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Webb v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

October 25, 2017

JANICK WEBB, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff's objections (doc. 30) to the Magistrate Judge's Proposed Findings and Recommended Disposition (“PFRD”) (doc. 29), recommending that the Court deny Plaintiff's Motion to Remand to Agency (doc. 15). Being fully advised, the Court will OVERRULE the objections, ADOPT the PFRD, and DENY Plaintiff's Motion.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff applied for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits (“SSDI”) on August 3, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of March 29, 2012. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 192-94. Plaintiff alleged that he had a disability resulting from a ruptured back disc, a bulging neck disc, and depression. AR at 209. The claim was initially denied on November 16, 2012, and upon reconsideration on April 18, 2013. AR at 90-102, 104-18. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held a hearing on August 21, 2014. AR at 43-88.

         On October 8, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR at 14-34. Plaintiff appealed the denial of his application to the Appeals Council, which declined review on May 2, 2016, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR at 1-3. Plaintiff sought judicial review of the Commissioner's decision by filing a Complaint in this Court on July 5, 2016. Doc. 1. Plaintiff filed his Motion to Remand the agency decision on January 19, 2017, and briefing was completed on the Motion to Remand on April 19, 2017. Docs. 15, 20, 21.

         On October 3, 2017, Magistrate Judge Gregory B. Wormuth issued his Proposed Findings and Recommended Disposition recommending that the Court deny Plaintiff's Motion to Remand. Doc. 29. The Magistrate Judge recommended affirming the Commissioner's decision to deny Plaintiff's application for benefits because the ALJ (1) properly supported his decision to assign little weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician Dr. Paul Puziss, (2) properly incorporated the opinion of the SSA's consultative psychological examiner Dr. Edwin Homes into Plaintiff's RFC, and (3) comported with proper legal standards in determining Plaintiff's sitting/standing and reaching limitations. See Id. at 7-21.

         Plaintiff filed objections to the PFRD on October 17, 2017. Doc. 30. Plaintiff objects to all of the Magistrate Judge's recommended findings, except that he has abandoned the argument that the ALJ erred by failing to resolve a conflict between the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“the DOT”) and the Vocational Expert's (“VE”) testimony regarding Plaintiff's reaching limitations, which was addressed by the Magistrate Judge in his third recommended finding. See generally Id. For the reasons discussed below, the Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's PFRD that the ALJ committed no reversible error.

         II. Standard of Review

         After a party objects to the magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations, the Court “shall make a de novo determination of those portions . . . to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). Objections must be made with specificity; general or conclusory objections are insufficient. See United States v. 2121 E. 30th St., 73 F.3d 1057, 1060-61 (10th Cir. 1996). Further, “issues raised for the first time in objections to the magistrate judge's recommendation are deemed waived.” Marshall v. Chater, 75 F.3d 1421, 1426 (10th Cir. 1996). The district judge may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

         III. Analysis

         The ALJ's decision to assign Dr. Puziss's opinion little weight is supported by substantial evidence.

         Plaintiff first objects to the Magistrate Judge's finding that the ALJ properly supported his decision to assign Dr. Puziss's opinion little weight. Doc. 30 at 4-8. In evaluating the medical opinion of a claimant's treating physician, the ALJ must complete a two-step inquiry. Krauser v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1330 (10th Cir. 2011). An ALJ must first determine whether the opinion of a treating source is entitled to controlling weight. Id. A treating source's opinion is entitled to controlling weight if it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques” and “consistent with other substantial evidence in the record.” Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1300 (10th Cir. 2003) (quoting SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *2 (July 2, 1996)). To determine what weight to give to a medical opinion, the ALJ must consider the following factors:

(1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, including the treatment provided and the kind of examination or testing performed; (3) the degree to which the physician's opinion is supported by relevant evidence; (4) consistency between the opinion and the record as a whole; (5) whether or not the physician is a specialist in the area upon which an opinion is rendered; and (6) other factors brought to the ALJ's attention which tend to support or contradict the opinion.

Goatcher v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 52 F.3d 288, 290 (10th Cir. 1995) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)-(6)); see also Kilpatrick v. Astrue, 502 F. App'x 801, 806 (10th Cir. 2012) (unpublished).

         If the ALJ does not give the treating source's opinion controlling weight, he “must announce good reasons for the weight assigned” and “[s]uch reasons 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.'” King v. Barnhart, 114 F. App'x 968, 970 (10th Cir. 2004) (unpublished) (quoting SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *5); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527 (“We will always give good reasons in our notice of determination or decision for the weight we give your treating source's medical opinion.”).

         Here, the ALJ gave “very little weight” to Dr. Puziss's opinion, which limited Plaintiff to sedentary work.[1] AR at 30. The ALJ provided the following reasons for the weight he assigned:

First, it appears that the [opinion] was based on the claimant's subjective report rather than on objective evidence, as Dr. Puziss's records, and those of others, all discussed above, document minimal objective findings and none that would warrant a limitation to sedentary work. . . . In addition, the claimant did not see Dr. Puziss after September 12, only six months after the alleged onset date, and subsequent records do not document objective findings or any change that would support a limitation to sedentary work. Finally, no other physician has subsequently assessed similar ...

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