Massoth v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner of
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER. The present appeal is denied and the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. Signed by District Judge J. Thomas Marten on 4/28/2021. (sz)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF KANSAS
Case No. 20-1023-JTM
ANDREW M. SAUL,
Commissioner of Social Security
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Plaintiff JSM applied for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security
Act on February 9, 2017. The Commissioner of Social Security denied his application
upon initial review on May 24, 2017, and upon reconsideration on July 19, 2017. Plaintiff
sought review by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Following a hearing on
September 11, 2018 (Tr. 34-62), ALJ Michael Shilling determined on December 21, 2018
that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. 15-25). The decision of
the Commissioner became final when the Appeals Council declined plaintiff’s request
for review on November 26, 2019. (Tr. 1-3).
Plaintiff then filed this appeal, arguing that the ALJ erred in adopting the
Residual Functional Capacity (RFC), arguing in particular that the ALJ failed to give
The court uses initials to protect privacy interests.
due weight to the opinion of a treating physician. Although the plaintiff submitted his
application for benefits based upon a number of impairments, the focus of argument in
the present appeal (Tr. 9, 13) is whether the ALJ properly accounted for plaintiff’s
physical impairments, especially his back pain. For the reasons provided herein, the
court finds that the Commissioner’s decision was supported by substantial evidence
contained in the record, and the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.
Plaintiff was born in 1977, and has stated that he became disabled beginning
February 20, 2016, due to a variety of conditions, including ankylosing spondylitis,
fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and back problems.
Plaintiff has a high school education and two college degrees. From 2005 to 2016,
plaintiff worked as a mechanical engineer for an aircraft company. The detailed facts of
the case, which are incorporated herein, are set forth independently in the ALJ’s opinion
(Tr. 17-24), and the briefs of the plaintiff (Dkt. 9, at 1-8) and the Commissioner. (Dkt. 12,
Under the Act, the court takes as conclusive the factual findings of the
Commissioner so long as these are “supported by substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). The court thus looks to whether those factual findings have such support, and
whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard. Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084
(10th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence” means “more than a scintilla, but less than a
preponderance; in short, it is such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to
support the conclusion.” Barkley v. Astrue, 2010 WL 3001753, *1 (D. Kan. July 28, 2010)
(citing Castellano v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 26 F.3d 1027, 1028 (10th Cir. 1994)).
In making this determination, the court must “neither reweigh the evidence nor
substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Bowman v. Astrue, 511 F.3d
1270, 1272 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Casias v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.3d 799,
800 (10th Cir. 1991)).
A claimant is disabled if he or she suffers from “a physical or mental
impairment” which stops the claimant “from engaging in substantial gainful activity
and is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve
months.” Brennan v. Astrue, 501 F.Supp.2d 1303, 1306-07 (D. Kan. 2007) (citing 42 U.S.C.
§ 423(d)). This impairment “must be severe enough that she is unable to perform her
past relevant work, and further cannot engage in other substantial gainful work existing
in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience.” Barkley,
2010 WL 3001753, *2 (citing Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212, 217-22 (2002)).
Pursuant to the Act, the Social Security Administration has established a fivestep sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled.
Wilson v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 1136, 1139 (10th Cir. 2010); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The
steps are designed to be followed in order. If it is determined, at any step of the
evaluation process, that the claimant is or is not disabled, further evaluation under a
subsequent step is unnecessary. Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753, at *2.
The first three steps of the sequential evaluation require the Commissioner to
assess: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the
onset of the alleged disability; (2) whether the claimant has a severe, or combination of
severe, impairments; and (3) whether the severity of those impairments meets or equals
a designated list of impairments. Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084; see also Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753,
*2 (citing Williams v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 748, 751 (10th Cir. 1988)). If the impairment does
not meet or equal one of these designated impairments, the ALJ must then determine
the claimant’s residual functional capacity, which is the claimant’s ability “to do
physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from her
impairments.” Barkley, 2010 WL 3001753, *2; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545. In
assessing a claimant’s functional capacity, an ALJ must “contain specific reasons for the
weight given to the individual's symptoms, be consistent with and supported by the
evidence, and be clearly articulated so the individual and any subsequent reviewer can
assess how the adjudicator evaluated the individual's symptoms.” Brownrigg v. Berryhill,
688 Fed. Appx. 542, 546 (10th Cir. 2017) (citing SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, at *9).
Upon assessing the claimant’s residual functional capacity, the Commissioner
moves on to steps four and five, which require the Commissioner to determine whether
the claimant can either perform his or her past relevant work or whether he or she can
generally perform other work that exists in the national economy, respectively. Barkley,
2010 WL 3001753, *2 (citing Williams, 844 F.2d at 751). The claimant bears the burden in
steps one through four to prove a disability that prevents performance of his or her past
relevant work. Lax, 489 F.3d at 1084. The burden then shifts to the Commissioner at
step five to show that, despite his or her alleged impairments, the claimant can perform
other work in the national economy. Id.
The court has reviewed the ALJ decision and record and concludes that the ALJ
opinion was not in error. The decision was “supported by the medical evidence of
record, the record as a whole, State agency findings and claimant’s testimony.” (Tr. 23).
The ALJ found plaintiff did not have any impairment or combination of
impairments which would meet the listed severity standards of 20 CFR Part 404, Subpt.
P, Appx. 1 (20 CFR § 404.1520(d), 404.15252, and 404.1526). Plaintiff retains the capacity,
the ALJ determined, to do sedentary work within the meaning of 20 CFR § 404.1567(a).
Specifically, the plaintiff
can lift and or carry 10 pounds frequently and occasionally. He is able to
walk or stand for 2 hours in an 8-hour workday and sit for up to 6 hours
in an 8-hour workday. The claimant can occasionally climb stairs, but can
never climb ropes, scaffolds or ladders. The claimant can occasionally
stoop, crouch, kneel or crawl. The claimant can frequently balance. The
claimant is limited to occasional overhead reaching with his right upper
extremity. The claimant must avoid prolonged exposure to cold
temperature extremes and vibrating machinery. The claimant is limited to
simple, routine repetitive tasks with occasional interaction with coworkers and occasional interaction with the general public.
(Tr. 19). This RFC would preclude plaintiff from returning to his former work as an
engineer, but it would still allow him to perform other gainful employment, including
that of clerk (DOT Job Title No. 209.587-010), document preparer (DOT No. 713.687018), and optical assembler (DOT No. 713.687-018). (Tr. 24).
In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ discussed plaintiff’s medical history. (Tr. 2021). He also gave significant weight to state agency medical and psychological
consultants, who found no more than moderate functional limitations.
The ALJ gave some weight to the results of a consultative examination which
discussed primarily limitations relating to plaintiff’s mental state. The ALJ found that
the opinion was consistent with the plaintiff’s record as a whole and with his daily
activities. The ALJ also gave some weight to the statement of plaintiff’s mother,
indicating that plaintiff cooked, kept house, drove, shopped and cared for his own
finances, though with some limitations secondary to pain.
The ALJ gave minimal weight to the February 9, 2017 statement of Dr. Timothy
Shaver. Shaver stated that plaintiff could lift and carry 10 pounds frequently and 20
pounds occasionally, stand for 2 hours in an 8-hour day, and sit or stand for a half hour
at a time. The ALJ noted that the form was not complete and not supported by objective
evidence or plaintiff’s daily activities. Dr. Shaver did not identify the medical basis of, or
any objective support for, the opined limitations.
The ALJ also did not give weight to an October 9, 2017 summary supplied by Dr.
Shaver which stated that “I do not see this patients is being capable of sustaining
gainful employment and would consider him disabled.” (Tr. 550). The ALJ
appropriately found the opinion conclusory as to the ultimate issue of disability, an
issue reserved for the Commissioner.
The plaintiff contends in the present appeal that the ALJ should have given
greater weight to the opinion of Dr. Shaver. However, the court does not reweigh the
evidence, but must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and
reached a decision supported by substantial evidence. Applying this standard, the court
finds no error.
The ALJ discussed the plaintiff’s medical care visits in 2016 in which he
complained of ankylosing spondylitis, fibromyalgia, muscle spasms, depression, and
anxiety. Plaintiff’s medical records include an MRI scans from 2015 showing diffuse
mild to moderate degenerative findings in his neck and low back.
On February 20, 2016, plaintiff was laid off from his employment. While the
employer Textron Aviation announced the termination as a lay off reduction in force,
plaintiff believes the termination was actually due to his physical condition The plaintiff
obtained medical treatment in March, May, and December of 2016; examinations
appeared to be within normal limits. Plaintiff reported in the first examination that he
was using narcotic pain medication, but was tapering down the dosage. Indeed, he also
reported that he had been able to take a plane trip to Japan for business. In March, he
appeared oriented with approximate affect and demeanor, and in no obvious distress.
Plaintiff went to the Arthritis Rheumatology Clinic in February 2017, where he
reported “widespread symptoms that he brought on a type-written sheet.” (Tr. 488).
Since his last visit, he had lost the job at Textron and gone through a separation. He
reported that he had trouble sleeping because of back pain. He was taking nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory medication, having found that narcotic analgesics did not help. He
was taking Lyrica to help with his fibromyalgia. His back pain was largely increased by
prolonged standing. According to the clinician, plaintiff reported that “[h]e is more
active than he has been in years.” Id.
In April 2017, state agency medical consultant Dr. Gary W. Coleman, reviewed the
record and concluded that plaintiff could lift, carry, push, and pull up to 20 pounds
occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand/walk for about six hours and sit for about six
hours (with normal breaks) in an eight-hour day; frequently climb ramps/stairs;
occasionally climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds; balance without limitation; and occasionally
stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. (Tr. 73-74).
In June 2017, the plaintiff reported was “[d]oing fairly well,” although he had
“discomfort in the right shoulder and thumb.” (Tr. 532). Plaintiff’s “greatest concern”
was his continuing sleep issues. Id. He was not taking any narcotic pain medication,
which he stated did not help anyway, but “he is doing better today on his current
regimen than he has on other meds in the past.” Id. He reported that he mowed the
lawn using a riding lawn mower, and that he could also fish, but not stand for very
long. An examination indicated that plaintiff’s gait was normal, as were most joints. He
had some soft tissue discomfort, including 18 of 18 tender points. Plaintiff reported that
the Lyrica was helpful with his fibromyalgia, and “states that this [the ankylosing
spondylitis] is stable.” (Tr. 536).
Generally, the plaintiff’s physical condition remained relatively stable
throughout the period immediately before and after his loss of employment. On
December 15, 2017, plaintiff reported that he was “[b]etter now than before.” (Tr. 552).
On February 13, 2018, the plaintiff stated that “[h]e feels that his symptoms have
remained stable over the past year or two.” (Tr. 681). He reported that his symptoms
“are mostly located in his lumbar region, bilateral shoulders, right hand and foot,” as
well as “some increased jaw pain that he thought was possibly a tooth.” Id.
The court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s assessment of
plaintiff’s functional capacity, and the ALJ had a sound basis for not giving full weight
to Dr. Shaver’s opinion.2 That opinion (along with plaintiff’s own claim) that the
plaintiff was totally disabled and could perform no meaningful work is unsupported by
the medical evidence, and is indeed at variance with the plaintiff’s medical history and
activities of daily living. As to plaintiff’s back pain, the medical history showed a
relatively stable condition, which existed while he worked as a mechanical engineer,
and which did not subsequently markedly deteriorate. Plaintiff continued to complain
of back pain, but also reported that he was doing better than he had been in years. As
the ALJ noted, plaintiff’s activities of daily living — which included driving, cooking,
household chores, mowing, operating some farm machinery, using the computer,
paying bills, grocery shopping, and fishing — were inconsistent with allegations of total
The ALJ’s decision to limit the weight given Dr. Shaver’s opinion was not, as
plaintiff suggests in reply (Dkt. 13, at 2) purely conclusory or lacking in foundation.
Rather, the ALJ reached that decision only after discussing the medical history and the
opinion of the state agency physical consultants who concluded that the plaintiff could
perform sedentary work. That ability to perform sedentary work, the ALJ found, was
supported by “physical examinations, objective MRI results and reported activities.”
Plaintiff also complains that the ALJ erred in noting that a page from Dr. Shaver’s report was missing.
See Tr. 22 (noting “[t]he form is incomplete’). But this passing comment was not an essential or material element of
the ALJ’s decision. The ALJ then proceeded to conclude that the opinion was “not supported by objective evidence
or daily activities.” Id. Substantial evidence, including relatively mild results from examinations in February, June
and October of 2017, supports this conclusion.
(Tr. 22). Although the plaintiff’s position is not entirely lacking in support, there is also
substantial evidence indicating that his condition was not as limited as claimed. Where
such evidentiary conflict exists, the ALJ may appropriately resolve them. See Allman v.
Colvin, 813 F.3d 1326, 1333 (10th Cir. 2016). Given the medical evidence, the plaintiff’s
own statements and activities of daily living, the court finds that the ALJ did not err in
the determination of plaintiff’s functional capacity.
IT IS SO ORDERED this day of April, 2021, that the present appeal is denied and
the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
J. Thomas Marten
J. Thomas Marten, Judge
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