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Gaines v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

February 16, 2016

JAMIE L. GAINES, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



Plaintiff Jamie Gaines claims in this Social Security appeal that the Commissioner's decision to deny her supplemental security income under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) is contrary to law and not supported by substantial evidence. For the reasons explained below, the Commissioner’s decision will be affirmed.


Plaintiff applied for benefits in February, 2012, alleging disability due to fibromyalgia, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, asthma, fatigue, club feet, arthritis, anemia, fear of bridges over water, gastroesophageal reflux disease, pinched discs in her back, and neurological damage to her legs and feet. Plaintiff’s application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff appealed the denial to an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). After an administrative hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on March 10, 2014. (Tr. 10-38.)

In her decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s claim using the “five-step” sequential analysis prescribed by the Social Security Regulations.[1] See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. In doing so, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of status post gastric bypass, bipolar disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, PTSD, history of club foot deformity repairs, history of fibromyalgia, and left arm tendinitis. (Tr. 16.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] to lift/carry/push/pull twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, sit four hours in an eight-hour workday, and stand and walk four hours in an eight-hour workday. (Tr. 18.) Plaintiff can occasionally climb and must alternate sitting and standing ever thirty minutes. (Id.) She can perform simple instructions that are repetitive and routine and do not involve multitasking and she must have only brief, superficial interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors. (Id.) The ALJ stated that although Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work, there are jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff is able to perform. (Tr. 30-31.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits.

Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ’s decision by the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration (“Appeals Council”). The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

On appeal, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ’s RFC assessment is inconsistent with the ALJ’s own findings and unsupported by the evidence. Plaintiff also claims that the hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert was improper and does not constitute reliable, substantial evidence. The Court will consider each of these arguments below.


A denial of benefits by the Commissioner is reviewed to determine whether the denial is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Hogan v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 958, 960 (8th Cir. 2001) (quotation omitted). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner’s conclusion.” Id. at 960-61. Evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner’s decision must be considered, but the decision may not be reversed merely because substantial evidence exists for a contrary outcome. See Moad v. Massanari, 260 F.3d 887, 890 (8th Cir. 2001).

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did a poor job evaluating the medical evidence. Plaintiff maintains that the ALJ improperly weighed the medical evidence by discounting the opinions of examining providers and, instead, relying on the opinions of non-treating experts to formulate Plaintiff’s RFC. According to Plaintiff, the ALJ “cherry-picked” the record by pulling out clinical entries unfavorable to Plaintiff, while ignoring those supporting Plaintiff’s claim of disability. Plaintiff claims that the RFC assessment does not adequately address Plaintiff’s limited ability to deal with stress, interact with co-workers, perform at pace, accept instructions, maintain regular attendance, or avoid uncontrolled crying spells. Plaintiff further asserts that the RFC does not address Plaintiff’s need for frequent and unscheduled rests or the three absences per month that three treating sources predicted. Plaintiff claims that the RFC finding is also inconsistent with the low Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) scores noted by two treating physicians.

“A treating physician's opinion is given controlling weight if it is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence.” Medhaug v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 805, 815 (8th Cir. 2009) (quotation omitted). However, a treating physician's opinion “does not automatically control in the face of other credible evidence on the record that detracts from that opinion.” Heino v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 873, 880 (8th Cir. 2009). “An ALJ may credit other medical evaluations over that of the treating physician when such other assessments are supported by better or more thorough medical evidence.” Id. (quotation omitted).

An ALJ may not, however, cherry-pick inconsistencies between a treating physician’s opinion and the record to discount the physician’s opinion. Denton v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th Cir. 2010). “An ALJ has the obligation to consider all relevant medical evidence and cannot simply cherry-pick facts that support a finding of non-disability while ignoring evidence that points to a disability finding.” Id. Still, “an ALJ need not mention every piece of evidence, so long he builds a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Id.

The evidence does not support Plaintiff’s contention that the ALJ “cherry-picked” the record, or improperly discounted medical opinions. The ALJ addressed the limitations alleged by Plaintiff, but simply did not assign as much significance to those limitations as Plaintiff would have liked. For instance, Plaintiff points to the opinion of consultative psychologist Dr. A. James Fix as an example of medical evidence ignored by the ALJ. However, the ALJ’s opinion discusses Dr. Fix’s diagnosis, as well as the GAF score assessed by Dr. Fix. (Tr. 21, 379.) Although the ALJ did not attribute much weight to Dr. Fix’s GAF assessment, this was not improper. See Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 973 (8th Cir. 2010) (“[A]n ALJ may afford greater weight to medical evidence and testimony than to GAF scores when the evidence requires it.”) (quotation omitted). Although Plaintiff claims that the ALJ rejected Dr. Fix’s opinion that Plaintiff would not be able to relate appropriately with co-workers, the ALJ did, in fact, incorporate this restriction in Plaintiff’s RFC. (Tr. 18.)

Similarly, the ALJ properly evaluated the opinion of Plaintiff’s psychologist, Dr. Nathan Sudbeck. Dr. Sudbeck opined that Plaintiff’s emotional dysfunction limited her ability to acquire and maintain employment. (Tr. 27, 578.) Dr. Sudbeck also opined that Plaintiff would perform unskilled work tasks at a slower pace than unimpaired workers. (Tr. 28, 585.) The ALJ provided numerous reasons for discounting Dr. Sudbeck’s opinion. For instance, in December, 2012, Plaintiff told Dr. Sudbeck things were going well. (Tr. 28, 605.) At that time, Plaintiff explained that she participated in a holiday celebration and had an improved level of depression. (Id.) At her next appointment, Plaintiff brought her baby and expressed that she was motivated by being a positive parent. (Tr. 28, 606.) In June, 2013, Plaintiff reported depression, but stated she was functioning well and able to stay active to care for her daughter. (Tr. 28, 626.) In August 2013, Plaintiff was unhappy, but planning to attend a concert. (Tr. 28, 635.) In September, 2013, Dr. Sudbeck noted that Plaintiff was friendly, talkative, and functioning relatively well. (Tr. ...

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