Royse v. SSA
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER, denying 14 MOTION for Summary Judgment by Clyde Royse; granting 16 MOTION for Summary Judgment by Commissioner of SSA with supporting memorandum. A Judgment in favor of dft will be entered contemporaneously herewith. Signed by Judge Henry R. Wilhoit, Jr on 3/21/17.(SMT)cc: COR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
Civil Action No. 16-28-HRW
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,
Plaintiff has brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) to challenge a final
decision of the Defendant denying Plaintiffs application for disability insurance benefits. The
Court having reviewed the record in this case and the dispositive motions filed by the parties, and
being othe1wise sufficiently advised, for the reasons set forth herein, finds that the decision of the
Administrative Law Judge is supported by substantial evidence and should be affomed.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed his current application for disability insurance alleging disability beginning
due to heait problems, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, knee problems and carpal tunnel
syndrome (Tr. 380). This application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Thereafter,
upon request by Plaintiff, an administrative hearing was conducted by Administrative Law Judge
John Dowling (hereinafter "ALJ"), wherein Plaintiff, accompanied by counsel, testified. At the
hearing, Ellen C. Jenkins, a vocational expe1t (hereinafter "VE"), also testified.
At the hearing, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.920, the ALJ performed the following fivestep sequential analysis in order to detem1ine whether the Plaintiff was disabled:
Step 1: If the claimant is performing substantial gainful work, he is not disabled.
Step 2: If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work, his impairment(s) must
be severe before he can be found to be disabled based upon the requirements in 20 C.F.R.
Step 3: If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful work and has a severe
impairment (or impairments) that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period
of at least twelve months, and his impairments (or impairments) meets or medically
equals a listed impairment contained in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4, the
claimant is disabled without further inqui1y.
Step 4: If the claimant's impairment (or impairments) does not prevent him from doing
his past relevant work, he is not disabled.
Step 5: Even ifthe claimant's impairment or impairments prevent him from performing
his past relevant work, if other work exists in significant numbers in the national
economy that accommodates his residual functional capacity and vocational factors, he is
The ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled (Tr. 78-89). Plaintiff
was 46 years old on the alleged date of disability. He has a 12•h grade education (Tr. 381). His
past relevant work experience consists of work as a iron worker (Tr. 382).
At Step 1 of the sequential analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since Febrnaiy 1, 2013, the alleged onset date of disability (Tr.80).
The ALJ then determined, at Step 2, that Plaintiff suffers from psoriatic arthritis, carpal
tunnel syndrome and degenerative disc disease, which he found to be "severe" within the
meaning of the Regulations (Tr. 81-82).
At Step 3, the ALJ found that Plaintiffs impairments did not meet or medically equal any
of the listed impairments (Tr. 82-83).
The ALJ further found that Plaintiff could not return to his past relevant work but
determined that he has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a range of sedentaiy
work (involving lifting and canying no more than 10 pounds and mostly sitting)2 that involved
frequently balancing, handling, and fingering; occasionally climbing ramps and stairs, kneeling,
crouching, and crawling; never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and avoiding moderate
exposure to vibration and all exposure to heights and hazardous machine1y (Tr. 83).
The ALJ finally concluded that these jobs exist in significant numbers in the national and
regional economies, as identified by the VE (Tr. 89).
Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not to be disabled at Step 5 of the sequential
The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review and adopted the ALJ' s decision
as the final decision of the Commissioner . Plaintiff thereafter filed this civil action seeking a
reversal of the Commissioner's decision. Both parties have filed Motions for Summa1y
Judgment and this matter is ripe for decision.
Standard of Review
The essential issue on appeal to this Court is whether the ALJ' s decision is supported by
substantial evidence. "Substantial evidence" is defined as "such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion;" it is based on the record as a
whole and must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight. Garner
v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6'h Cir. 1984). If the Commissioner's decision is supp01ted by
substantial evidence, the reviewing Court must affitm. Kirk v. Secretmy ofHealth and Human
Services, 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6'h Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 461 U.S. 957 (1983). "The court may
not try the case de nova nor resolve conflicts in evidence, nor decide questions of credibility."
Bradley v. Secretmy ofHealth and Human Services, 862 F.2d 1224, 1228 (6 1h Cir. 1988).
Finally, this Court must defer to the Commissioner's decision "even ifthere is substantial
evidence in the record that would have suppmied an opposite conclusion, so long as substantial
evidence supports the conclusion reached by the ALJ." Keyv. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th
Plaintiffs Contentions on Appeal
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's finding of no disability is erroneous because: (1) the
ALJ failed to provide adequate reasons for discounting the treating physician's RFC and (2) the
ALJ erred by failing to consider Plaintiffs heart problems and hearing loss as severe.
Analysis of Contentions on Appeal
Plaintiffs first claim of error is that the ALJ failed to provide adequate reasons for
discounting the treating physician's RFC.
Plaintiff appears to misconstrue the nature of an RFC and whose responsibility it is to
formulate the same. The responsibility for determining a claimant's residual functional capacity
is reserved to the Commissioner, not a medical sourse. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2),
404.1545. The ALJ considers numerous factors in constructing a claimant's residual functional
capacity, including the medical evidence, the non-medical evidence, and the believability of the
claimant's allegations. See Coldiron v. Comm 'r ofSoc. Sec., 391 F. App'x 435, 443 (6th Cir.
2010) (unpublished). In making this determination, the ALJ is required to resolve conflicts in the
evidence and incorporate only those limitations that he finds supported by the record in the
residual functional capacity assessment. See Casey v. Sec '.Y ofHealth & Human Servs., 987 F.2d
1230, 1234-1235 (6th Cir. 1993).
In this case, Plaintiffs treating physician, fra Potter, M.D. completed a medical source
statement at Plaintiffs attorney's request in August 2014 (Tr. 1381-85). He noted that Plaintiff
had a history of severe coronaiy arte1y disease, moderate carpal tunnel syndrome, hearing loss,
bilateral knee pain, osteoarthritis, psoriatic arthritis, mild dyslipidemia, hypertension,
gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and plantar fasciitis (Tr. 1381-82). Dr. Potter opined
that Plaintiff could lift and cany 12 to 15 pounds occasionally and five to seven pounds
frequently; could stand and walk two to two-and-a-half hours total in an eight-hour workday and
for 30 minutes at one time; could sit for two to three hours total in an eight-hour workday and for
one hour at a time; could occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, and kneel; could never climb or
crawl; had limitations on pushing and hearing; and should avoid moving machine1y and noise
(Tr. 1383-84). Additionally, Dr. Potter opined that Plaintiff could not: perform past work
activity; sit, stand, or lift for six to eight hours in an eight-hour workday; lift over 10 pounds; or
drive a motor vehicle; but could maintain attendance, follow instructions, maintain attention, and
maintain socially appropriate behavior (Tr. 1385).
In the hearing decision, the ALJ discussed Dr. Potter's opinion and found his assessment
of dire, indeed, disabling limitations to be at odds with his own treatment records. Plaintiff saw
Dr. Potter regularly during the relevant time period for various complaints including high blood
pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol (hyperlipidemia), chest pain, and knee pain (see
generally Tr. 1120-23, 1275-99, 1343-49, 1354-62, 1388-1407, 1430-32 (duplicated at Tr. 131215, 1318-42)). Examinations were routinely largely normal aside from complaints of varying
degrees of knee pain and tenderness and a psoriatic rash on Plaintiffs knees and elbows (see,
e.g., Tr. 1277-78, 1298, 1344-45, 1360-61). Imaging and tests showed mostly normal and benign
results: June 2013 x-rays of Plaintiff's cervical spine, chest, and bilateral knees were normal (Tr.
1120-23); A June 2013 echocardiogram (EKG) showed non-specific inferior changes but was
likely normal (Tr. 1284); A July 2013 nerve conduction study was abnormal showing
neuropathy in both wrists (Tr. 1292-93); A Januaty 2014 chest x-ray showed n01mal left ventricle
wall motion and systolic function and appropriate functional capacity (Tr. 1350-53, 1357); and
an August 2014 EKG was notmal (Tr. 1401).
Furthermore, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff never reported difficulty with sitting to his
providers, even in recent notes (Tr. 1369, 1430-32). The ALJ also pointed out that Dr. Potter
listed Plaintiff's coronaty atiery disease as his most severely limiting impairment (Tr. 1382),
however treatment providers indicated that there were no signs or symptoms of angina or
congestive heart failure (Tr. 1425 ("no symptoms of angina or congestive heart failure")) and, as
noted above, imaging and testing following the 2012 stenting were normal (Tr. 81, see Tr. 1284,
Moreover, the ALJ noted that Dr. Potter's opinion was inconsistent with the other
credible opinion evidence in the record. Specifically, Naushad Haziq, M.D., a consultative
examiner, noted largely notmal examination findings (normal cervical spine; nmmal arms;
normal grip strength, writing ability, and hand range of motion but some problems picking up
coins and using buttons; normal lumbar spine; normal hips; full muscle strength in his arms and
legs; and normal reflexes, but painful and tender knees with swelling and crepitation and imitated
range of motion (Tr. 1304-05)) and did not opine that Plaintiff had any specific work-related
limitations. Additionally, Alex Guerrero, M.D. opined that Plaintiff could perfotm a range of
light work (Tr. 161-64), but the ALJ gave this opinion little weight and further limited Plaintiff to
a reduced range of sedenta1y work to accommodate the credible effects of his knee pain, neck
pain, history of chest problems, and carpal tunnel syndrome (Tr. 86).
In order to be given controlling weight, the opinions of a treating source on issues
involving the nature and severity of a claimant's impaitments must be well supported by
medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques, and be consistent with other
substantial evidence in the case record. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2). The Court is mindful of the
fact that the Commissioner is not bound by a treating physician's opinion. Such opinions receive
great weight only if they are supported by sufficient medical data. Harris v. Heckler, 756 F.2d
431, 435 (6'h Cir. 1985)(citations omitted). Here, Dr. Potter's suggestion of complete disability
is at odds not only with his own treatment of Plaintiff but with the other medical evidence in the
record. As such, the ALJ did not err in discounting his assessment.
Plaintiffs second claim of error is that the ALJ e!l'ed by failing to consider Plaintiffs
heait problems and hearing loss as severe. The Comt first notes that the issue of whether the
ALJ found certain impairments to be severe, or not, is largely irrelevant because the ALJ
proceeded beyond Step 2 of the sequential evaluation and assessed Plaintiffs RFC. In making
his argument, Plaintiff appears to suggest that his heart and hearing impairments result in
limitations beyond those set forth in the ALJ's very restrictive RFC. The evidence in the record
simply does not support such findings.
The Court finds that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the
record. Accordingly, it is HEREBY ORDERED that the Plaintiffs Motion for Summa1y
Judgment be OVERRULED and the Defendant's Motion for Summaiy Judgment be
SUSTAINED. A judgment in favor of the Defendant will be entered contemporaneously
¢day of March, 2017.
Unltlilci States Olstrlct Judge
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