Submitted: September 27, 2018
from United States District Court for the Eastern District of
Arkansas - Jonesboro
LOKEN, BENTON, and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.
SHEPHERD, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
Jeffrey Walker appeals the district court's judgment,
which affirmed the decision of an administrative law judge
(ALJ) denying him disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the
Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423, 1382. Having
jurisdiction over this appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we
reverse and remand for the reasons set forth below.
filed for disability benefits in 2014, claiming disability
with an onset date of October 25, 2011 based on multiple
medical conditions. His primary care physician, Dr. Pratapji
Thakor, has treated him since at least November 2013. Dr.
Thakor noted that at several appointments throughout 2014
Walker exhibited limited range of motion in his cervical,
thoracic, and lumbar spine as a result of degenerative disc
disease and, in September 2014, opined that Walker should
avoid work where he would be required to bend forward or lift
any weight. In December 2015, Dr. Thakor noted Walker had
difficulty pushing, pulling, or lifting more than ten pounds.
hearing before the ALJ was held in March 2016 and the ALJ
issued his written decision on March 24, 2016. Following the
familiar five-step sequential analysis of 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520 and 416.920, the ALJ determined that
Walker had not engaged in substantial gainful activity at any
point since October 25, 2011, that Walker has severe
impairments consisting of degenerative disc disease with
chronic neck pain, diabetes, and obesity, but Walker does not
have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or
are medically equal to the severity of those impairments
listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpart P, app. 1. The ALJ
determined that Walker maintains the residual functional
capacity (RFC) for sedentary work with the following
additional limitations: Walker is limited to only occasional
climbing, crouching, stooping, kneeling, and crawling, never
balancing or climbing ladders or scaffolds, lifting no more
than 10 pounds frequently and 30 pounds occasionally, sitting
for six to eight hours but no more than two hours at a time,
standing or walking up to two hours a day but no more than 30
minutes at a time, and frequent reaching and handling to
encompass no more than two-thirds of an eight-hour workday.
In arriving at this RFC determination, the ALJ relied heavily
on the opinions of Dr. Tim Maryanov, a neurosurgeon who
examined Walker once in the summer of 2014, and two
non-examining state agency physicians.
administrative hearing, the ALJ posed a hypothetical
including these limitations to a vocational expert witness,
who testified that, although Walker could not perform any of
his past relevant work, he could perform other jobs existing
in significant numbers nationally, including telephone order
clerk and surveillance system monitor. Based on this
testimony and the opinions of several non-treating
physicians, the ALJ found Walker was not disabled at any
point between Walker's alleged onset date and the date of
the hearing, and he denied benefits. Notably, in his RFC
analysis, the ALJ did not mention Dr. Thakor's written
opinion as to Walker's physical limitations.
appealed to the Appeals Council, which declined to review the
ALJ's decision. Walker then appealed to the district
court, which found that, because the ALJ made his decision
based on the record as a whole and placed limitations on
Walker's work ability, he did not have to specifically
address Dr. Thakor's opinions. It concluded that
substantial evidence supported the ALJ's decision and
upheld the denial of benefits. Walker then appealed to this
review de novo a district court's decision upholding or
reversing the denial of social security benefits."
Boettcher v. Astrue, 652 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir.
2011). Social Security Administration regulations give
special weight to the opinions of treating physicians. A
treating physician is a doctor with whom the patient
"has, or has had, an ongoing treatment relationship . .
. ." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1502, 416.902
(2015). Opinions by treating physicians receive
controlling weight if they are well-supported by the medical
evidence and are "not inconsistent with the other
substantial evidence in [the] case record . . . ." 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927 (2015). "By
contrast, '[t]he opinion of a consulting physician who
examines a claimant once or not at all does not generally
constitute substantial evidence.'" Singh v.
Apfel, 222 F.3d 448, 452 (8th Cir. 2000) (alteration in
original) (quoting Kelley v. Callahan, 133 F.3d 583,
589 (8th Cir. 1998)).
the ALJ gives the opinion of a treating physician great or
little weight, the ALJ must give good reasons for doing
so." Reece v. Colvin, 834 F.3d 904, 909 (8th
Cir. 2016); see also 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2) (2015). Such reasons include
internal inconsistency or that other physicians' opinions
have better evidentiary support. Reece, 834 F.3d at
909. This requires the ALJ to explain in his written
decision, with some specificity, why he has rejected the
treating physician's opinion. See Singh, 222
F.3d at 452. Failure to do so is reversible error.
Singh v. Apfel, this Court found an ALJ failed to
provide good reasons for discounting a treating
physician's opinion when, after noting that the
patient's subjective complaints formed the basis for the
doctor's opinion, the ALJ "stated only that she
'decline[d] to accept portions of [the treating
physician]'s functional capacities assessment because it
is unreliable and unsupported by objective medical
evidence.'" Id. This Court concluded the
ALJ's statement did not constitute good reasons because
the treating physician's opinion had some objective
medical support and because non-treating physicians'
opinions, on their own, "cannot be considered
substantial evidence in the face of the conflicting
assessment of a treating physician." Id.
the ALJ determined that Walker could occasionally stoop,
crouch, kneel, and crawl even though Dr. Thakor restricted
Walker from bending forward. The ALJ also determined that
Walker could lift 10 pounds frequently and up to 30 pounds
occasionally, despite Dr. Thakor's restriction precluding
Walker from lifting any weight. The ALJ, therefore, clearly
discounted Dr. Thakor's opinion.
Thakor based his opinion on MRI scans of Walker's
spine-objective medical evidence-finding that Walker
exhibited degenerative joint disease and severe degenerative
disc disease. The ALJ acknowledged that the MRIs showed
severe degenerative disc disease in Walker's lumbar
spine, some level of degenerative disc disease in his
thoracic spine, and mild spinal stenosis in his cervical
spine. Despite this acknowledgment, the ALJ credited the
opinion of Dr. Maryanov, a non-treating physician,
see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1502 (2015)
("Nontreating source means a physician . . . who has
examined you but does not have, or did not have, an ongoing
treatment relationship with you."), that Walker's
thoracic spine was normal and his cervical spine was near
normal while failing to discuss Dr. ...