United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin
J.P. Stadtmueller U.S. District Judge.
Michael Deutsch applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) on June 21, 2012. (See, e.g., Docket #14 (“Tr.”) 19). His claim was denied initially and on reconsideration, so he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 19) On December 4, 2014, Mr. Deutsch appeared before ALJ Timothy Malloy for that hearing. (See, e.g., Tr. at 38-69 (transcript of hearing)). Both Mr. Deutsch and vocational expert (“VE”) Leslie Goldsmith testified at the hearing. (Tr. at 38-69) Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Mr. Deutsch had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, with some minor additional limitations. (E.g. Tr. at 22-25). The ALJ, therefore, determined that Mr. Deutsch could perform his past relevant work as “director of supply/purchasing agent, plant manager/production manager, and online sales rep as generally performed.” (Tr. at 25-26). Mr. Deutsch requested review of that decision with the Social Security Appeals Council, but it denied that request. (E.g. Tr. at 1-6). Accordingly, Mr. Deutsch appealed the ALJ’s decision by filing this case. (Docket #1). The matter is fully briefed (Docket #11; #13; #15), and the Court will now decide it.
1. MR. DEUTSCH’S ARGUMENTS
The Court begins by discussing Mr. Deutsch’s arguments in favor of reversal of the ALJ’s decision. Broadly stated, Mr. Deutsch made three separate arguments in his opening brief:
(1) that the ALJ erred in finding that Mr. Deutsch could perform his past relevant work because, even assuming the ALJ’s RFC determination was correct, that RFC determination would have precluded Mr. Deutsch’s ability to perform his past relevant work (Docket #11 at 4-6);
(2) that the ALJ erred in reaching his RFC determination because he did not adequately consider an opinion from Mr. Deutsch’s treating specialist (id. at 6-17); and
(3) that the ALJ erred in reaching his RFC determination because he did not properly assess Mr. Deutsch’s pain complaints (id. at 17-22).
Mr. Deutsch has since abandoned the first of those arguments. (Docket #15 at 1 n.1 (“Upon further reflection, Plaintiff withdraws his assignment of error with respect to the ALJ’s step 4 [past relevant work] finding. See Pl.’s Brief, pp. 4-6.”)). That leaves only the second and third arguments-both asserting that the ALJ erred in reaching his RFC determination-for decision, here.
The Court will address each of Mr. Deutsch’s arguments in turn, providing relevant factual information as necessary.
2.1 Consideration of Treating Specialist’s Opinion
Mr. Deutsch first argues that the ALJ improperly discounted the opinion of Oscar Wille, M.D., a pain management specialist who treated Mr. Deutsch. (See Docket #11 at 6-17). In addressing that argument, the Court will describe the ALJ’s actual statements regarding Dr. Wille’s opinion, then provide the standard applicable on review, and finally apply that standard to the ALJ’s statements.
2.1.1 The ALJ’s Statements Regarding Dr. Wille’s Opinion
The ALJ summarized Dr. Wille’s findings and discounted them as follows:
The undersigned has also considered the medical source statement dated August 1, 2013, from Dr. Wille, the claimant’s pain management physician, who indicated that he had seen the claimant on three occasions for chronic low back pain and lumbar spondylosis. It was his opinion that the claimant had significant limitations, including a limitation to sitting up to 30 minutes and standing up to 20 minutes continuously and that in an 8-hour day, the claimant could sit 4 to 6 hours and stand/walk less than 2 hours. It was also his opinion that the claimant could lift and carry less than 10 pounds frequently, 10 pounds occasionally, and 20 pounds rarely, that he was limited to rare occasional twisting and stooping (bending), and that he would be absent four days per month. He stated that the claimant’s pain flares depended on required pace of work (Exhibit 13F). The undersigned gives this opinion little weight, as these limitations are inconsistent with objective finding[s] in the record, including Dr. Wil[l]e’s own treatment notes which, as detailed above, show minimal objective findings at most. In addition, there is no objective evidence of any difficulties with standing or walking, and examinations have consistently documented that the claimant had normal gait and station (Exhibits 5F, 8F-10F, 12F, and 14F). Further, as Dr. Wille noted, at the time of this assessment, he had seen the claimant on only three occasions and, as such, had not yet established a long treating relationship with the claimant.
(Tr. 24-25). The ALJ then went on to point out that Dr. Wille’s opinion was also inconsistent with Mr. Deutsch’s own reported activities. (Tr. 25).
2.1.2 Applicable Standard of Review
Generally speaking, the ALJ was required to give Dr. Wille’s opinion controlling weight unless he determined that Dr. Wille’s opinion “is ‘inconsistent with the other substantial evidence.’” Loveless v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 502, 507 (7th Cir. 2016) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); citing Scott v. Astrue, 647 F.3d 734, 739 (7th Cir. 2011); Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 306 (7th Cir. 2010)). The Seventh Circuit has “defined ‘substantial evidence’ as ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Stepp v. Colvin, 795 F.3d 711, 718 (7th Cir. 2015) (citing Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008)).
Furthermore, even where an ALJ does not give a treating sources opinion as controlling (as appears to be the case for Dr. Wille’s opinion here), the ALJ is still required to determine how much weight to give the opinion, applying several factors:
(1) the length and frequency of Mr. Deutsch’s treatment relationship with Dr. Wille;
(2) the nature and extent of that treatment relationship;
(3) the amount of relevant evidence supporting Dr. ...