United States District Court, D. New Hampshire
William E. Eley
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration. No. 2015 DNH 085
ORDER ON APPEAL
JOSEPH N. LaPLANTE, District Judge.
William E. Eley has appealed the Social Security Administration's denial of his application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. An administrative law judge at the SSA ("ALJ") ruled that, despite Eley's severe impairments (degenerative disc disease of the lower spine and obesity), he retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work with specified limitations, allowing him to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy in significant numbers and, as a result, is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Appeals Council later denied Eley's request for review, see id. § 404.968(a), with the result that the ALJ's decision became the final decision on Eley's application, see id. § 404.981. Eley then appealed the decision to this court, which has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Social Security).
Eley has filed a motion to reverse the decision, see L.R. 9.1(b)(1), challenging it as unsupported by substantial evidence. Specifically, Eley argues that the ALJ erred in assessing his RFC by (1) giving little weight to the opinion of Eley's treating physician, and (2) giving greater weight to the opinion of a non-examining agency physician. The Acting Commissioner of the SSA has cross-moved for an order affirming the ALJ's decision, see L.R. 9.1(e), defending the ALJ's handling of the opinion evidence. After careful consideration, the court agrees with the Acting Commissioner that the ALJ did not err in evaluating the opinion evidence, and therefore denies Eley's motion to reverse (and grants the Acting Commissioner's motion to affirm) the ALJ's decision.
The ALJ found that Eley retained the RFC to perform sedentary work with a few limitations, including that he requires the opportunity to stand up and sit down as needed. In evaluating Eley's RFC, the ALJ had two medical opinions at his disposal: that of Eley's treating physician, Dr. Daniel Calores, and that of a state agency reviewing physician, Dr. Hugh Fairley.
In July 2011, Dr. Fairley, who did not examine Eley, reviewed Eley's medical records and prepared an assessment of his RFC. Dr. Fairley acknowledged Eley's chronic lower back pain, leg pain and "significant lumbar degen[erative] disease, " and noted that "[e]pidurals & RFAs provided no lasting benefit." Admin. R. at 423. Nevertheless, Dr. Fairley opined that Eley was capable of working full time and that he had the capacity to lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and less than that frequently; he could stand and/or walk at least two hours but no more than four hours in an 8-hour workday; and he could sit for about six hours in an 8-hour workday.
In June 2012, Eley's treating physician, Dr. Calores, made a different assessment of Eley's RFC, believing that Eley's chronic low back pain imposed more significant limitations. While Dr. Calores indicated that Eley could "perform sedentary activities, including frequent sitting or occasional standing/walking such as classroom situations, desk work, counseling sessions or other appointments, " id. at 533, he concluded that Eley could only sit for at most two hours daily, and for only 10-15 minutes without interruption, and that he could only stand or walk for one hour each daily, again for only 10-15 minutes without interruption. Dr. Calores further concluded that Eley could only occasionally lift 10-20 pounds and carry 10 pounds. In summary, Dr. Calores opined, Eley was unable to "work part or full time due to chronic pain [in the] low back [and] legs." Id.
The ALJ afforded Dr. Fairley's opinion "greater weight, " finding it to be "most consistent with the records showing that the claimant has remained quite active caring for his children" and "consistent with records from Dr. Brown who noted that the claimant was doing well in March 2012." Id. at 17. In contrast, the ALJ afforded "limited weight" to Dr. Calores's opinion, reasoning that his opinion was "internally inconsistent and  not well supported by his own clinical observations." Id. The ALJ explained:
In January 2011, [Dr. Caloras] opined that the claimant was not capable of working even part-time, but in June 2012, he described the claimant as able to lift and carry 10-20 pounds. Moreover, in June 2012, he opined that the claimant could perform sedentary activities including frequent sitting or occasional standing and walking such as is required for deskwork. In this case, Dr. Caloras's opinion is internally inconsistent and is not well supported by his own clinical observations.
Id. Adopting Dr. Fairley's opinion, the ALJ concluded that Eley "has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except the claimant requires the opportunity to alternate sitting and standing as needed." Id. at 15. Eley maintains that the ALJ's allocation of weight to the competing medical opinions and, resultantly, this conclusion, was erroneous. The court disagrees.
Treating Source Opinion
In arguing that the ALJ should have afforded more weight to Dr. Caloras's opinion, Eley invokes the SSA's rule that more weight should generally be accorded to treating sources than nontreating sources. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(1). The opinion of a treating physician must be given controlling weight if it is well supported and not inconsistent with other evidence on the record. Id. § 404.1527(c)(2). If controlling weight is not afforded the opinion of a treating source, the ALJ must "give good reasons" for the weight afforded that source. Id. § 404.1527(c)(2). "The good reasons' requirement mandates that the ALJ's order must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the treating source's medical opinion, supported by 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 reasons for that weight.'" Delafontaine v. Astrue, 2011 DNH 005, at 38-39 (quoting Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-2p, Titles II and XVI: Giving Controlling Weight to Treating Source Medical Opinions, 1996 WL 374188, at *5 (S.S.A. 1996)). The ALJ need not, as Eley suggests, explicitly take account of all the factors articulated in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) in determining what weight to give a treating physician's opinion, so long as the court is "able to discern the rationale the ALJ used to reach his determination and that determination is founded on good reasons' that are supported by substantial record evidence." Figueroa v. Astrue, 2012 DNH 101, at 15 (Barbadoro, J.).
In this case, the court concludes that the ALJ could properly limit the weight given to the treating source opinions because the record supports his finding that Dr. Caloras's opinions were inconsistent and not supported by his clinical observations.
The ALJ first discounted Dr. Caloras's opinion on the grounds that Dr. Caloras "provided inconsistent opinions" because he opined in January 2011 that Eley "was not capable of working even part-time, " but in June 2012 described Eley as "able to lift and carry 10-20 pounds" and capable of "perform[ing] sedentary activities including frequent sitting or occasional standing and walking such as is required for deskwork." Admin. R. at 17. Eley argues that the ALJ misconstrued Dr. Caloras's opinion to find inconsistency where none existed. The court disagrees.
On the "Physician/Clinician Statement of Capabilities" form that Dr. Caloras filled out on June 27, 2012, Dr. Caloras assessed Eley as able to "perform sedentary activities including frequent sitting or occasional standing/walking such as is required for... desk work, " sit for two hours daily, and stand and walk each for one hour daily. Id. at 553. He did not indicate that any "added breaks or change of position" were necessary. Id. That same day, Dr. Caloras completed a second evaluation in which he indicated that Eley could sit no more than 2 hours per day and stand and/or walk for one hour per day. Here, Dr. Caloras indicated that Eley could do none of these for more than 10-15 minutes at a time. In both cases, Dr. Caloras concluded that Eley was not capable of working full- or parttime. Thus, on the one hand, Dr. Caloras opined that Eley could perform activities requiring "frequent sitting or occasional standing/walking" for up to four hours; on the other, he opined that Eley could not work even ...