United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
WILLIAM D. BRYANT, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
TERRENCE F. McVERRY, Senior District Judge.
William D. Bryant ("Plaintiff") brought this action, pro se, for judicial review of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Acting Commissioner"), which denied his applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403, 1381-1383(f). The Acting Commissioner has filed a motion for summary judgment, to which Plaintiff has filed a response. (ECF Nos. 7, 9). Accordingly, the Acting Commissioner's motion is ripe for adjudication, and, for the following reasons, said motion will be GRANTED.
Plaintiff was born on September 9, 1951. (R. 39). He graduated from high school and attended one year of college. (R. 212). He has past relevant work experience as a customer service representative, construction supervisor, general laborer, and car salesman. (R. 28). However, he has not worked since March 31, 2008, when he was laid off from his customer service job. (R. 39-40). Plaintiff's date last insured ("DLI") for the purposes of DIB was March 31, 2010. (R. 37).
A. Procedural History
Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on June 23, 2011, and an application for SSI on June 24, 2011, in which he alleged disability as of March 31, 2008, due to degenerative disc disease, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. (R. 184-92, 211). Plaintiff's claims were denied at the administrative level. (R. 96-103). Thereafter, he filed a written request for a hearing, which was conducted on January 10, 2013, before Administrative Law Judge Guy Coster ("ALJ"). Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing, as did an impartial vocational expert ("VE"). (R. 37-75).
On March 6, 2013, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision to Plaintiff. (R. 8-34). In rendering the decision, the ALJ found that prior to Plaintiff's DLI, he had the following impairments: chronic low back pain caused by degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and a remote history of coronary artery disease ("C.A.D."). (R. 13-14). None of these impairments were considered to have been "severe" prior to the expiration of Plaintiff's insured status. (R. 214). As of the date Plaintiff applied for SSI, however, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure had become "severe." (R. 17). Nevertheless, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform sedentary work,  with the following additional limitations: "he should avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes and humidity, " "concentrated exposure to dust and fumes, or poor ventilation, " and he can only occasionally perform postural activities. (R. 17-18). Then, based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that, despite his impairments, Plaintiff could perform the requirements of his past relevant work as a customer service representative. (R. 28). Therefore, the ALJ held, Plaintiff is not disabled under the Act. (R. 29).
The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Acting Commissioner on March 20, 2014, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-5). On May 23, 2014, Plaintiff filed a motion to proceed in forma pauperis, which the Court granted. (ECF Nos. 1-2). Thereafter, his Complaint was filed. (ECF No. 3). The Acting Commissioner's motion for summary judgment, accompanied by a brief in support, then followed. (ECF Nos. 7-8).
B. Medical Evidence
Plaintiff has a number of chronic medical conditions, including diabetes, C.A.D., hypertension, and dyslipidemia, for which he has been receiving treatment for some time. At a height of 6'2" and more than 250 pounds, he is also considered obese. His chief complaint, however, is that his lower back pain prevents him from working. He began to experience back pain in 2004 and it has progressively worsened.
Treatment records from August 2004 through January 2006 document, at various times, complaints of low back pain, which was treated with Tylenol. (R. 546, 548). The Tylenol reportedly helped somewhat. (R. 558). Plaintiff was also referred to physical therapy ("PT") during this time period, but it is unclear whether he ever actually received such treatment. Issues regarding his insurance coverage appear to have prevented him from doing so. (R. 563). X-rays from early 2006 reflected L4-L5 spondylolisthesis. (R. 563). At the time, however, Plaintiff's doctor noted that Tylenol was effectively working for him, and he was advised to continue taking it. (R. 563).
There is relatively little medical evidence in the record during the period from March 31, 2008, through March 31, 2010, which is the relevant time period for DIB. A treatment note from Allegheny Internal Medicine dated March 31, 2008, indicated that Plaintiff's diabetes was uncontrolled, but his hypertension was "at goal." (R. 278). He was noted to be on statin for his C.A.D. (R. 278). It was further noted that Plaintiff had been non-compliant with several of his medications, largely because he was unable to afford to fill his prescriptions for them. (R. 281).
In August 2009, Plaintiff appeared at Allegheny General Internal Medicine to re-establish care. (R. 278). The doctor noted that Plaintiff had been laid off from his job at DirectTV in March 2008 and that his prescriptions had expired. (R. 278). Plaintiff was apparently using a deceased relative's diabetes medication because financial issues affected his capability to refill his prescriptions. (R. 278).
The next treatment records are from July and October 2010. (R. 273-276). In July, it was noted that Plaintiff's diabetes was uncontrolled, but his hypertension was near goal. (R. 275). During this visit, Plaintiff was given a medical assistance form to help him obtain his medications. (R. 275-76). In October, Plaintiff's diabetes was still considered uncontrolled, and he continued to have difficulty obtaining his medications. (R. 274). In addition, he complained of lower back pain, which his doctor said was "most likely [a] muscle spasm, " and shoulder pain, which was thought to be secondary to an old rotator cuff tear. (R. 274).
Also in October 2010, Plaintiff was seen by Dean Sotereanos, M.D., of Allegheny General Hospital, who reported that Plaintiff was "an old patient with a new problem" - specifically, left shoulder pain - "who was last [seen] back in 2004." (R. 284). On examination, he showed full active and passive range of motion, but he had pain over the acromioclavicular joint and with cross arm adduction maneuver. (R. 284). Dr. Sotereanos' diagnosis was left shoulder impingement syndrome, along with acromioclavicular joint osteoarthritis. (R. 284). He recommended conservative treatment of these conditions. (R. 284).
In January 2011, Plaintiff began seeing a new primary care physician ("PCP"), Gopinath Rajupet, M.D. (R. 499). Dr. Rajupet's notes reflect that Plaintiff had been diagnosed with diabetes "more than 15 years ago." (R. 499). Dr. Rajupet also noted that Plaintiff had a history of hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and C.A.D. (R. 499). Furthermore, it was noted that Plaintiff had undergone rotator cuff surgery some years in the past. (R. 500). Plaintiff complained of some tingling in his feet but denied having any sores or swelling. (R. 499). He also complained of back pain, accompanied by stiffness in the morning. (R. 499). He described having to stretch before being able to move, and noted that the pain sometimes radiated to his legs. (R. 499). However, he denied having any weakness in his legs. (R. 499). Upon examination, Plaintiff's range of motion in his back was slightly limited. (R. 500). At the conclusion of the office visit, Dr. Rajupet ordered that Plaintiff undergo back x-rays. (R. 500).
Plaintiff returned to Dr. Rajupet the next month for a follow-up and to review his x-rays, which showed some osteoarthritis. (R. 495). He still complained of back pain. (R. 496). When examined, Plaintiff displayed a limited range of motion in his back (R. 496). Due to Plaintiff's continued complaints, Dr. Rajupet referred him to an orthopedist for a second opinion. (R. 496).
Plaintiff met with orthopedist, Jeffrey Baum, M.D., on March 2, 2011, who reported that Plaintiff had been experiencing back pain for several years and had undergone therapy and taken several different non-steroidal medications, but to no apparent avail. (R. 309). Dr. Baum also reviewed Plaintiff's recent x-rays and confirmed that they showed moderate degenerative changes in the lower lumbar spine. (R. 309). Dr. Baum observed, however, that Plaintiff walked around the room "pretty easily." (R. 309). With respect to Plaintiff's range of motion, Dr. Baum noted that he exhibited some moderate spasm with forward flexion, but that his "[e]xtension [was] not too bad" ...