Ohmer v. SSA
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER: 1. Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill's Motion for Summary Judgment [Record No. 15 ] is GRANTED. 2. Plaintiff Phillip Ohmer's Motion for Summary Judgment [Record No. 13 ] is DENIED. 3. The administrative decision of the Administrative Law Judge will be AFFIRMED by a separate judgment entered this date. Signed by Judge Danny C. Reeves on 03/20/2017.(KJA)cc: COR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
PHILLIP RICHARD OHMER, JR.,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, *
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
Civil Action No. 6: 16-147-DCR
This matter is pending for consideration of cross-motions for summary judgment filed
by Plaintiff Phillip Ohmer and Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social
Security (“the Commissioner”). [Record Nos. 13, 15] Ohmer contends that the Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”) assigned to his case erred by denying his claim for supplemental security
income benefits (“SSI”). [Record No. 13] He requests that the decision be reversed and that
a judgment be entered finding him disabled. [Record No. 13-1 at 14] Alternatively, Ohmer
asks that his case be remanded for a new hearing before a different ALJ.
Commissioner argues that the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence and should
be affirmed. [Record No. 15]
For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner’s motion will be granted and the
relief sought by Ohmer will be denied.
As of January 23, 2017, Nance A. Berryhill is the Acting Commissioner of Social
Security, and is substituted as the defendant in this action pursuant to Rule 25(d) of the Federal
Rules of Civil Procedure.
On June 5, 2013, Ohmer filed an application for SSI under Title XVI of the Social
Security Act (“the Act”) alleging a disability beginning December 31, 2007. [Administrative
Transcript, “TR.,” at 153] The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied his application
initially and upon reconsideration.
[Tr. at 63, 76]
Ohmer pursued and exhausted his
administrative remedies with an administrative hearing before an ALJ [Tr. at 28], a written
decision from the ALJ [Tr. at 11], and review by the Appeals Council [Tr. at 1]. His case is
now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).
Ohmer was 50 years old at the time of his application for benefits and has a 9th grade
education. [Tr. at 19, 23] He worked previously as a roofer, but stopped working in 1998 as
the result of a motorcycle accident. [Tr. at 42] Ohmer resumed working for a few months in
2007 as a flagger. [Tr. at 41-42] At the time of the administrative hearing, Ohmer lived with
his son and daughter-in-law. [Tr. at 35]
Ohmer contends that he is unable to work as the result of low back pain, difficulty
reading and comprehending, and depression. [Tr. at 33] According to his testimony, the
claimant is unable to drive because he cannot sit in one spot for a prolonged period. [Tr. at
36] Ohmer claims that he can stand for only 30 minutes at a time, because he begins to suffer
pain in both legs as a result of his “substituting the weight.” [Id.] Ohmer asserts that he can
walk ten car lengths, but if he attempts to walk further, his entire leg become numbs. [Id.] He
testified that his present symptoms stem from a 2010 back injury that occurred while he was
changing a tire, but somewhat milder symptoms trace back to at least 2007. [Tr. at 37-40]
Ohmer also alleges that he suffers from anxiety, that he is easily aggravated, and that
he has trouble sleeping. [Tr. at 49] He claims that his grandchildren “make [him] a nervous
wreck,” and that he can do little more than help with the dishes. [Tr. at 50] Ohmer testified
that he rarely leaves home, but will sometimes walk across the street to visit a neighbor, and
occasionally visits the supermarket if he is able to use an electric scooter for assistance. [Tr.
Medical records from the Kentucky Department of Corrections indicate that Ohmer
was treated with medication for chronic low back pain with neuropathic pain as far back as
2012. [Tr. at 277] He was prescribed Neurontin and Ibuprofen for back and leg pain. [Tr. at
16, 256-280, 296-313] Treatment records also indicate medication for GERD, urinary flow
problems, and depression. [Id.] In 2008 Ohmer discontinued treatment with Paxil which he
was prescribed he was while going through a divorce. [Tr. at 305]
On December 23, 2010, Ohmer was examined by consultative examiner G. Stephen
Perry, ED.D., a licensed counseling psychologist. [Tr. at 248-55] Perry estimated Ohmer to
be of below average to borderline cognitive ability and to have mild-to-moderate difficulties
with concentration. [Tr. at 250] He found that Ohmer can communicate effectively, but has
difficulty managing stress and getting along with others. [Tr. at 254] Perry diagnosed the
claimant with depressive disorder, NOS; anxiety disorder, NOS with generalized anxiety and
panic disorder symptoms; and personality disorder, NOS. [Id.] He assigned Ohmer a GAF
score of 50 to 55. [Tr. at 255]
A second psychological evaluation was performed in July 2013 by consultative
examiner Christopher Catt, Psy.D. [Tr. at 282-86] Catt estimated Ohmer’s IQ to be in the low
average range. [Tr. at 284] He found a concrete ability for abstract thinking, but poor
judgment and gaps in insight. [Id.] Catt diagnosed Ohmer with major depressive disorder
recurrent-moderate, and assessed a GAF score of 56. [Tr. at 285] Ohmer’s ability to
understand, remember, and carry out instructions regarding simple tasks was found to be not
affected. [Id.] His ability to tolerate stress and the pressures of day-to-day employment was
determined to be affected by moderate limitations.
Sustaining attention and
concentration towards performance of simple repetitive tasks was found to be unaffected. [Id.]
Finally, Ohmer’s capacity to respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and work
pressures was found to be affected by moderate limitations. [Id.]
Ohmer was examined by Dr. Naushad Haziq, M.D., an agency consultant in August
2013, for purposes of a physical evaluation. [Tr. 288-95] Haziq noted a dirt bike accident in
1998 as the source of the claimant’s lower back pain, and a 2010 “snap in the back” while
moving a heavy desk as an aggravating factor. [Tr. at 288] Ohmer described his pain as a
continuous, dull, nagging, aching pain in the lumbar spine, which intermittently becomes sharp
and radiates to his left lower extremities, leading to numbness and tingling. [Id.] Bending,
stooping, sitting, lifting, carrying, standing, and walking aggravate the pain. [Id.] Haziq
referenced a 2010 MRI, with the impression of “degenerative disc disease, primarily at L4-L5
and L5-S1. At L4-L5 there is narrowing of the left lateral recess with involvement of the left
L5 nerve root and with left neural foraminal narrowing at L2-L3 and L5-S1.” [Id.] A 2010
CT scan identified no acute fracture, but concurred otherwise with the MRI. [Tr. at 289] A
lower extremity radiological study of a single level, performed for an ankle brachial index
assessment, was within normal limits. [Id.]
Haziq characterized Ohmer as a normally-built male who appeared somewhat
depressed. [Tr. at 290] He noted a slow cautious antalgic gait, and a mild limp while walking.
[Id.] However, Ohmer did not need assistive devices or ambulatory aids, was able to sit and
stand unassisted, rise from a step, and stepped up and down from the examination table. [Id.]
Ohmer appeared comfortable while seated and supine, and was able to speak and follow
instructions without difficulty. [Id.] Examination of the claimant’s cervical spine revealed
no spinous process or muscular tenderness, and there was no evidence of paravertebral muscle
spasm. [Tr. at 291]
Evaluation of his range of motion revealed no limitations. [Id.] The dorsolumbar spine
revealed normal curvature, but Ohmer expressed pain and tenderness extending from T8
through S1, with mild limitation of movement. [Tr. at 292] Ohmer was able to stand on one
leg at a time without difficulty, there was no leg length discrepancy, and the straight leg-raising
test was 70 degrees bilaterally in supine and sitting positions. [Id.]
Haziq concluded that Ohmer suffered from low back pain, post remote trauma, and
possible degenerative disc disease. [Tr. at 292] He found bilateral leg pain with absence of
dorsalis pedis and posterior tibial pulses, and ruled out peripheral vascular disease. [Id.] High
cholesterol was noted, together with a history of depression requiring medication. [Id.]
Treatment records provided by the claimant post-date the consultative evaluations.
Ohmer was seen from July 2014 to January 2015 by Dr. William Brooks, M.D. [Tr. at 325330] On July 3, 2014, Ohmer was examined for reports of chronic back pain. [Tr. at 330]
Brooks was unable to substantiate Ohmer’s complaints of pain. [Id.] He found no radiographic
evidence, and noted that if a previous fracture of the L3 did occur “it is healed and certainly
would not be expected to cause the symptoms with which he presents.” [Id.] A CT scan from
July 17, 2013 was reported normal. [Tr. at 329] However, Brooks gave Ohmer “the benefit
of the doubt” and ordered testing. [Tr. at 330]
Ohmer’s MRI was reviewed during a July 31, 2014, and showed the presence of
degenerative disc disease at L4-L5 and L5-S1. [Tr. at 328] At L5-S1 a fragment of disc
compressing the nerve and providing anatomical/clinical correlation was noted. [Id.] Ohmer
was ordered physical therapy at Baptist hospital in Corbin, and was to return within 2-3
months. [Id.] Surgery would be considered if physical therapy did not lead to improvements.
The final medical record from Brooks is dated January 29, 2015 visit. [Tr. at 326]
Brooks noted seeing Ohmer previously with some consideration for surgery, but “he did not
follow through with the appropriate diagnostic studies and/or physical therapy.” [Id.] He
ordered confirmatory studies. [Id.] Ohmer testified during the administrative hearing that he
had yet to proceed with the studies, and that Brooks would not consider any other modalities,
including surgery, absent Ohmer’s compliance. [Tr. at 17]
Finally, Ohmer visited Family Health Care Associates on January 6, 2015, “to establish
[a] PCP.” [Tr. 321] Ohmer complained of malaise and fatigue, right leg pain, saying his leg
hurt when he walked and his feet stay cold, GERD, and allergies. [Id.] Tests were ordered,
including a venous doppler of lower extremity. [Tr. at 324]
Radiology Reports from St. Elizabeth Hospital on March 3, 2015, conclude Ohmer’s
medical records. [Tr. at 331-333] The MRI impressions report degenerative disc changes at
the lower 2 lumbar levels with facet atrophy. [Tr. at 332] Mild central left paracentral thecal
sac indentation secondary to focal disc protrusion at L4-L5 is noted as creating some narrowing
of the left lateral ramus which could encroach on the descending left L5 nerve root. [Id.] The
neural foramen were patent, and facet anthropathy was prominent the lower 3 lumbar levels.
ALJ Nicholas Walter issued a decision on April 29, 2015, finding that Ohmer has not
been under a disability since June 5, 2013 (the date of his application). [Tr. at 24] ALJ Walter
found that Ohmer suffers from degenerative disc disease, personality disorder, anxiety, and
affective disorder. [Tr. at 13] However, these impairments were not found to meet or equal a
listed impairment. [Id.] Specifically, the ALJ found that the attendant signs, symptoms, and
laboratory findings did not satisfy the severity requirements of listing 1.04—Disorders of the
Spine. [Id.] The ALJ considered the following mental disorders: 12.04—Depressive, Bipolar
and Related Disorders; 12.06—Anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders; and 12.08—
Personality and Impulse-Control Disorders. [Id.] The “paragraph B” criteria of each of the
mental disorders require extreme limitation of one or marked limitation of two of the listed
areas of mental functioning. The ALJ found that Ohmer has mild restrictions in daily living,
but that nothing in the record suggested that he is incapable of performing the primary
functions of daily living. [Tr. at 14]
Ohmer noted in a pre-hearing report that he “tries to help around the house and can
prepare his own meals, such as simple recipes, soup, and sandwich.” [Tr. at 14, 214] However,
ALJ Walter found that claimant’s leaving the majority of household chores to his daughter-inlaw appeared to be more a matter of custom than necessity. [Tr. at 14] Ohmer also was able
to manage his personal care and grooming help his nephew prepare for school. [Id.] Further,
the claimant reported activities such as changing a tire and lifting a desk. [Id.]
The ALJ found moderate difficulties with social functioning. [Tr. at 14] He noted
Ohmer’s lack of close friends or social engagement, but also pointed to Ohmer’s repeated
incarceration as a possible cause for interfering with personal bonds. [Id.] ALJ Walter noted
no reports of problems with fellow inmates during Ohmer’s 12 years of incarceration, and
medical records all supported Ohmer’s ability to interact well in public domains such as
medical facilities. [Id.]
Moderate difficulties were also noted regarding concentration, persistence, and pace.
[Tr. at 14] The ALJ reported minimal recreational activities, such as watching television and
listening to radio. [Id.] However, Ohmer reported whittling/woodworking as a hobby, which
requires the ability to sustain a repetitive activity. [Id.] Ohmer also indicated that his nephews
were teaching him how to use a computer, that he had no problems paying bills and counting
change, and that he did not have difficulty paying attention or following spoken instructions.
[Id.] For these reasons, including Ohmer’s ability to understand the administrative hearing
proceedings, the ALJ found Ohmer to have no more than moderate difficulties with
concentration, persistence, or pace. [Id.]
Accordingly, the ALJ found that Ohmer’s limitations do not meet the “paragraph B”
criteria. [Tr. at 14] The ALJ also found that that Ohmer’s limitations do not satisfy listing
12.04 and 12.06’s “paragraph C” criteria. [Id.] As a result, the ALJ concluded that Ohmer
does not meet a mental disorder listing.
ALJ Walter found that claimant’s medically determinable impairments could
reasonably be expected to cause the claimant’s alleged symptoms. [Tr. at 15] However, he
determined that the claimant’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting
effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible[.]” [Id.] He found that Ohmer’s credibility
is eroded because of inconsistencies in the record (such as competing stories of the cause of
the 2010 injury, reporting to some that it happened while lifting a desk, and to others while
changing a tire), and noted that Ohmer’s treatment has been conservative in nature. [Tr. at 21]
Ohmer did not follow up with treatment and physical therapy, including after a drug screening
was ordered. [Id.] Recent MRIs revealed only minor severity of encroachments of the spinal
cord, and clinical examinations were generally unremarkable. [Id.] Finally, Ohmer had not
previously established treatment with a primary care source to obtain chronic pain medication,
and neither had he visited the emergency room to seek pain treatment. [Id.] Ohmer reported
numerous slip and fall or walk and fall incidents, but there is no evidence of acute injury or his
seeking care afterwards. [Id.] And there are inconsistencies with reports of difficulty with
Ohmer performed light work while incarcerated, including cleaning microwaves and
dust mopping floors. [Tr. at 43-44] Records from the halfway house where Ohmer was living
suggest that he was working on a horse farm and recycling garbage. [Tr. at 16, 302] These
activities, together with Ohmer’s use of a top bunk, was viewed as further evidence that
discredited his subjective allegations of pain. [Tr. at 22, 297]
Under the Act, a “disability” is defined as “the inability to engage in ‘substantial gainful
activity’ because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment of at least one
year’s expected duration.” Cruse v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 502 F.3d 532, 539 (6th Cir. 2007)
(citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). A claimant’s Social Security disability determination is
made by an ALJ in accordance with “a five-step ‘sequential evaluation process.’” Combs v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 459 F.3d 640, 642 (6th Cir. 2006) (en banc) (quoting 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)). If the claimant satisfies the first four steps of the process, the burden shifts
to the Commissioner with respect to the fifth step. See Jones v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d
469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003).
A claimant must first demonstrate that he is not engaged in substantial gainful
employment at the time of the disability application. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). Second, the
claimant must show that he suffers from a severe impairment or a combination of impairments.
20 C.F.R. § 416.1520(c).
Third, if the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful
employment and has a severe impairment which is expected to last for at least twelve months
and which meets or equals a listed impairment, he will be considered disabled without regard
to age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). Fourth, if the claimant has a
severe impairment but the Commissioner cannot make a determination of the disability based
on medical evaluations and current work activity, the Commissioner will review the claimant’s
residual functional activity (“RFC”) and relevant past work to determine whether he can
perform his past work. If he can, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f).
Under the fifth step of the analysis, if the claimant’s impairments prevent him from
doing past work, the Commissioner will consider his RFC, age, education, and past work
experience to determine whether he can perform other work. If he cannot perform other work,
the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled.
20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g).
Commissioner has the burden of proof only on ‘the fifth step, proving that there is work
available in the economy that the claimant can perform.’” White v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 312
F. App’x 779, 785 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Her v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 391 (6th
A court reviewing a denial of Social Security benefits must only determine whether the
ALJ’s findings were supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards
were applied. Rogers v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007). Substantial
evidence is such relevant evidence as reasonable minds might accept as sufficient to support
the conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d
506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007). The Commissioner’s findings are conclusive if they are supported
by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
The ALJ did not err in Discounting Ohmer’s Credibility.
Ohmer contends that the ALJ erroneously discounted his credibility. He argues that
the medical evidence provides an objective medical reason for his leg and back pain.
According to Ohmer, both psychological evaluations establish that he has a significant
psychological diagnosis. He points to the radiology reports, and recounts the findings of
psychological examiner Perry. Further, Ohmer notes that he was sent to live with another
family as a child due to his trouble in school, had a history of fighting while growing up, and
has been married three times.
A claimant’s subjective complaints of pain or other symptoms cannot alone establish a
disability. 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(a). An ALJ must consider inconsistencies in the evidence. 20
C.F.R. § 416.929(c)(4). And the absence of sufficient objective medical evidence makes
credibility determinations particularly relevant. Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525,
531 (6th Cir. 1997). “[T]his court will generally defer to the Commissioner’s [credibility]
assessment when it is supported by an adequate basis.” Id. (citing Blacha v. Sec'y of Health &
Human Servs., 927 F.2d 228, 230 (6th Cir. 1990)).
The ALJ found that the objective medical evidence supports a finding of degenerative
disc disease, but the evidence of symptoms was insufficient to meet listing 1.04—Disorders of
the Spine. [Tr. at 13] Specifically, the credibility of Ohmer’s pain allegations is eroded
because of inconsistencies in the record (such as competing stories of the cause of the 2010
injury, reporting to some that it happened while lifting a desk, and to others while changing a
tire), inconsistent reports of difficulty with ambulation, and the conservative nature of Ohmer’s
treatment. [Tr. at 21] Ohmer did not follow up with treatment and physical therapy, including
after a drug screening was ordered. [Id.] Ohmer reported numerous slip and fall or walk and
fall incidents, but there is no evidence of acute injury or his seeking care afterwards. [Id.] He
has never visited the emergency room for pain treatment, despite having no treating PCP. [Tr.
at 21-22] Moreover, during incarceration, Ohmer performed light work, slept in a top bunk,
and was working on a horse farm and recycling garbage. [Tr. at 22, 302]
Despite discrediting Ohmer’s assertions of symptoms, the ALJ found Ohmer capable
of light exertion work, contrary to the state agency’s assessment of medium ability. [Tr. at 22]
Regarding mental impairment, no treating, examining, or consulting expert indicated that
Ohmer was subject to marked limitations. In fact, the ALJ’s assessment of limitations on
interactions with the general public and supervisors are consistent with those of psychological
examiner Catt. The ALJ did not err in discounting Ohmer’s credibility, and his decision
regarding this issue is supported by substantial evidence.
No Bias was Exhibited by Failing to Present a Sedentary Hypothetical.
Ohmer contends that the ALJ erred by not presenting a hypothetical to the vocational
expert (“VE”) regarding the sedentary level of exertion. He argues that the failure to present
a sedentary hypothetical shows the ALJ’s bias against awarding benefits. This claim is
To be sure, the ALJ acknowledged during the hearing that he would normally ask a
hypothetical regarding sedentary, but was not doing so here. [Tr. at 60] But his reason was
obvious—given the claimant’s age and education, the sedentary level of exertion would
present “a grid situation that would dictate a favorable outcome.” [Id.] The ALJ considered
the import of a sedentary finding, and a VE hypothetical was pointless.
The ALJ’s Decision is Supported by Substantial Evidence.
Ohmer presents a conclusory argument that he should have been found incapable of
even sedentary work, and that his RFC was improperly calculated. Of course, a mere sedentary
finding would dictate a favorable outcome.
And Ohmer offers no further explanation
regarding why his RFC was improperly calculated. The Court need not explore issues raised
in a “perfunctory manner, unaccompanied by some effort at developed argumentation.”
United States v. Elder, 90 F.3d 1110, 1118 (6th Cir. 1996). But as outlined above, the ALJ’s
calculation of Ohmer’s RFC is supported by substantial evidence.
The ALJ did not err in discounting Ohmer’s credibility and his decision regarding this
issue is supported by substantial evidence. Next, the ALJ’s determination not to present a
sedentary hypothetical to the Vocational Expert does not establish or demonstrate bias on his
part. Finally, the ALJ’s determination regarding Ohmer’s RFC is supported by substantial
evidence. Accordingly, it is hereby
ORDERED as follows:
Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Record No.
15] is GRANTED.
Plaintiff Phillip Ohmer’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Record No. 13] is
The administrative decision of the Administrative Law Judge will be
AFFIRMED by a separate judgment entered this date.
This 20th day of March, 2017.
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