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Castillo v. Berryhill

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

February 14, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Operations, [1] Defendant.


          Leonard T. Strand, Chief Judge


         This case is before me on a Report & Recommendation (R&R) by the Honorable Kelly K.E. Mahoney, Chief United States Magistrate Judge. Doc. No. 18. Judge Mahoney recommends that I affirm the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying plaintiff Barbara Lynn Castillo's application for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et. seq. (Act). Castillo filed a timely objection on December 26, 2018. Doc. No. 19. The Commissioner has not responded and the deadline for a response has expired.


         A. Judicial Review of the Commissioner's Decision

         The Commissioner's decision must be affirmed “if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.” Pelkey v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 577 (8th Cir. 2006); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner . . . as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .”). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 645 (8th Cir. 2003). The Eighth Circuit explains the standard as “something less than the weight of the evidence and [that] allows for the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions, thus it embodies a zone of choice within which the [Commissioner] may decide to grant or deny benefits without being subject to reversal on appeal.” Culbertson v. Shalala, 30 F.3d 934, 939 (8th Cir. 1994).

         To determine whether the Commissioner's decision meets this standard, the court considers “all of the evidence that was before the ALJ, but it [does] not re-weigh the evidence.” Vester v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 886, 889 (8th Cir. 2005). The court considers both evidence which supports the Commissioner's decision and evidence that detracts from it. Kluesner v. Astrue, 607 F.3d 533, 536 (8th Cir. 2010). The court “must search the record for evidence contradicting the [Commissioner's] decision and give that evidence appropriate weight when determining whether the overall evidence in support is substantial.” Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 549, 555 (8th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted).

         To evaluate the evidence in an appeal of a denial of benefits, the court must apply a balancing test to assess any contradictory evidence. Sobania v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 879 F.2d 441, 444 (8th Cir. 1989). The court, however, does not “reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ, ” Baldwin, 349 F.3d at 555 (citation omitted), or “review the factual record de novo.” Roe v. Chater, 92 F.3d 672, 675 (8th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). Instead, if, after reviewing the evidence, the court “find[s] it possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the Commissioner's findings, [the court] must affirm the [Commissioner's] denial of benefits.” Kluesner, 607 F.3d at 536 (quoting Finch v. Astrue, 547 F.3d 933, 935 (8th Cir. 2008)). This is true even if the court “might have weighed the evidence differently.” Culbertson, 30 F.3d at 939 (citation omitted). The court may not reverse the Commissioner's decision “merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.” Baker v. Heckler, 730 F.2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir. 1984); see also Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 789 (8th Cir. 2005) (“[A]n administrative decision is not subject to reversal simply because some evidence may support the opposite conclusion.”).

         B. Review of Report and Recommendation

         A district judge must review a magistrate judge's R&R under the following standards:

Within fourteen days after being served with a copy, any party may serve and file written objections to such proposed findings and recommendations as provided by rules of court. A judge of the court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made. A judge of the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.

28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). Thus, when a party objects to any portion of an R&R, the district judge must undertake a de novo review of that portion.

         Any portions of an R&R to which no objections have been made must be reviewed under at least a “clearly erroneous” standard. See, e.g., Grinder v. Gammon, 73 F.3d 793, 795 (8th Cir. 1996) (noting that when no objections are filed “[the district court judge] would only have to review the findings of the magistrate judge for clear error”). As the Supreme Court has explained, “[a] finding is ‘clearly erroneous' when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573 (1985) (quoting United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948)). However, a district judge may elect to review an R&R under a more-exacting standard even if no objections are filed:

Any party that desires plenary consideration by the Article III judge of any issue need only ask. Moreover, while the statute does not require the judge to review an issue de novo if no objections are filed, it does not preclude further review by the district judge, sua sponte or at the request of a party, under a de novo or any other standard.

Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985).

         III. THE R&R

         Castillo applied for SSI on July 31, 2014, alleging an onset date of July 14, 2014, due to bipolar disorder, back problems, depression, anxiety, arthritis in her spine and asthma.[2] AR 12, 28. After a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) applied the familiar five-step evaluation and found there were jobs in significant numbers in the national economy that Castillo could perform based on her residual functional capacity (RFC) and, therefore, she was not disabled as defined in the Act. AR 19-20. Castillo argues the ALJ erred in determining that she was not disabled because:

1. The ALJ failed to properly assess Castillo's subjective complaints.
2. The ALJ failed to properly weigh the medical opinions of Dr. Jessica Luitjohan and Physical Therapist Brian Owens.
3. The ALJ's RFC is not supported by medical evidence or substantial evidence in the record as a whole.

See Doc. No. 13 at 4. Judge Mahoney addressed each argument in her R&R.

         First, Judge Mahoney found that the ALJ could properly find Castillo's reported activities of daily living undermined her subjective complaints. Doc. No. 18 at 5-6. She noted Castillo experienced pain in her hips and back that “is not constant, but rather ‘comes and goes'” and experiences pain if she sits or walks too long. Id. at 5. Judge Mahoney also noted that Castillo prepared meals, mowed the lawn, played with her grandchildren, attended school activities, shopped, performed household chores and helped her boyfriend with activities. Id. at 6. Judge Mahoney also highlighted other reasons the ALJ did not fully credit Castillo's complaints, such as the frequency and nature of treatments, “the conservative nature” of her mental-health treatments, Castillo's contradictory reports to her treatment providers and objective medical evidence. Id. at 7. Judge Mahoney found “[t]he ALJ gave multiple, good reasons for his determination that Castillo's statements about her impairments and their limiting effects were not consistent with other evidence. Accordingly, the ALJ did not err in assessing Castillo's subjective complaints.” Id. at 8.

         Judge Mahoney next addressed the ALJ's assessment of medical opinions provided by Dr. Luitjohan and physical therapist Owens. First, Judge Mahoney stated that the ALJ discounted Dr. Luitjohan's limitation on public interaction because it was based on Castillo's subjective complaints and Dr. Luitjohan had no first-hand knowledge of Castillo's abilities beyond a single clinical interview. Id. at 9. Judge Mahoney found this was a “proper reason for not accepting this portion of Dr. Luitjohan's opinion.” Id.

         Additionally, Judge Mahoney stated:

The ALJ found Dr. Luitjohan's other opinions were “generally consistent” with Castillo's other mental status examinations. AR 18. Overall, the ALJ gave Dr. Luitjohan's opinion “some weight.” Id. As discussed further below, the ALJ incorporated appropriate mental limitations in determining Castillo's RFC, which were supported (at least in part) with Dr. Luitjohan's opinion. The ALJ thus gave a good reason for the weight given to Dr. Luitjohan's opinion.


         As for physical therapist Owens, the ALJ's reasons for giving limited weight to his opinion were that Owens was not an acceptable medical source and his opinion was inconsistent with physical examinations and Castillo's daily activities. Id. at 10. Judge Mahoney found these were good reasons:

The ALJ also noted (earlier in his opinion) that Therapist Owens found “few abnormalities” during his physical examination of Castillo. AR 18 (only finding “tenderness to palpation and slight limitation in range of motion, ” while other records consistently showed normal gait, strength, muscle tone, and sensation); see (Therapist Owens's physical examination notes). An ALJ may discount opinions of a consultative examiner that are not supported by the physical examination record because “[a]n absence of clinical findings supports the rejection of [an examiner's] opinion as to physical limitations.” Boyd v. ...

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