases:

         Congress has provided for federal court review of Social Security administrative decisions. However, the scope of review is limited under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g): “The findings of the Secretary as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive. . . .” In other words, on review of the Commissioner's decision that claimant is not totally disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the only issue reviewable by this court is whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Substantial evidence is “‘more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'”

          The findings of the Commissioner are not subject to reversal merely because there exists in the record substantial evidence to support a different conclusion. This is so because there is a “zone of choice” within which the Commissioner can act, without the fear of court interference.[5]

         Viewed in the context of a jury trial, all that is necessary to affirm is that reasonable minds could reach different conclusions on the evidence. If such is the case, the Commissioner survives “a directed verdict” and wins.[6] The court may not disturb the Commissioner's findings, even if the preponderance of the evidence favors the claimant.[7]

         I will review the findings of the ALJ at issue here consistent with that deferential standard.

         2. Treating physician rule and good reasons requirement

         The Sixth Circuit in Gayheart v. Commissioner of Social Security[8] emphasized that the regulations require two distinct analyses in evaluating the opinions of treating sources.[9]The Gayheart decision directed that the ALJ must first determine if the opinion must receive controlling weight as well-supported by clinical and laboratory techniques and as not inconsistent with other evidence in the administrative record.[10] If the ALJ decides not to give the opinion controlling weight, then a rebuttable presumption exists that the treating physician's opinion should receive great deference.[11] This presumption may be rebutted by application of the factors set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2)(i)-(ii), (3)-(6).[12] The Court cautioned against collapsing these two distinct analyses into one.[13]

         Despite the seemingly clear mandate of Gayheart, the Sixth Circuit in later decisions has adopted an approach that permits these two separate analyses to be merged into one so long as the ALJ states “good reasons” for the weight assigned applying the regulatory factors governing each analytical step.[14] Also, despite the reality that a unified statement of these “good reasons” greatly enhances meaningful judicial review, [15] some authority exists for looking outside the unified statement for analysis of the weight assigned to a treating source's opinion.[16] Going beyond the reasons stated in the unified statement takes the Court in the hazy gray area where the sirens of de novo review and post hoc rationalization reside. A reviewing district court must avoid both.

         B. Application ...


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