United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Northeastern Division
LEESA S. HAYES, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
JOHN T. NIXON, Senior Judge.
In his January 31, 2012, Decision, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") K. Dickson-Grissom determined that Plaintiff Leesa S. Hayes is not disabled under the Social Security Act and denied Plaintiff's applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (Tr. 26.) Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record ("Motion") (Doc. No. 14), filed with a Brief in Support (Doc. No. 15), contesting the ALJ's Decision. Defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") filed a Response in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion. (Doc. No. 18.) Magistrate Judge Brown issued a Report and Recommendation ("Report"), recommending that Plaintiff's Motion be denied and the ALJ's Decision affirmed. (Doc. No. 19 at 25.) Plaintiff filed Objections to the Report (Doc. No. 20) and the Commissioner filed a Response (Doc. No. 23; see Doc. No. 18). For the reasons stated below, the Court ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge's Report in part, GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion in part, VACATES the ALJ's Decision, and REMANDS this case to the Commissioner. The Clerk of the Court is DIRECTED to close the case.
The Court adopts the facts and procedural history as stated in Magistrate Judge Brown's Report. (Doc. No. 19 at 1-15.) The Court restates the facts and procedural history below only as necessary and relevant to the resolution of the issues.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Court's review of the Report is de novo. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) (2012). However, Title II of the Social Security Act provides that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2012). Therefore, the Court's review is limited to "a determination of whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the [Commissioner's] decision and to a review for any legal errors." Landsaw v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 803 F.2d 211, 213 (6th Cir. 1986). Substantial evidence is a term of art and is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It is "more than a mere scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance." Bell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 105 F.3d 244, 245 (6th Cir. 1996) (citing Consol. Edison, 305 U.S. at 229).
"Where substantial evidence supports the [Commissioner's] determination, it is conclusive, even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion." Crum v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 642, 644 (6th Cir. 1990); see Her v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389 (6th Cir. 1999). This standard of review is consistent with the well-settled rule that the reviewing court in a disability hearing appeal is not to weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations because these factual determinations are left to the ALJ and to the Commissioner. Hogg v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 328, 331 (6th Cir. 1993); Besaw v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 966 F.2d 1028, 1030 (6th Cir. 1992). Thus, even if the Court would have come to different factual conclusions than the ALJ as to the plaintiff's claim on the merits, the Commissioner's findings must be affirmed if they are supported by substantial evidence. Hogg, 987 F.2d at 331.
Hayes states two objections to Magistrate Judge Brown's report. First, Hayes contends the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of Dr. Melvin Blevins because his "assessment is consistent with the medical evidence and with Ms. Hayes's hearing testimony." (Doc. No. 20 at 4.) Second, Hayes contends the ALJ erred in rejecting her testimony regarding the extent of her pain. (Doc. No. 20 at 5.) The Court addresses each objection in turn.
A. Weight Assigned Dr. Blevins' Opinion
Dr. Blevins examined Hayes once on October 5, 2011, and determined Hayes had exertional, postural, manipulative, and environmental limitations that prevented her from working. (Tr. 907-16.) Contrary to Dr. Blevins' findings, the ALJ determined Hayes was capable of light work. (Tr. 22.) Hayes contests the ALJ's failure to defer to Dr. Blevins' opinion.
Although ALJs must "evaluate every medical opinion [they] receive'... not all medical sources need be treated equally" under the Social Security Act. Smith v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 482 F.3d 873, 875 (6th Cir. 2007) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d) (2012)). The opinions of examining, non-treating medical sources are "entitled to no special degree of deference" from the ALJ. Barker v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 789, 794 (6th Cir. 1994). Furthermore, the ALJ is not required to give "good reasons" for the weight assigned an examining, non-treating source opinion. Smith, 482 F.3d at 876. However, the ALJ must consider the following factors in determining the weight given a non-treating source opinion: (1) whether the source has examined the claimant; (2) the length, nature, and extent of the source's treatment relationship with the claimant; (3) the supportability of the source's opinion; (4) whether the opinion is consistent with the record as a whole; (5) whether the source is a specialist in the relevant medical field; and (6) other factors that might support or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).
Upon review of the record, the Court finds that the ALJ's decision not to give greater weight to Dr. Blevins' report is supported by substantial evidence. The record indicates Dr. Blevins examined Hayes only once, and Dr. Blevins never treated Hayes. (Tr. 907.) The Magistrate Judge determined - and the parties do not contest - that Dr. Blevins is a family medicine practitioner, not a specialist. (Doc. No. 19 at 20.) Furthermore, the ALJ determined that Hayes "has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, heart, thyroid, sciatic, nerve, [sic] pulmonary, back, heart, esophagus, and hypertension." (Tr. 21.) In light of Hayes' extensive list of ailments affecting diverse body systems, and the fact that Dr. Blevins had an opinion on all of Hayes' complaints, Dr. Blevins could not have been acting as a specialist at the time of his examination. ( See Tr. 907, 909.) Accordingly, Dr. Blevins' opinion was entitled to little, if any, weight under factors one, two, and five.
The ALJ noted that Hayes visited Dr. Blevins "through attorney referral and in connection with an effort to generate evidence for the current appeal. Further, the doctor apparently received monetary payment for the report. Although [Dr. Blevins' report]... deserves due consideration, the context in which it was produced cannot be entirely ignored." (Tr. 22.) "There is nothing fundamentally wrong with a lawyer sending a client to a doctor, " Blankenship v. Bowen, 874 F.2d 1116, 1122 n.8 (6th Cir. 1989), thus the fact that Hayes' attorney referred her to Dr. Blevins cannot itself justify the ALJ's decision not to give weight to Dr. Blevins' medical opinion; however, the ALJ is entitled to consider the circumstances of Hayes' consultation with Dr. Blevins in addressing factor two, the extent and nature of the source's ...