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Patton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

October 12, 2017

GINGER PATTON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Nealon Judge

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Introduction

         In the instant case we are called upon to review a decision by a Social Security Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) that denied disability benefits to the plaintiff, Ginger Patton. At the time of her disability application, Ms. Patton was in her mid-40s, and claimed that she was wholly disabled due to lumbar disc disease and accompanying numbness and loss of sensation in her right leg and foot. Ms. Patton presented no medical opinion evidence supporting her claim of total and permanent disability, and there was countervailing opinion and clinical evidence which supported the opinion of the ALJ that Ms. Patton retained the residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work. In particular, this evidence revealed that Ms. Patton's condition had improved significantly following lumbar surgery conducted in April of 2014, to a degree where substantial evidence indicated that she could now move and walk without pain or assistance.

         Notwithstanding the evidentiary shortcomings in her presentation before the ALJ, Ms. Patton has appealed this adverse disability determination arguing: (1) that the ALJ erred in failing to find that she was per se disabled at Step 3 of the 5-step sequential process that governs Social Security disability claims; and (2) asserting that the ALJ's determination that she could perform a limited range of light work was factually unsupported in the administrative record. Given the deferential standard of review that applies to Social Security Appeals, which calls upon us to simply determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings, we conclude that the ALJ's residual functional capacity determination in this case, and the decision that Patton was not disabled which flowed from that assessment of the medical evidence, are supported by substantial evidence. We also conclude that ample evidence supported the ALJ's Step 3 determination that Ms. Patton's medical condition was not per se disabling. Therefore, for the reasons set forth below, we recommend that the district court affirm the decision of the Commissioner in this case.

         II. Statement of Facts and of the Case

         A. Ginger Patton's Medical History

         Ginger Patton was 41 years old in August of 2011 when she began to experience severe lower back pain along with numbness and a loss of sensation in her right leg following an accident. On January 28, 2014, Patton protectively applied for Social Security Insurance benefits pursuant to Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. (Tr. 106-14.) In her disability application, Patton alleged that her disability beginning August 11, 2011, due to spinal stenosis (Tr. 46), and asserted that her degenerative lumbar spine condition prevented her from performing any job available in the national economy.

         This claim came before the ALJ on a medical record which was mixed, equivocal and sparse in terms of corroborating details supporting this disability claim. Thus, an EMG study conducted on Patton in February of 2014 shortly before Patton underwent spinal surgery revealed no evidence of nerve root impingement or peripheral neuropathy. (Tr. 503.) Moreover, the medical record presented to the ALJ in this case reflected that Patton's medical condition improved significantly following lumbar surgery in April of 2014. In fact, Patton herself acknowledged this significant improvement to her physician stating that “as soon as she stepped out of the hospital [following this April 2014 surgery]: ‘I lit up right away!'” (Tr. 383.) This post-operative medical evidence revealed that by June 2014, following Patton's recovery period from her April 2014 back surgery, she was doing “extremely well.” (Tr. 382, 388-89.) Her spinal nerve root symptoms had resolved (Tr. 382); she walked properly (Tr. 382); her gait, stance, and station were all normal; and she could walk on her heels and toes without difficulty. (Tr. 382.) In fact, her treating physician announced that he was “delighted with her response to surgery” and opined that Patton could possibly regain her driving privileges, which she lost due to having a numb foot. (Tr. 382.) By September of 2014, Patton's pain was reportedly “well controlled” with her medication regimen. (Tr. 317, 320).

         Given these fairly benign medical records, on April 28, 2014, shortly after Patton underwent her back surgery, a state agency physician, Dr. Kurt Haas, opined that Patton was not disabled but could perform sedentary work. (Tr. 46-53.) Notably, there appear to be no countervailing medical opinions suggesting that Patton suffered from a permanent disabling medical condition as a result of her lumbar condition. Instead, the physician who performed Patton's back surgery pronounced himself “delighted with her response to surgery” and stated that she was doing “extremely well.” (Tr. 382, 388-89.)

         B. Agency Administrative Proceedings

         It was against this medical and factual backdrop marked by equivocal and sparse medical evidence that the ALJ conducted a hearing into Patton's disability application on August 6, 2015. (Tr. 25-42.) Patton and a vocational expert both testified at this hearing. (Id.) In the course of this hearing, the ALJ received testimony from the vocational expert identifying an array of jobs at both the sedentary and light exertional levels that Patton might be able to perform. (Id.)

         On September 11, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Patton's application for Social Security benefits. (Tr. 10-24.) In this decision, the ALJ first found that Patton had not engaged in gainful activity since January 28, 2014, the date of her application. (Tr. 15.) At Step 2 of the five-step sequential analysis process that applies to Social Security disability claims, the ALJ concluded that Patton had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and neuropathy. (Tr. 15.) At Steps 3 and 4 of this sequential analysis, the ALJ concluded that none of Patton's impairments met a listing which would define her as per se disabled, (Tr. 15), but determined that Patton could not return to her past relevant work. (Tr. 18.)

         The ALJ then concluded that Patton retained the residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work. (Tr. 16-18.) In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ engaged in a careful analysis of the existing medical reports, which indicated that Patton's condition had improved ...


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