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Knolton v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Western Division

June 19, 2018




         Before the Court is plaintiff Wesley Knolton's appeal from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security[1](“Commissioner”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1385. (ECF No. 1.) The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (ECF No. 10.) For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.


         Knolton applied for disability insurance benefits and SSI on May 24, 2013, with an alleged onset date of November 16, 2012. (R. 47.) The claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 95-97; 143-46.) At Knolton's request, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing and issued a written decision. (R. 44-57.) In her written decision, the ALJ first found that Knolton had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 49.) Second, the ALJ determined that Knolton had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, mood disorder and personality disorder. (R. 49.) Third, the ALJ determined that Knolton did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 50.) The ALJ also determined that Knolton retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; he can sit, stand, and walk 6 hours each in an 8 workday; he needs a sit/stand option at will while remaining on task at the work station; he can frequently balance; he can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ramps and stairs, he cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; he can understand, remember, and carry out simple and detailed, but not executive functions; he has concentration, persistence, and pace for these activities with normal breaks throughout the day; he can tolerate occasional interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors; and he can tolerate occasional changes in the workplace.

         (R. 51.) In making this RFC determination, the ALJ considered Knolton's history of degenerative disc disease, which began with a workplace injury in 2010. (R. 52.) Knolton underwent multiple surgeries and epidural steroid injections. In January of 2013, Knolton reported only sporadic leg pain with an overall marked improvement, and Lowell Stonecipher, M.D., noted that “everything looks fine.” (R. 53.) In March 2013, Dr. Stonecipher advised Knolton to begin an exercise regimen to include minimum walking, and his notes revealed that Knolton continued to improve in this regard in the following months. (R. 52.) Knolton began seeing Frank Jordan at Comprehensive Pain Specialists in January 2014. (R. 52.) Over the next year he visited Dr. Jordan on multiple occasions; by January 2015, Knolton revealed that he was satisfied with the MS Contin prescription because it helped relieve his pain most of the time. (R. 52-53.) All of the records from Comprehensive Pain Specialists note that Knolton has a normal gait and station. (R. 53.) An MRI from September 2014 revealed no disc herniation or canal stenosis. (R. 53.) The ALJ noted that Knolton also had a brief history of mental health treatment at Pathways of Tennessee. (R. 53.) Throughout his treatment there, staff assigned him a global assessment of functioning (GAF) score which indicated only moderate symptoms. (R. 53.) In October 2012, Knolton was prescribed Xanax for anxiety, gabapentin for peripheral neuropathy, and omeprazole for gastrointestinal reflux disease. (R. 53.) Staff noted that Knolton's pain was the root of his emotional issues. (R. 53.)

         Regarding opinion evidence, Dr. Jordan stated that Knolton could not lift greater than 10 pounds, could not frequently bend or sit continuously, and could not walk, stand, or sit for prolonged periods. (R. 53.) The ALJ noted that in his narrative, Dr. Jordan noted that Knolton would be restricted to no greater than 30 pounds. (R. 53.) The ALJ also found Dr. Jordan's statement “inconsistent with the general efficacy of [Knolton]'s medication regimen, pain clinic treatment notes, and with the record as a whole, ” and accordingly assigned it little weight. (R. 53.) Carol Newman, FNP, of the Tucker Clinic of Bemis, stated that Knolton's medication for chronic pain and anxiety would cause significant sedation which would make work difficult and possibly dangerous. (R. 53.) The ALJ noted that Knolton testified that he had no side effects as a result of these medications. (R. 53.) The ALJ also found that Ms. Newman “is not an acceptable medical source as defined in SSR 063-p” and therefore assigned her opinion no weight. (R. 53.) Dr. Stonecipher opined that Knolton could not perform his former job, but could work in a light position with lifting 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; the ALJ determined this was consistent with the record and accordingly afforded it great weight. (R. 53.) Steve Weaver, M.D., examined Knolton in connection with the claim and noted that Knolton's strength was 5/5 in all major muscle groups, except his legs which were 4/5. (R. 53.) Knolton exhibited decreased ranges of motion in the lumbar spine but got into and off the examination chair without difficulty. Dr. Weaver opined that Knolton could never lift or carry any weight, and could occasionally sit and reach but could never stand, walk, stoop, kneel, or climb stairs. (R. 53-54.) The ALJ determined that this opinion was not consistent with the examination and afforded it little weight. (R. 54.) Charles Settle, M.D., and Thomas Thrush, M.D., Disability Determination Service (“DDS”) physicians, reviewed the record and opined that Knolton could lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, and could sit, stand and walk 6 hours in an 8 hour workday with normal breaks. The ALJ found these opinions consistent with the record and gave them great weight. (R. 54.) Dennis Wilson, Ph.D., a psychological consultant, examined Knolton and administered a mental status examination and clinical interview. (R. 54.) Dr. Wilson diagnosed mood and personality disorder, but indicated only moderate symptoms and opined that Knolton was mildly impaired in his ability to understand and remember, moderately impaired in the ability to sustain concentration, persistence, and pace; moderately to markedly limited in his ability to interact with others; and moderately limited in his ability to adapt to changes and requirements. (R. 54.) The ALJ found that Dr. Wilson's opinion was “not expressed in appropriate functional terms” and thus assigned it little weight in her RFC determination. (R. 54.) In light of the above, the ALJ found that Knolton's “allegations and contentions regarding the nature and severity of the impairment-related symptoms and functional limitations” to be partially credible, and found that while “the allegations of back pain, depression, and personality disorder” were supported by the record, the “contentions regarding the severity thereof and related functional restrictions” were not. (R. 54-55.)

         Fourth, the ALJ determined that Knolton could not perform any past relevant work. (R. 55.) Finally, the ALJ determined that, considering Knolton's age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy which he could perform. (R. 55-56.) In making this determination, the ALJ utilized a vocational expert (“VE”), who opined that, given the RFC finding, Knolton would be able to perform unskilled occupations with a light exertional requirement such as an assembler, collator operator, and marker. (R. 56.) Thus, the ALJ found that Knolton was not disabled. (R. 56.) The Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) Appeals Council denied Knolton's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 33.)

         Knolton filed the instant action on October 14, 2016. (ECF No. 1.) Knolton first argues that the record, findings and opinions of Dr. Jordan and Dr. Weaver, and his own testimony establish that he is disabled. (ECF No. 14 at 12.) Next, Knolton argues that the ALJ erred by assigning controlling weight to the form statements provided by DDS examiners while failing to properly credit Knolton's examining physicians. (Id. at 13.) Third, Knolton argues the ALJ's RFC determination was erroneous because she did not adhere to SSR 96-8p. (Id. at 16.) Fourth, Knolton argues that the need to speculate as to the meaning of a “marked” limitation in the context of Knolton's ability to interact with others requires remand. (Id. at 18.) Based on these arguments, Knolton asserts that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence and accordingly must be remanded. (Id. at 19.)


         A. Standard of Review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a claimant may obtain judicial review of any final decision made by the Commissioner after a hearing to which he or she was a party. “The court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to whether there is substantial evidence to support the decision and whether the Commissioner used the proper legal criteria in making the decision. Id.; Winn v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 615 Fed.Appx. 315, 320 (6th Cir. 2015); Cole v. Astrue, 661 F.3d 931, 937 (6th Cir. 2011); Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance, and is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Kirk v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6th Cir. 1981) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

         In determining whether substantial evidence exists, the reviewing court must examine the evidence in the record as a whole and “must ‘take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.'” Abbott v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990) (quoting Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 388 (6th Cir. 1984)). If substantial evidence is found to support the Commissioner's decision, however, the court must affirm that decision and “may not even inquire whether the record could support a decision the other way.” Barker v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 789, 794 (6th Cir. 1994) (quoting Smith v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 893 F.2d 106, 108 (6th Cir. 1989)). Similarly, the court may not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or decide questions of credibility. Ulman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012) (citing Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007)). Rather, the Commissioner, not the court, is charged with the duty to weigh the evidence, to make credibility determinations, and to resolve material conflicts in the testimony. Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 528 (6th Cir. 1997); Crum v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 642, 644 (6th Cir. 1990); Kiner v. Colvin, No. 12-2254-JDT, 2015 WL 1295675, at *1 (W.D. Tenn. Mar. 23, 2015).

         B. The ...

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