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Brown v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 27, 2017

JAMES BROWN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Introduction

         This is an unusual Social Security appeal. The claimant, James Brown, apparently ceased working a nearly a decade ago in 2008. Consequently, Brown's date last insured, which defined the limits of his eligibility for Social Security benefits, was December 31, 2011. In this case, Brown claimed to have been disabled due to gout and cervical and lumbar spine problems, and alleged that the onset of his disability was July of 2011. Thus, the instant disability claim entails a consideration of Brown's physical condition during a narrow window of time, the six month period from July through December 2011.

         As to this specific time frame, Brown produced very little evidence of any medical impairments. Quite the contrary, Brown's evidence of disability almost entirely related to medical complications which he experienced years after his Social Security disability eligibility expired. In fact, at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearing conducted in this case, Brown testified under oath that he was relatively able-bodied in 2011, and was able to engage in strenuous lawn maintenance and walk considerable distances with his grandchildren at that time. Thus, Brown's sworn testimony seemed to undermine his claim of disability during the Summer and Fall of 2011.

         Presented with this paucity of proof, the Administrative Law Judge concluded at Step 2 of the five-step sequential analysis which applies to Social Security disability cases that Brown had not carried his burden of proof that he suffered from medically determinable and severe impairments in the Autumn of 2011; that is, “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [Brown's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (c). Having made this determination, the ALJ denied Brown's application at Step 2, and did not proceed further through this 5-step sequential analysis.

         This appeal followed, but followed in a fashion which did not address the ALJ's actual decision. Thus, on appeal Brown does not question, dispute or even discuss the ALJ's Step 2 analysis, the sole basis for the ALJ's decision. Instead, paradoxically, Brown argues matters not addressed or decided by the ALJ devoting his brief entirely to an assessment of Brown's claims at Steps 3 and 5, analytical steps that were never reached by the ALJ. On these unusual facts, for the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.

         II. Statement of Facts and of the Case

         On March 15, 2013, James Brown applied for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 13.) In his application for benefits Brown initially alleged an onset of disability in January of 2008, a date which corresponded with the last time that Brown engaged in any reported work. (Id.) Brown subsequently amended this alleged date of onset to July 8, 2011. (Id.)

         Because Brown had not reported work at all during the five years prior to his March 2013 disability application, Brown's date last insured for purposes of Social Security disability eligibility was determined to be December 31, 2011. (Tr. 15.) Thus, Brown's disability application involved an assessment of the disabling effects of any physical impairments during a narrow, specific and limited period of time-July 8, 2011 through December 31, 2011.

         Brown's disability application claimed that the plaintiff was wholly disabled during this time primarily due to degenerative disorders of the cervical and lumbar spine, along with gout. (Id.) However, with respect to these presenting medical conditions, the evidence provided by Brown relating to the severity of these conditions during his six month period of eligibility in the Summer and Fall of 2011 was both sparse and largely contradicted his claim of disability at that time. For example, at the ALJ hearing conducted in this case in July of 2015 Brown appeared and testified that in 2011 he could “still mow my yard all in one shot” and perform “some weed whacking.” (Tr. 32.) Brown also stated under oath that in 2011 he was “able to walk my grandsons up over the hill”, (Tr. 33), walks that Brown undertook “without much of a problem” and walks that he estimated took “probably 30 minutes.” (Id.) Thus, Brown described himself as physically active and largely able-bodied in 2011, the relevant time period for this disability determination.

         Moreover, in work activity and disability reports which Brown submitted to Social Security the plaintiff made it clear that the actual onset of his disabling back pain occurred years after his date late insured in December 2011. Thus, Brown and his wife both reported that these conditions became disabling in September of 2013, long after his Social Security eligibility had expired, (Tr. 178-79), and indicated that he had not even begun to regularly seek treatment for these conditions until 2012. (Tr. 172-185.) Thus, Brown's own reports indicated that he was capable of performing significant physical activity in 2011, but that his physical capabilities then declined over the following two years.

         The sporadic medical records that Brown produced also provided scant support for Brown's claims that he was wholly disabled due to this gout and back condition in the Summer and Fall of 2011. For example, chiropractor records for the relevant period reflected only episodic treatment, and stated that Brown engaged in strenuous activity, reportedly “splitting wood” as late as February of 2012. (Tr. 276-92, and 282.) Contemporaneous medical records from Brown's primary care physician also failed to document any severe spinal conditions. Instead, these medical records indicated that Brown did not seek any medical care between June 13, 2011 and January 2012. (Tr. 375-76.) In the Spring of 2011 when Brown sought medical care, that care was for routine treatment of an earache, sinus infection, an episode of gout, and chest pain. However, these medical records also revealed that Brown had not sought medical care for any conditions for at least three years between 2008 and 2011 prior to these routine medical appointments in the Spring of 2011. (Tr. 375-92.)

         It was against the backdrop of this sparse medical record that the ALJ conducted hearings concerning Brown's disability application in March and July of 2015. (Tr. 24-57.) At these hearings Brown testified describing his level of physical activity in 2011 in terms that were inconsistent with a claim of total disability. Thus, Brown stated that he could “still mow my yard all in one shot;” perform “some weed whacking;” (Tr. 32); and was “able to walk my grandsons up over the hill”, (Tr. 33), walks that Brown undertook “without much of a problem” even though these walks took “probably 30 minutes.” (Id.)

         On July 17, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Brown's application for benefits. (Tr. 13-19.) In this decision, the ALJ first noted that Brown's alleged date of onset of disability was July 8, 2011, (Tr. 13), and found that Brown's date last insured was December 31, 2011. (Tr. 15.) Having determined that Brown's period of benefit eligibility was limited to this six month time frame in the latter half of 2011, at Step 2 of this sequential analysis the ALJ found that Brown had the following medically determinable impairments: cervical and lumbar spine disorders and gout. (Tr. 15.) The ALJ concluded at Step 2, however, that none of these medically determinable conditions significantly limited Brown's ...

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