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Valdes v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee

February 3, 2017

JOYCE ELAINE VALDES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          THOMAS A. VARLAN CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This Social Security appeal is before the Court on the Report and Recommendation (the “R&R”) entered by United States Magistrate Judge Susan K. Lee [Doc. 18]. In the R&R, Magistrate Judge Lee recommends that plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings [Doc. 14] be denied, and defendant's motion for summary judgment [Doc. 16] be granted. In doing so, Judge Lee concludes that substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision that plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant period, and that the Commissioner adequately weighed the opinion of Nurse Practitioner Rita Milner. Plaintiff submitted an objection to the R&R [Doc. 19], and the Commissioner responded [Doc. 20].

         I. Standard of Review

         A court must conduct a de novo review of those portions of a magistrate judge's report and recommendation to which a party objects unless the objections are frivolous, conclusive, or general. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3); Smith v. Detroit Fed'n of Teachers, Local 231, 829 F.2d 1370, 1373 (6th Cir. 1987); Mira v. Marshall, 806 F.2d 636, 637 (6th Cir. 1986). “Objections disputing the correctness of the magistrate's recommendation, but failing to specify the findings believed to be in error are too general and therefore insufficient.” Stamtec, Inc. v. Anson, 296 F. App'x 516, 519 (6th Cir. 2008) (citing Spencer v. Bouchard, 449 F.3d 721, 725 (6th Cir. 2006)). The Court “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations” made by the magistrate judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         II. Analysis [1]

         In the R&R, Judge Lee recommends upholding the Commissioner's conclusion that plaintiff was not disabled, because the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard and her decision was supported by substantial evidence [Doc. 18 p. 11]. In her objection to the R&R, plaintiff argues that Judge Lee's recommendation is incorrect, because the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in rejecting the opinion of plaintiff's treating nurse practitioner, Rita Milner. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ erred by considering the opinions of two state agency, non-examining medical consultants when reaching a disability determination. The Court will address each argument in turn.

         A. The ALJ's Treatment of Milner's Opinion

         Plaintiff argued before Judge Lee that the ALJ erred in discounting Milner's opinion, contending that because Milner was the only examining source in the record, the ALJ should have given her opinion substantial weight.

         In discounting Milner's opinion, the ALJ addressed the opinion in the following way:

On May 21, 2014, Rita P. Milner, N.P., a treating source, provided an assessment regarding the claimant's ability to engage in physical work activity. Joanna Filchock, M.D., a clinic physician, endorsed the assessment but never treated the claimant. Ms. Milner opined the claimant could lift and carry up to ten pounds infrequently and up to five pounds occasionally. She noted the claimant could occasionally grasp small objects and engage in tasks requiring fine manipulation. She stated the claimant could never type or write. Ms. Milner concluded the claimant would exceed four absences each month due to chronic fatigue and anxiety.
As a nurse practitioner, Ms. Milner is not an “acceptable medical source” under the Regulation for authoritative independent opinions. Further, her opinion is inconsistent with the record as a whole. For example, medical records indicate the claimant suffers no residual effects from a remote cerebral ventricular accident. The record also indicates the claimant remains asymptomatic despite her cardiovascular condition. Progress notes indicate her condition is controlled with conservative medications such as Metoprolol Tartrate 25 mg.

[Doc. 18 p. 9-10 (citing Tr. 17)].

         In the R&R, Judge Lee analyzed this treatment of Milner's opinion, and found that “the ALJ met the applicable standard and adequately set forth her reasons for discounting [Milner's] opinion” [Id. at p. 11]. In reaching this conclusion, Judge Lee noted that the ALJ “properly acknowledged Milner's treatment relationship with plaintiff, but found that factor outweighed by the opinion's inconsistency with the record as a whole” [Id.]. Judge Lee further stated that because Milner was not an “accepted medical source, ” but rather was an “other source, ” the ALJ was not required to either give Milner's opinion controlling weight, or give reasons why she did not give it controlling weight [Id. at 8].

         In her objection, plaintiff argues that Judge Lee was incorrect in concluding that the ALJ adequately weighed Milner's opinion. Specifically, plaintiff argues that although Milner is not an “acceptable medical source” under the regulations, because she was the only treating source in the record, her opinion should have been afforded more weight by the ALJ. In support of this argument, plaintiff asserts that the Social Security Commissioner's regulations value an examining and treating source because “these sources are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a ...


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