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Hochstetler v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division

January 2, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Kelly K.E. Mahoney United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Loren D. Hochstetler, Jr., seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying his application for disability insurance (DI) benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Hochstetler argues that the administrative law judge (ALJ), Thuy-Anh T. Nguyen, erred in determining residual functioning capacity (RFC) because the ALJ gave less weight to the RFC opinion of the treating neuropsychologist than to consultative and non-examining psychological consultants. I recommend affirming the ALJ's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Hochstetler filed an application for DI benefits on October 15, 2013, alleging disability based on anxiety, depression, and memory problems. AR 16, 67. His application was denied initially and on reconsideration. AR 16, 66-90. As part of those reviews, state agency consultants from the Iowa Disability Determination Service evaluated Hochstetler's mental RFC.[2] Mental RFC assessments were completed by Dr. Jennifer Wigton, Ph.D., on December 9, 2013, and by Dr. Russell Lark, Ph.D., on April 25, 2014. AR 72-74, 85-88. Hochstetler also met with psychologist Dr. Carroll D. Roland on April 21, 2014. AR 311-12. Dr. Roland reviewed Hochstetler's prior records and gave an opinion regarding Hochstetler's mental RFC based on his one-time examination. AR 311-12.

         Hochstetler requested a hearing before an ALJ, and a hearing was held on October 26, 2015. AR 34, 104-05. Hochstetler was 54 years old at the onset of his alleged disability and 57 years old at the time of his administrative hearing. Doc. 12 at 3. Both Hochstetler and vocational expert Carmen Mitchell testified at the hearing. AR 35. On December 1, 2015, the ALJ issued a written opinion, following the familiar five-step process outlined in the regulations[3] for determining whether Hochstetler was disabled.AR 16-29. The ALJ found that Hochstetler suffered from severe impairments of amnestic disorder, cognitive disorder, anxiety disorder, and depressive disorder, but that none of Hochstetler's impairments met or equaled applicable listings. AR 19-20. To determine whether Hochstetler's impairments prevented him from working, the ALJ determined Hochstetler's RFC:

[Hochstetler] has the [RFC] to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: [Hochstetler] could perform simple repetitive tasks, in a routine and low stress work setting.Low stress is defined as occasional changes in the work setting and occasional decision-making. [Hochstetler] would be off-task for 10 percent of the workday. He could not work at a production-rate pace. He could have only occasional interaction with coworkers.

AR 20-21. In evaluating Hochstetler's RFC, the ALJ considered treatment records, medical opinions, Hochstetler's statements about his symptoms, statements from Hochstetler's mother (to which the ALJ gave little weight), and a questionnaire completed by Hochstetler's most recent employer, United Equipment Accessories (to which the ALJ gave some weight). AR 21-27. The ALJ determined that Hochstetler's “medically determinable impairments could . . . be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms, ” however, the ALJ concluded that Hochstetler's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence[, ] and limiting effects of the symptoms were not credible to the extent they were inconsistent with” the RFC determined by the ALJ. AR 26.

         The ALJ assigned little weight to the opinions of psychologist Dr. Richard Roberts, Ph.D., and Hochstetler's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Abdur Rahim, M.D. AR 23-25. Dr. Roberts, who evaluated Hochstetler on three occasions, opined that Hochstetler “is vocationally disabled and should proceed with his plans to try to receive []DI benefits.” AR 375. In addition, he concluded that Hochstetler would “have issues in remembering locations and work like procedures up to 20 percent of an eight hour work day or a 40 hour work week”; would “be off task for up to 20 percent of an eight hour day or 40 hour work week”; and would “be unable to sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision for up to 20 percent of an ordinary work day or work week.” AR 383-84. He denied, however, that Hochstetler would be unable “to carry out very short and simple instructions” or unable to “accept instructions” and criticism. Id. Dr. Rahim concluded that Hochstetler would have some problem remembering and understanding instructions and that he would not be able to carry out instructions, maintain attention or pace, interact appropriately with coworkers or the public, or use good judgment to respond to changes in the workplace. AR 306-07.

         The ALJ gave great weight to most of Dr. Roland's opinion and to the opinions of Dr. Wigton and Dr. Lark. AR 24-25, 27. Dr. Roland concluded that Hochstetler could not perform “complex tasks but could function in a repetitive work environment that does not require interaction with the general public, customers, etc., ” such as an assembly line. AR 312. In addition, Dr. Roland noted that Hochstetler's history indicates he is able to relate to supervisors, coworkers, and the general public. AR 312. Dr. Wigton concluded that Hochstetler had “adequate concentration and memory span to follow simple instructions and complete assigned tasks, ” and therefore, could perform work similar to his past work as a machine washer. AR 76-77; see also AR 72-73. Finally, Dr. Lark opined that Hochstetler was able to “complete simple, repetitive tasks on a sustained basis” and recommended that his disability claim be denied. AR 88, 90.

         Based on the determination of Hochstetler's RFC, the ALJ found that although Hochstetler could not perform his past relevant work, a significant number of jobs existed in the national and Iowa economies that Hochstetler could perform, such as laundry worker, kitchen helper, and automotive detailer. AR 27-28.

         The Appeals Council denied Hochstetler's request for review on November 7, 2016 (AR 1), making the ALJ's decision that Hochstetler was not disabled the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Hochstetler filed a timely complaint in this court (Doc. 3). See 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(c). The parties briefed the issues (Docs. 13, 14, 16), and the Honorable Linda R. Reade, United States District Judge for the Northern District of Iowa, referred this case to me for a Report and Recommendation.


         A court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it “is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.” Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept it as adequate to support a decision.” Kirby, 500 F.3d at 707. The court “do[es] not reweigh the evidence or review the factual record de novo.” Naber v. Shalala, 22 F.3d 186, 188 (8th Cir. 1994). If, after reviewing the evidence, “it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the [ALJ's] findings, [the court] must affirm the decision.” Robinson v. Sullivan, 956 F.2d 836, 838 (8th Cir. 1992).

         Hochstetler argues that the ALJ erred in determining RFC in two ways: (1) failing to give controlling weight to the opinions of Dr. Roberts, who Hochstetler argues is a treating source; and (2) attributing weight to medical opinions from consultative and non-examining sources. See Doc. 13. In relation to his second argument, Hochstetler seems to argue that the opinions of consultative and non-examining sources cannot constitute some medical evidence to support an ...

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