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Spurlock v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

September 22, 2014

JASON O. SPURLOCK, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

MICHAEL J. WATANABE, Magistrate Judge.

The government determined that Jason Spurlock is not disabled for purposes of Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplement Security Income. Spurlock has asked this Court either to reverse that decision or to remand for further hearing.

The Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). Both parties have agreed to have this case decided by a U.S. Magistrate Judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The Court AFFIRMS the government's determination.

Factual Background

In 2003 and 2004, Spurlock suffered two injuries at work. First, while climbing a ladder, a rung broke and he fell to the floor-injuring a knee. Second, while unloading a truck some months later, he hurt his back. A workers' compensation doctor described the condition as a musculolingamentous strain of the lumbar spine; later radiology tests providing more detail as to the specific protrusions, tears, and degenerative disease. Over time, Spurlock's treating physicians have suggested surgery to repair his back, but he has consistently opted against it for various reasons (some more plausible than others). Spurlock has also been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD") and developmental dyslexia since youth. Since suffering his injuries, he has developed depression and anxiety disorders.[1]

In 2010, Spurlock applied for disability benefits. The government denied his claim, and he requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ").

The ALJ also denied his claim, after applying the five-step sequential process called for by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1420(a) and 416.920(a). At the second step of that analysis, the ALJ determined:

The claimant has the following severe impairments: chronic back pain secondary to musculoligamentous sprain-strain with degenerative disc and joint disease of the thoracolumbar spine, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, [ADHD] with developmental dyslexia, marijuana abuse, and possible somatoform disorder.

At the third step of analysis, the ALJ found that these limitations do not meet or medically exceed the listed impairments that would automatically qualify Spurlock as disabled. Spurlock does not challenge these determinations.

Before proceeding to the fourth step of analysis, the ALJ performed the required analysis of Spurlock's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). There, the ALJ determined:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(b) except lift or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, sit without restrictions but with normal breaks, stand and walk two hours in an eight-hour workday, avoid uneven surfaces prophylactically, occasionally stop and bend, climb stairs but not ladders, no work at heights or balancing, occasionally squat, kneel, crawl, and pivot, no running or jumping, work in an air conditioned setting for temperature control, and simple repetitive tasks involving no interaction with the public and no tasks requiring hypervigilance.

Given that RFC determination, the ALJ concluded that Spurlock could not perform his old jobs, but that he could perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. It is this RFC determination and the resulting vocational analysis that Spurlock challenges.

Analysis

The Court reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Pisciotta v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 1074, 1075 (10th Cir. 2007). "Substantial evidence is such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Raymond v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 1269, 1271-72 (10th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Court "should, indeed must, exercise common sense" and "cannot insist on technical perfection." Keyes-Zachary v. Astrue, 695 F.3d 1156, 1166 (10th Cir. 2012). The Court cannot reweigh the evidence or its credibility. Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007).

Spurlock presents two arguments for reversal or remand. First, he contends that the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal standards when assigning weight to certain medical opinions. Second, Spurlock contends that RFC gave short shrift to his mental limitations-applying the wrong legal standards, leading to a factually unsupported vocational analysis.

I. Proper Weighing of Medical Opinions

By law, an ALJ must discuss the weight given each medical opinion in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). However, "medical opinion" is a defined term:

Medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of your impairment(s), including your symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what you can still do despite impairment(s), and your physical or mental restrictions.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2). Moreover, opinions as to whether someone is "disabled, " "unable to work, " or similar legal determinations are not treated as medical opinions. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d). The ALJ need not explicitly weigh evidence that falls outside legal definition of a medical opinion. See Welch v. Colvin, ___ F.Appx. ___, 2014 WL 1853905, at *1-2 (10th Cir. May 9, 2014); Cowan v. Astrue, 552 F.3d 1182, 1189 (10th Cir. 2008). For evidence other than medical opinions, the ALJ can deal with it in any reasonable way.

Medical opinions (as defined by the regulation) come in a few varieties, with the most important category being the opinions of "treating sources." That term is defined in the regulations:

Treating source means your own physician, psychologist, or other acceptable medical source who provides you, or has provided you, with medical treatment or evaluation and who has, or has had, an ongoing treatment relationship with you. Generally, we will consider that you have an ongoing treatment relationship with an acceptable medical source when the medical evidence establishes that you see, or have seen, the source with a frequency consistent with accepted medical practice for the type of treatment and/or evaluation required for your medical condition(s). We may consider an acceptable medical source who has treated or evaluated you only a few times or ...

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