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Hinds v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Utah

March 3, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Dustin B. Pead Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeks judicial review of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying his claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the Act). After review of the record, the parties' briefs, and arguments presented at a hearing held on February 21, 2017, the undersigned concludes that the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and free of harmful legal error. Accordingly, the Commissioner's decision, for the reasons set forth herein, is AFFIRMED.

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the factual findings and whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted). The Court may neither “reweigh the evidence [n]or substitute [its] judgment for the [ALJ's].” Id. (citation omitted). Where the evidence as a whole can support either the agency's decision or an award of benefits, the agency's decision must be affirmed. See Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990).


         In this case, Plaintiff was age 55 on September 30, 2009, his date last insured.[2] He alleged disability beginning June 23, 2009, based on knee injuries, degenerative hip and disc disease, and a left shoulder injury (Tr. 181). He completed the 11th grade and had past relevant work as an executive analyst, property manager, and branch manager (Tr. 182, 193). In evaluating his case, the ALJ followed the familiar five-step sequential evaluation process (Tr. 17-22). See generally 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). As relevant here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments of degenerative joint disease of the knees, history of fractured ankle, hepatitis C, and degenerative joint disease, but that his medical conditions did not meet or equal the criteria of the disabling impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (Tr. 17). The ALJ next determined that through his date last insured, Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a reduced range of sedentary to light work (Tr. 18-20). Considering this RFC, the ALJ then found that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a branch manager, and thus, was not disabled under the strict standards of the Act (Tr. 20-22). After a careful review of the record, the Court finds and concludes that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.

         I. The ALJ reasonably evaluated Plaintiff's spinal impairments.

         First, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ “neglected to discuss” his degenerative disc disease, foraminal stenosis, and bulging discs at step two of the sequential evaluation process (Plaintiff's Brief (Pl. Br.) 12-14). Nonetheless, the Court finds that any alleged error was harmless, as Plaintiff has failed to show that it affected the ultimate outcome of his case. See Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 408-09 (2009) (rejecting a legal framework that would “prevent the reviewing court from directly asking the harmless-error question, ” and that would justify “reversing for error regardless of its effect on the judgment”) (citation and internal quotes omitted)).

         The ALJ did not find that Plaintiff's spinal degenerative disc disease was a severe impairment at step two of the sequential evaluation process (Tr. 17). This conclusion was supported by medical expert Dr. Rubin who reviewed Plaintiff's March 2009 MRI during the administrative hearing and concluded that it showed only “mild to moderate bulging” (Tr. 53; see Tr. 488-89).[3] Dr. Rubin testified that, despite his spinal and knee impairments, Plaintiff would remain able to stand for two to three hours in an eight-hour period (Tr. 54-55). Furthermore, both state agency physicians reviewed Plaintiff's medical records, including the MRI, and opined that Plaintiff retained physical abilities consistent with light work, including the ability to stand and/or walk for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday (Tr. 82-84, 94). Further, the ALJ gave Plaintiff the benefit of the doubt in finding that he was more limited than indicated by these opinions and restricting him to a range of light to sedentary work (Tr. 18). Thus, the Court concludes that the ALJ's RFC assessment was consistent with the medical source opinions, and Plaintiff fails to demonstrate that the medical evidence supported any additional limitations based on degenerative disc disease. See Fischer-Ross v. Barnhart, 431 F.3d 729, 735 (10th Cir. 2005).

         II. The ALJ reasonably evaluated the medical source opinions.

         Plaintiff next asserts that the ALJ should have given more weight to the restrictions assigned by treating physician Lonnie Paolos, M.D., in June and August of 2005 (Pl. Br. 15-18). However, because the ALJ in this case reasonably weighed all of the medical source opinions, his treatment of these opinions does not support Plaintiff's request for remand. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527.

         In June 2005 (four years prior to Plaintiff's alleged disability onset date), Dr. Paolos completed a Workers Compensation Form indicating that Plaintiff was limited to lifting 20 pounds; should avoid deep knee bending, squatting, kneeling, crawling, climbing stairs and ladders; and should not do any “prolonged standing or walking on hard surfaces” (Tr. 326). In August 2005, Dr. Paolos stated that these limitations were permanent (Tr. 322-23). The ALJ considered these opinions and assigned them “some” weight (Tr. 19). Indeed, consistent with Dr. Paolos's opinions, the ALJ limited Plaintiff to lifting no more than 20 pounds (Tr. 18). And, although Dr. Paolos did not specifically indicate how long Plaintiff would be able to stand or walk at one time, the ALJ limited him to standing and walking no more than three hours in an eight-hour workday, which is generally consistent with the restriction to “no prolonged standing or walking” (Tr. 18). The ALJ, however, found that Plaintiff had slightly greater abilities than indicated by Dr. Paolos, and limited him to occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and climbing ramps and stairs (Tr. 18). The ALJ's findings are consistent with the medical evidence before and during the relevant period, which demonstrated that Plaintiff retained normal muscle strength, bulk, and tone; normal range of motion; and normal sensory function (Tr. 494, 496, 500-01). The findings are also consistent with the opinions of the state agency physicians (Tr. 82-84, 94). Further, it is the sole province of the ALJ to assess Plaintiff's RFC based upon the record as a whole. See20 C.F.R. § 404.1546(c) (stating an ALJ is responsible for assessing RFC); Howard v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 945, 949 (10th Cir. 2004) (“[T]he ALJ, not a physician, is charged with determining a claimant's RFC from the medical record.”).

         As a result, the Court finds that the ALJ reasonably weighed Dr. Paolos's opinions, and the record as a whole, in concluding that, during the relevant period, Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform a reduced range of sedentary to light work. See Pisciotta v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 1074, 1077-78 (10th Cir. 2007) (finding an ALJ reasonably determined that a treating physician's opinions were not controlling and were entitled to little weight where the record provided “ample support” for the ALJ's decision, even though the ALJ did not discuss all the evidence which the court found supported his decision).

         III. The ALJ reasonably weighed Plaintiff's wife's testimony regarding his symptoms.

         Plaintiff also asserts that the ALJ did not provide adequate reasons for discounting his wife's testimony regarding his symptoms (Pl. Br. 18-21).[4] In a related claim, Plaintiff complains that the ALJ did not make a “meaningful inquiry” into his limitations during the administrative hearing at which Plaintiff's wife testified on his behalf (Pl. Br. 21-22). As a preliminary matter, the Court notes that Plaintiff's wife was represented by counsel at the administrative hearing (Tr. 27). At the hearing, the ALJ asked Plaintiff's wife to testify regarding Plaintiff's impairments during 2009 and, while she provided limited information, a failure to provide more information or identify other issues cannot be attributed to the ALJ. See Glass v. Shalala, 43 F.3d 1392, 1396 (10th Cir. 1994) (while the ALJ has a basic obligation to ...

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