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Sammons v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Delaware

March 8, 2019




         WHEREAS, United States Magistrate Judge Sherry R. Fallon issued a 20-page Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) (D.I. 15), dated February 4, 2019, recommending that Plaintiff Brian Keith Sammons' (“Plaintiff” or “Sammons”) motion for summary judgment (D.I. 8) be denied and that Defendant's cross motion for summary judgment (D.I. 11) be granted;

         WHEREAS, on February 13, 2019, Plaintiff timely objected to the R&R (D.I. 16);

         WHEREAS, on March 4, 2019, Defendant responded to Plaintiff's objections (D.I. 17) incorporating by reference “the reasoning set forth in Magistrate Judge Fallon's well-reasoned [R&R], as well as the arguments set forth in the Commissioner's brief [D.I. 12]”;

         WHEREAS, the Court has considered the motions de novo, see Brown v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 193, 195 (3d Cir. 2011); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3), and has further reviewed the pertinent filings;

         WHEREAS, Plaintiff objects to the R&R findings that (1) the ALJ properly weighed the medical opinion evidence of record and properly determined Mr. Sammons' residual functional capacity; (2) the ALJ properly evaluated Mr. Sammons' testimony; and (3) the ALJ relied on an appropriate hypothetical question to the vocational expert. The Court will address each objection in turn.

         NOW, THEREFORE, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED this 8th day of March 2019 that: For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's objections (D.I. 16) are OVERRULED. Judge Fallon's R&R (D.I. 15) is ADOPTED. Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (D.I. 8) is DENIED and Defendant's cross motion for summary judgment (D.I. 11) is GRANTED. The Clerk of Court is directed to CLOSE this case.

         A. Weighing of Medical Opinion Evidence To Determine Residual Functional Capacity.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly gave “little weight” to the opinion of Dr. Foy, who had treated Sammons, and failed to identify the “allegedly ‘objective' findings in the notes that purportedly conflict with Dr. Foy's opinion.” (D.I. 16 at 3). In order to determine the proper weight to give a medical opinion, the ALJ must weigh all evidence and resolve any material conflicts. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 399, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). It is not for this Court to reweigh the medical opinions in the record. See Monsour Medical Center v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190 (3d Cir.1986). Instead, the Court's review is limited to determining if there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's weighing of those opinions. See id.

         The Third Circuit subscribes to the “treating physician doctrine.” Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1067 (3d Cir.1993); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). “Under that doctrine, a court considering a claim for disability benefits must give greater weight to the findings of a treating physician than to the findings of a physician who has examined the claimant only once or not at all.” Mason, 994 F.2d at 1067. A treating physician's opinion is therefore accorded “controlling weight” if it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the claimant's] case record.” Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 42 (3d Cir.2001); see also Dass v. Barnhart, 386 F.Supp.2d 568, 576 (D. Del. 2005) (“A cardinal principle guiding disability eligibility determinations is that the ALJ accord treating physicians' reports great weight, especially when their opinions reflect expert judgment based on a continuing observation of the patient's condition over a prolonged period of time.”) (internal quotations omitted). Thus, an ALJ may reject a treating physician's opinion “only on the basis of contradictory medical evidence.” Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 318 (3d Cir.2000) (internal quotation marks omitted). It follows that an ALJ cannot reject a treating physician's opinion “for no reason or for the wrong reason.” Id. at 317.

         Here, the ALJ explained her reasons for affording less weight to Dr. Foy's opinion. She noted that it was not well supported by objective findings and was inconsistent with other substantial medical evidence, including Dr. Foy's own treatment notes. (Tr. 16-17; D.I. 15 at 14). The ALJ noted that examinations showed full muscle strength and full range of motion (Tr. 16, 291). Progress notes from Dr. Foy repeatedly recommended that Plaintiff increase, rather than restrict, his physical activity to treat his fibromyalgia. (Tr. 388, 393, 407, 414, 417, 420). Consistent with this, Plaintiff noted that aquatic therapy helped and provided him with more energy. (Tr. 403). Aside from a slow gait and tender points, Dr. Foy's notes do not document decreased strength or muscle atrophy. (Tr. 390-91, 399, 404, 407, 410, 413, 417, 420, 424).[1]

         In addition, the ALJ found that Dr. Foy had treated Sammons only a few times over the course of ten months. (Tr. 17). Dr. Foy's “opinion” was a completed RFC Questionnaire and her notes from Sammons' appointments. (Tr. 334-425) As the R&R correctly noted, “[t]he District of Delaware has found completed RFC Questionnaires are medical opinions when supported by ‘years of medical assessments, reports, notes, and other documentation.' [Griffies v. Astrue, 855 F.Supp.2d 257, 269 (D. Del. 2012)] (finding the claimant had fibromyalgia and received continuous treatment from two different doctors for six and five years, respectively). The facts of the present case are dissimilar to Griffies because Dr. Foy had only treated Sammons every one to three months during a ten-month period when completing her medical opinion. (Tr. at 17).” (D.I. 15 at 14).

         Against this backdrop, the ALJ cited evidence and her conclusion enjoys the support of substantial evidence. The R&R reasonably found that the ALJ was not bound by an opinion that appeared largely to be based on subjective complaints. (D.I. 15 at 15).

         B. Evaluation of ...

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