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Coatney v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 16, 2019

TIMOTHY D. COATNEY, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          Edmund A. Sargus, Jr. Judge

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          CHELSEY M. VASCURA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff, Timothy D. Coatney (“Plaintiff”), brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. This matter is before the undersigned for a Report and Recommendation on Plaintiff's Statement of Errors (ECF No. 10), the Commissioner's Response in Opposition (ECF No. 13), and the administrative record (ECF No. 9). For the reasons that follow, it is RECOMMENDED that Plaintiff's Statement of Errors be OVERRULED and that the Commissioner's decision be AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff protectively filed his applications for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on August 7, 2015. In his applications, Plaintiff alleged a disability onset of December 15, 2014. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially on November 9, 2015, and upon reconsideration on March 14, 2016. Plaintiff sought a hearing before an administrative law judge. Administrative Law Judge Jeannine Lesperance (the “ALJ”) held a hearing on December 5, 2017, at which Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. Vocational Expert Carl W. Hartung (the “VE”), also appeared and testified at the hearing. On July 30, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. On March 13, 2019, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review and adopted the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. On May 15, 2019, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to reopen the prior denial of his request for review. Plaintiff timely filed this action.

         In his Statement of Errors, Plaintiff advances two contentions of error. First, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to provide “good reasons” supported by substantial evidence for discounting the opinions of his treating physician, Sunil V. Bhat, M.D. (“Dr. Bhat”). (Plaintiff's Statement of Errors at 5-10, ECF No. 10.) Plaintiff next asserts that the ALJ improperly discounted the opinion of the consultative examiner, Robert D. Whitehead, M.D. (“Dr. Whitehead”). (Id. at 11-13.)

         II. RELEVANT MEDICAL RECORDS

         A. Treating Physician, Sunil V. Bhat, M.D.

         Dr. Bhat is Plaintiff's primary care provider who treated Plaintiff for, among other things, HIV, peripheral neuropathy, COPD, and asthma. (See, e.g., R. at 993-96.)

         On June 18, 2015, Dr. Bhat submitted a letter stating that Plaintiff is a patient under his care suffering from “multiple chronic conditions which include disease of the Central Nervous System and immunocompromised disorder.” (R. at 1100.) He concluded that Plaintiff “is unable to participate in meaningful work at this time.” (Id.)

         On March 21, 2016, Dr. Bhat provided a medical opinion in connection with Plaintiff's Paratransit Eligibility Application for the Central Ohio Transit Authority (“COTA”). (R. at 957-62.) Dr. Bhat stated that Plaintiff has an anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, peripheral neuropathy, and asthma. (R. at 961.) He stated that Plaintiff suffers from intermittent anxiety attacks when in crowded public conditions, that weather changes exacerbate Plaintiff's asthma, and that Plaintiff's neuropathy “makes it difficult to wait for and be comfortable on [a] public bus.” (Id.) Dr. Bhat opined that Plaintiff would need assistance with getting to or from the bus stop, getting on or off the bus, getting to where he is going from the bus stop, and at the location he is going to. (R. at 961-62.) He further opined that Plaintiff is limited in his ability to identify the correct bus stop/bus, as well as in his ability to ask for, understand, and carry out instructions to take a trip. (Id.)

         On July 27, 2017, Dr. Bhat completed medical source statements. (R. at 1422-28.) He opined that in an eight-hour workday, Plaintiff can stand for two hours, fifteen minutes at a time; walk for one hour, fifteen minutes at a time; and sit for two hours, fifteen minutes at a time. (R. at 1422, 1427.) He opined that Plaintiff can occasionally lift up to five pounds and rarely lift up to twenty pounds. (R. at 1422, 1426.) Dr. Bhat found that Plaintiff can perform simple grasping and pushing and pulling, but no fine manipulation, and cannot use his feet for repetitive movements such as operating foot controls. (R. at 1422-23.) He opined that Plaintiff can rarely reach with his right arm and never reach with his left arm; can occasionally handle with his right and left hands; and occasionally finger with his right and left hands. (R. at 1426-27.) Dr. Bhat further concluded that Plaintiff cannot crawl, climb steps, or climb ladders, and can occasionally bend, crouch/squat, and stoop. (R. at 1423, 1427.) He opined that Plaintiff is not able to reach above shoulder level. (R. at 1423, 1427.) Dr. Bhat found that Plaintiff's condition is likely to deteriorate if he is under stress and that he is likely to have two or more partial or full day unscheduled absences per month due to his conditions, pain, and/or side effects of medication. (R. at 1423, 1427-28.) Dr. Bhat stated that Plaintiff's musculoskeletal pain, PTSD, anxiety, and migraines would be adversely affected by stress. (R. at 1423.) He reviewed Plaintiff's medical records and treatment notes in completing the medical statements and stated that his assessment was premised upon Plaintiff's diagnoses of migraines, hepatitis C, Meniere's disease, HIV, anxiety, and PTSD. (R. at 1428.)

         B. Consultative Examiner, Robert D. Whitehead, M.D.

         On February 8, 2016, Dr. Whitehead examined Plaintiff in connection with his Social Security disability claim. (R. at 1401-1404.) Based on his examination, Dr. Whitehead concluded that Plaintiff could “perform modified light duty jobs and/or mostly sedentary jobs.” (R. at 1404.) Dr. Whitehead opined that Plaintiff “could not perform repetitive lifting, repetitive bending and he likely would be limited to standing for 30 minutes at a time.” (Id.)

         C. State-Agency Reviewing Physician

         On February 24, 2016, on reconsideration of Plaintiff's claim, state-agency reviewing physician Esberdado Villanueva, M.D., reviewed the record and assessed Plaintiff's physical residual functional capacity (“RFC”). (R. at 750-51.) Dr. Villanueva opined that Plaintiff can occasionally lift and/or carry fifty pounds, frequently lift and/or carry twenty-five pounds, stand and/or walk about six hours in an eight-hour workday, and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. (R. at 750.) He found Plaintiff had no limitations in pushing and/or pulling (including operation of hand and/or foot controls), other than as stated for his ability to lift and carry. (Id.) He further opined Plaintiff can frequently climb ramps/stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, and can occasionally climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds, and should avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, etc. (R. at 750-51.) He found that Plaintiff had no manipulative, visual, or communicative limitations. (R. at 751.)

         III. THE ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         On July 30, 2018 the ALJ issued her decision. (R. at 19-34.) The ALJ first found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements through September 30, 2020. (Id. at 21.) At step one of the sequential evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 15, 2014, the alleged onset date. (Id. at 22.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of “human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) with peripheral neuropathy; hepatitis C; migraine headaches; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; left mild ulnar neuropathy; minimal degenerative disc disease, cervical spine; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)/emphysema/asthma; Meniere's disease; depressive disorder; anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments described in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 23.) The ALJ set forth Plaintiff's RFC as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that he could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, crawl, push/pull with the left lower extremity; or work in temperature extremes/humidity/atmospheric conditions; frequently stoop, kneel, crouch and handle/finger; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and never work around hazards such as unprotected heights or exposure to moving mechanical parts. Mentally the claimant is able to perform simple routine tasks at an average pace, without strict time or production demands; can interact occasionally with coworkers and supervisors on matters limited to the straightforward exchange of information without teamwork or tandem work, but duties should not require interaction with the general public; and can adapt to occasional changes in duties that are explained.

(R. at 26.) In assessing Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ considered the medical opinion evidence. The ALJ considered each of Dr. Bhat's opinions, assigning “no weight” to his June 18, 2015 opinion, “some weight” to his March 21, 2016 opinion, and “partial weight” to his July 27, 2017 opinions. (R. at 29-30.) The ALJ assigned “partial weight” to the opinions of consultative examiner Dr. Whitehead and consultative psychologist Michele Evans, Ph.D. (R. at 30-31.) Finally, the ALJ assigned “some weight” to the opinions of the state-agency reviewing physician and psychologists. (R. at 31.)

         Relying on the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that even though Plaintiff is unable to perform his past work, he can perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 32.) She therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. at 33.)

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When reviewing a case under the Social Security Act, the Court “must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it ‘is supported by substantial evidence and was made pursuant to proper legal standards.'” Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009) (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 . . . .”). Under this standard, “substantial evidence is defined as ‘more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Rogers, 486 F.3d at 241 (quoting Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994)).

         Although the substantial evidence standard is deferential, it is not trivial. The Court must “‘take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from [the] weight'” of the Commissioner's decision. TNS, Inc. v. NLRB, 296 F.3d 384, 395 (6th Cir. 2002) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 487 (1951)). Nevertheless, “if substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, this Court defers to that finding ‘even if there is substantial evidence in the record that would have supported an opposite conclusion.'” Blakley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)).

         Finally, even if the ALJ's decision meets the substantial evidence standard, “‘a decision of the Commissioner will not be upheld where the SSA 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, 582 F.3d at 651 (quoting Bowen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 478 F.3d 742, 746 (6th Cir. 2007)).

         V. ANALYSIS

         As set forth above, Plaintiff raises two issues in his Statement of Errors (ECF No. 10). First, he asserts that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinions of his treating physician, Dr. Bhat. Second, he asserts that the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinion of the consultative examining physician, Dr. Whitehead. The undersigned considers each of these contentions of error in turn.

         A. The ALJ's Evaluation of Dr. Bhat's Opinions According to Plaintiff, the ALJ failed to provide “good reasons” supported by substantial evidence for discounting the opinions of his treating physician, Dr. Bhat. The Commissioner counters that the ALJ reasonably declined to give controlling weight to the extreme and/or unsubstantiated opinions of Dr. Bhat. The undersigned agrees with the Commissioner and finds Plaintiff's first contention of error to be without merit.

         The ALJ must consider all medical opinions that she receives in evaluating a claimant's case. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). The applicable regulations define medical opinions as “statements from acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of your ...


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