United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division
ORDER AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER
BETH DEERE, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Dwain Andrew Hutsell sought judicial review of the denial of his application for disability insurance benefits. Mr. Hutsell alleged he was disabled due to a cervical spine injury, arthritis, and headaches. SSA Record at 265. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing and denied Mr. Hutsell's application on February 25, 2011. Mr. Hutsell requested review of the decision from the Appeals Council, which granted his request, vacated the ALJ's decision, and remanded the case. Id. at 105-108, 309-11.
On remand, the ALJ held a second hearing and, again, issued an opinion denying benefits. Id. at 8-26. Mr. Hutsell requested review from the Appeals Council, which denied review. Id. at 1-5.
Mr. Hutsell graduated from high school and had an associate's degree in business and data processing. Id. at 42. He had past relevant work as a computer programmer. Id. at 60. He was within a few months of sixty years old at the time of his second administrative hearing. Id. He lived with his wife and son. Id. at 50.
The Commissioner's Decision
After considering all of the evidence, the Commissioner's ALJ determined that Mr. Hutsell had severe impairments - degenerative disc and joint disease of the cervical spine and arthritis. Id. at 13. The ALJ also found, however, that Mr. Hutsell had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a full range of medium work. Id. at 17. Because the vocational expert testified that a person with Mr. Hutsell's RFC could perform his past relevant work, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Hutsell was not disabled under the Social Security Act and denied his application. Id. at 25-26.
After the Commissioner's Appeals Council denied Mr. Hutsell's second request for review, the ALJ's decision became a final decision for judicial review. Id. at 1-5. Mr. Hutsell filed this case to challenge the ALJ's decision. (Docket entry #2) In reviewing the decision, the court must determine whether substantial evidence supported the decision and whether the ALJ made a legal error.
Appeals Council's Remand
Mr. Hutsell first complains the ALJ erred by failing to comply with the Appeals Council's directions on remand. In its opinion remanding the case, the Appeals Council advised the ALJ to further consider the treating source opinion and explain the weight given to the opinion evidence. The Council noted that, "as appropriate, " the ALJ may request additional evidence or further clarification from the treating source. The Council also stated that the ALJ, "[i]f warranted, " may obtain evidence from a medical expert to clarify the nature and severity of Mr. Hutsell's back impairment.
Mr. Hutsell claims that it was an "abuse of discretion" for the ALJ not to have followed the instructions of the Appeals Council on remand, but he points to no law supporting this assertion. (#11 at pp. 7-8) Mr. Hutsell raised the same complaint in the brief he submitted to the Appeals' Council to support his second request for review, but the Council declined review. Even assuming that the ALJ failed to follow the Council's remand instructions, the Appeals Council declined review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Accordingly, the question here is not whether the ALJ followed the directions of the Appeals Council on remand, but rather, whether of the Commissioner's decision denying benefits is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Slusser v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 923, 925 (8th Cir. 2009).
Mr. Hutsell complains that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of his treating physician, Michael T. Pilcher, M.D. On October 29, 2009. Dr. Pilcher, an internal medicine specialist, completed a medical source statement giving an opinion about Mr. Hutsell's ability to perform work-related activities. Id. at 538-41. Dr. Pilcher found that Mr. Hutsell was limited in pushing and pulling with his upper extremities and was also limited to occasionally lifting or carrying less than ten pounds; standing or walking less than two hours in an eight-hour day; sitting a maximum of 20-30 minutes for a total of less than six hours in an eight-hour day; and could never climb, balance, kneel, crouch, crawl, or stoop. Id. at 538-39. Dr. Pilcher stated that he based his findings on decreased range of motion of the neck and an "abnormal x-ray." He noted that any movement by Mr. Hutsell of his extremities or neck, "makes pain unbearable." Id. at 540.
An ALJ is obliged to give controlling weight to a treating physician's medical opinion that is supported by the record. See Ellis v. Barnhart, 392 F.3d 988, 994-95 (8th Cir. 2005) (citing Randolph v. Barnhart, 386 F.3d 835, 839 (8th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)). A medical source opinion that an applicant is "disabled" or "unable to work, " however, involves an issue reserved for the Commissioner and, therefore, is not the type of "medical opinion" to which the Commissioner gives controlling weight. Id. (citations omitted).
Further, while medical source opinions are considered by ALJs when assessing RFC, the final determination of RFC is left to the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(e)(2). Here, there was substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's ...