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Dimizio v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Greeneville

September 13, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.




         On December 16, 2016, United States Magistrate Judge Clifton L. Corker filed a Report and Recommendation (Doc. 34) pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b). Magistrate Judge Corker recommended that: (1) Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 31) be granted; (2) Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 32) be denied; and (3) that this case be remanded for further proceedings. (Doc. 34 at 17).

         The basis for Magistrate Judge Corker's recommendation for remand is that the ALJ failed to “give good reasons” for not affording controlling weight to Plaintiff's treating source opinion. (Id. at 16). Defendant filed timely objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation. (Doc. 35). Specifically, Defendant argues that: (1) the Magistrate Judge erred in finding that the ALJ did not satisfy the procedural safeguards of the treating physician rule; (2) substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision to give no evidentiary weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician; and (3) substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff's mental impairment was not severe. The Court, having conducted a de novo review of those portions of the record implicated by Defendant's objections to the Report and Recommendation, agrees with Magistrate Judge Corker's well-reasoned conclusions for the reasons stated herein. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(3).


         “[T]he Commissioner's regulations establish a hierarchy of acceptable medical source opinions[.]'” Snell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2013 WL 372032, at *9 (S.D. Ohio Jan. 30, 2013). A treating physician's opinion must be afforded “controlling weight” if it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and . . . not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record.” LaRiccia v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 549 Fed.Appx. 377, 384 (6th Cir. 2013). Courts bestow this degree of deference to treating physician opinions because they “are likely to be . . . most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [a claimant's] medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations[.]” 20 C.F.R. § 404.152(c)(2).

         When an ALJ does not give a treating source opinion controlling weight, he is still required to “determine how much weight is appropriate by considering a number of factors, including the length of the treatment relationship, supportability of the opinion, consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole, and any specialization of the treating physician.” Blakely v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 581 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2009); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has stressed the importance of disability decision makers clearly articulating the weight they afford treating source opinions and their corresponding explanation:

Importantly, the Commissioner imposes on its decision makers a clear duty to “always give good reasons in our notice of determination or decision for the weight we give [a] treating source's opinion.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). Those good reasons must be “supported by the evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the treating source's medical opinion and the reasons for that weight.” Soc. Sec. Rul. No. 96-2p, 1996 SSR LEXIS 9, at *12 (Soc. Sec. Admin. July 2, 1996). This requirement is not simply a formality; it is to safeguard the claimant's procedural rights. It is intended “to let claimants understand the disposition of their cases, particularly in situations where a clamant knows that his physician has deemed him disabled and therefore might be especially bewildered when told by an administrative bureaucracy that he is not.” Wilson, 378 F.3d at 544.

Cole v. Astrue, 661 F.3d 931, 937 (6th Cir. 2011). Thus, relevant authority requires the ALJ to both clearly articulate his reasons for not assigning a treating physician opinion controlling weight and that these reasons be “good.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). Moreover, where an ALJ fails to adequately explain the weight given to a treating source opinion, it is not enough that substantial evidence otherwise supports his decision. Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 543-44 (6th Cir. 2004) (“Although substantial evidence otherwise supports the decision of the Commissioner in this case, reversal is required because the agency failed to follow its own procedural regulation, and the regulation was intended to protect applicants like [the plaintiff].”).


         The Court will only outline those portions of the Report and Recommendation that are relevant to Defendant's objections. As outlined above, Magistrate Judge Corker found that the ALJ erred in failing to adequately explain why he assigned no evidentiary weight to the treating source opinion issued by Dr. Harold Elliott. (Doc. 34 at 16). Dr. Elliott was Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist for the duration of her alleged period of disability. He also provided treatment to Plaintiff before her alleged onset date of May 29, 2013. In January 2013, Dr. Elliott issued a treating source opinion regarding the severity of Plaintiff's limitations. (Doc. 22-8). This opinion was included in the medical records considered by the ALJ. The ALJ disregarded Dr. Elliott's opinion in his decision denying benefits, however, writing only that the opinion “was prepared prior to the amended alleged onset date” and concluding that it was “not assigned evidentiary weight.” (Doc. 22-2 at 20).

         In his Report and Recommendation, Magistrate Judge Corker addressed Defendant's contention that Plaintiff failed to dispute the ALJ's evaluation of any of her physicians' opinions. Notwithstanding the brevity of Plaintiff's arguments in this regard, the Magistrate Judge found Plaintiff's submissions to be adequate as to Dr. Elliott's opinion. Specifically, he reasoned, “Dr. Elliott is set out in plaintiff's table of medical sources, and it states that it was accorded no evidentiary weight. This is an assertion of error in the making of that finding, even if somewhat unartfully raised.” Id.

         Magistrate Judge Corker then outlined relevant authority for the treating physician rule, and found that the rule applied to Dr. Elliott's opinion. He found that “the ALJ's reason for giving the opinion no evidentiary weight, because it was rendered before the claim was filed, is an insufficient reason under the applicable regulations and the cases cited above.” Id. Magistrate Judge Corker noted that Dr. Elliott's opinion was “rendered less than four months before the application for benefits was filed.” Id. Finally, the Magistrate Judge reasoned that although “there was other evidence mentioned by the ALJ to support his finding that the plaintiff did not have a severe impairment . . . . that does not cure the failure to give good reasons for the weight given to Dr. Elliott.” Id.

         As to Plaintiff's assertion that the ALJ erred in finding that she did not have a severe impairment, the Magistrate Judge found that he could not determine that issue at the current juncture. Rather, he found that its disposition “would have to wait until ...

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