United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division
RICHARD W. HAIRE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S BRIEF IN SUPPORT OF APPEAL
TIM A. BAKER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Richard W. Haire brings this appeal challenging the denial of his claim for disability benefits. The Court held oral argument on February 17, 2015. As discussed at the argument, this appeal presents two issues: (1) whether the ALJ erred in rejecting Haire's treating physician Dr. Lisa Bledsoe's medical opinion and Dr. James Nicholas' medical opinion; and (2) whether the ALJ's credibility determination was patently wrong. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds remand unwarranted and affirms the Commissioner's decision.
Haire applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income, alleging an onset date beginning August 10, 2009. After Haire's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration, an ALJ held a disability hearing. Ultimately, the ALJ found Haire not to be disabled. At step one (1) the ALJ found that Haire had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. At step two (2) the ALJ found Haire's history of right knee tear, history of right hip replacement, degenerative disc disease/mild to moderate stenosis at L5, left wrist fracture, bipolar disorder with obsessive compulsive disorder, and history of substance abuse to be severe impairments. [Filing No. 14-2, at ECF p. 16.] At step three (3) the ALJ found none of Haire's severe impairments met or equaled a listing or combination of listings, and at step four (4), the ALJ concluded that Haire was capable of performing:
light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the claimant should never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, and could no more than occasionally climb ramps/stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and bend. Based on his mental impairments the claimant should be limited to 1, 2, or 3 step simple, routine, and repetitive tasks in a work environment involving no public contact and no more than occasional contact with co-workers and supervisors.
[Filing No. 14-2, at ECF p. 19.] Relying on a vocational expert, the ALJ found Haire was not capable of performing past relevant work, and at step five (5), the VE opined that Haire could perform work in the national economy as an assembler, hand packager, and inspector at the light and sedentary exertional levels. [Filing No. 14-2, at ECF p. 25.] Adopting the VE's opinion, the ALJ found Haire capable of performing these jobs in the national economy. [Filing No. 14-2, at ECF p. 25.] The Appeals Council denied Haire's request for review, making the ALJ's decision final. This appeal followed.
A. Standard of review
The Court must uphold the ALJ's decision if substantial evidence supports her findings. See McKinzey v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 889 (7th Cir. 2011). "Although a mere scintilla of proof will not suffice to uphold an ALJ's findings, the substantial evidence standard requires no more than such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. The ALJ is obligated to consider all relevant medical evidence and cannot simply cherry-pick facts that support a finding of nondisability while ignoring evidence that points to a disability finding. Denton v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th Cir. 2010). If evidence contradicts the ALJ's conclusions, the ALJ must confront that evidence and explain why it was rejected. Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1123 (7th Cir. 2014). The ALJ, however, need not mention every piece of evidence in the record, so long as she builds a logical bridge from the evidence to her conclusion. Denton, 596 F.3d at 425. On review, the Court may not reweigh the evidence, decide the facts anew, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner to decide whether the claimant is disabled. Kepple v. Massanari, 268 F.3d 513, 516 (7th Cir. 2001).
B. Medical opinions
Haire asserts that the ALJ erroneously discounted the physician opinions of Drs. Bledsoe and Nicholas. In a February 22, 2012, letter, Dr. Bledsoe opined that Haire was unable to participate in any gainful employment due to "cognitive, physical and emotional impairments, as well as side effects of medication he is using to control his symptoms. His limitations [included] inability to stand, walk or sit or maintain any steady position for more than 30 minutes at the time. His weight lifting carrying or pushing ability should be limited to 5-10 pounds." [Filing No. 14-11, at ECF p. 90.] She also noted that Haire took multiple medications to control his mood, but that he required constant medication adjustments and had substantial difficulty focusing, memorizing, and following multiple step functions. The ALJ afforded no weight to Dr. Bledsoe's opinion because determining whether a claimant has a disability that precludes substantial gainful activity is a task reserved for the Commissioner. Moreover, Dr. Bledsoe did not discuss Haire's substance abuse history, her opinion was inconsistent with Haire's daily living activities and internally inconsistent, and Dr. Bledsoe was not qualified to discuss Haire's mental impairments. [Filing No. 14-2, at ECF p. 22.]
Haire argues that the ALJ's justification for giving Dr. Bledsoe's opinion no weight was illogical, unsupported, and insufficient. According to Haire, the ALJ erroneously cherry-picked daily living activities that were inconsistent with Dr. Bledsoe's opinion, discounted Dr. Bledsoe for failing to discuss Haire's distant history of substance abuse, and relied on her own observations at the hearing as evidence to discount Dr. Bledsoe. The Court disagrees. Under 20 C.F.R § 404.1527(c)(2), an ALJ must give controlling weight to a treating source's opinion if it is supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is consistent with other substantial evidence. Schaaf v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 869, 875 (7th Cir. 2010). If the treating source opinion is inconsistent or unsupported in the record, the ALJ may still choose to accept it, but if the ALJ rejects the opinion, she must give a good reason. Schaaf, 602 F.3d at 875; Ketelboeter v. Astrue, 550 F.3d 620, 625 (7th Cir. 2008); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). An ALJ need not analyze every factor under 20 C.F.R § 404.1527(c)(2) and need only minimally articulate her reasons for discounting a treating physician's opinion. Kirby v. Colvin, No. 1:13-cv-1087-TWP-MJD, 2014 WL 4908049, at *6 (S.D. Ind. Sept. 30, 2014); see Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 415 (7th Cir. 2008).
The ALJ discounted Dr. Bledsoe's opinion concerning Haire's mental limitations because Dr. Bledsoe was not a mental health specialist. This was not an error as 20 C.F.R § 404.1527(c)(2) requires an ALJ to consider a treating source's specialization when weighing such an opinion. Moreover, Dr. Bledsoe's finding that Haire was not able to perform any substantial gainful activity was not supported by her own records, which showed Haire had a steady gait and no limitations in his range of motion in his hip joints, knee joints, arms, and shoulders. [Filing No. 14-8, at ECF p. 63; Filing No. 14-10, at ECF p. 87.] Records showed Haire maintained full range of motion with a slightly ...