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Schwerer v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 30, 2019

AMY MARIE SCHWERER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          William H. Baughman, Jr., United States Magistrate Judge

         Introduction

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

         Issue Presented

         This case presents a single issue for decision:

. Schwerer's treating source, Dr. Bo Yoo, a brain surgeon, gave two opinions as to Schwerer's limitations. The first opinion, rendered one year and one month after surgery, cleared Schwerer to look for any jobs.[3] The second, given a year later, identified limitations regarding time off task and absenteeism.[4] Dr. Yoo's treatment notes as of that time show improvement and stability but subjective complaints of left side numbness.[5] The ALJ gave Dr. Yoo's earlier opinion some weight but the later opinion little weight.[6] Does substantial evidence support the weight assigned to Dr. Yoo's opinions?

         Analysis

         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.[7]

         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.[8] The court may not disturb the Commissioner's findings, even if the preponderance of the evidence favors the claimant.[9]

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

         This is a single issue case, but the analysis is clouded by the lack of Dr. Yoo's consistent relationship with Schwerer during the critical time period. Dr. Yoo performed Schwerer's brain surgery.[10] His first opinion, issued September 25, 2014 - one year and one month post-surgery - reflected a satisfactory recovery and a favorable prognosis.[11] He did not see her again for another year.[12] Dr. Yoo issued his second opinion on October 7, 2015, [13] following a brain MRI and a follow up office visit.[14] In this opinion, Dr. Yoo maintained that Schwerer would be off task more than 20% of an eight-hour work day and absent more than four times per month.[15] He also opined that Schwerer would need to lie down two hours or more over the course of an eight-hour work day.[16] Perhaps most significantly, Dr. Yoo opined Schwerer could only use her hands less than 10% of the work day.[17]

         Dr. Yoo's examination notes from the October 2015 follow up visit reflect that numbness and weakness on the left side had been present since surgery.[18] The notes also reflect his support for Schwerer's Social Security disability application.[19] The October 2015 MRI - on which the ALJ briefly commented[20] - does not appear to reflect any substantial disintegration from an MRI performed the previous year.[21] Dr. Yoo's records lack any additional explanation supporting his October 2015 opinion.

         Schwerer maintains the record as a whole fills in the gaps and otherwise supports Dr. Yoo's opinion.[22] But the ALJ discussed these additional medical records, [23] and Schwerer fails to identify any contrary line of evidence the ALJ overlooked or ignored in the decision.[24]

         The ALJ articulated good reasons for the weight assigned to Dr. Yoo's opinions. As to the September 2014 opinion, the ALJ found that although the opinion “is conclusive in nature and is a determination reserved for the Commissioner, it is accorded some weight to the extent it is consistent with the finding herein that the claimant's impairments do not result in work-preclusive limitations.”[25] As to the October 2015 opinion, the ALJ assigned “great weight” to the “portion of the opinion regarding sitting, standing, and walking because it is consistent with the medical evidence.”[26] The ALJ assigned “[l]ittle weight” to the remainder of Dr. Yoo's opinion “because he had not seen the claimant for more than a year prior to issuing the opinion and it is ...


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