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Dickson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 1, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal from the Commissioner's denial of Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”). (Doc. 1.) Plaintiff protectively filed an application on October 2, 2014, alleging disability beginning on April 22, 2010. (R. 10.) After Plaintiff appealed the initial January 12, 2015, denial of the claim, a hearing was held by Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Daniel Balutis on October 20, 2016. (Id.) ALJ Balutis issued his Decision on November 7, 2016, concluding that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act (“Act”) through December 31, 2015, the date last insured. (R. 22.) Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision which the Appeals Council denied on July 6, 2017. (R. 1-6.) In doing so, the ALJ's decision became the decision of the Acting Commissioner. (R. 1.)

         Plaintiff filed this action on September 6, 2017. (Doc. 1.) He asserts in his supporting brief that the Acting Commissioner's determination is error for the following reasons: 1) substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's decision that Plaintiff was capable of sustained gainful employment; 2) the ALJ substituted his own medical conclusions in that he failed to give proper weight to the objective evidence and treating providers' opinions; and 3) the ALJ did not adequately explain or document his findings that the Plaintiff's testimony and that of his wife were not fully credible. (Doc. 11 at 5.) For the reasons discussed below, the Court concludes Plaintiff's appeal is properly denied.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff was born on November 24, 1965. (R. 21.) He has a high school education and past relevant work as a clamp truck driver, truck loader/unloader, and delivery route driver. (Id.) Plaintiff alleged that his inability to work was limited by lower back, herniated disc, pinched nerve, nerve damage, anxiety, and panic attacks. (R. 198.)

         In his supporting brief (Doc. 11), Plaintiff does not provide a factual background with citation to medical evidence of record. Rather, he references testimony presented at the ALJ hearing by Plaintiff and his wife. (Doc. 11 at 2-4.) Thus, the Court will provide a brief general background of the case and review relevant evidence of record in the context of the arguments presented.

         Plaintiff testified that he last worked on April 10, 2010. (R. 70.) He was hurt on the job when he bent down and rolled up a rug. (R. 70-71.) Plaintiff filed a workers' compensation claim and eventually settled the case. (R. 70.) He generally references “objective evidence of the presence of pain generators in Plaintiff's lumbar, cervical and brain” (Doc. 11 at 3), and points specifically to a disc herniation of the lumbar spine at ¶ 4-5, disc herniations at ¶ 5-6 and C6-7 that led to cervical fusion surgery on November 11, 2015, and the diagnosis of brain aneurysms in July 2015. (Id.) ALJ Balutis summarized Plaintiff's claims as follows:

The claimant relates problems lifting, squatting, bending, standing, reaching, walking, sitting, kneeling, using his hands and climbing stairs. He has sharp pain in his left leg, back, left arm and shoulder. The pain increases when he bends, sits or stands for long periods of time. He can only lift about five pounds. He is able to walk fifty yards but then needs to rest for a couple minutes. The claimant's medication makes him tired. The claimant tried using a brace and attended physical therapy. However, neither treatment modality was effective in reducing his pain level. During the day, the claimant prepares simple meals, occasionally helps with the laundry, and goes outside every day. He is able to drive a car. He shops in the store a couple of times a week for small items. The claimant watches sports but can no longer participate in playing sports or volunteer as a fire fighter. (Exhibit 3E)
At the hearing, the claimant testified he had an on the job accident and injured the left side of his body, including his fingers, arm, hip and leg. He states his pain is 8/10 on the scale but medication reduces it to 6/10. After surgery, the claimant said he could walk about fifty feet or five to ten minutes before he developed an increase in pain forcing him to sit and rest for ten to fifteen minutes. After standing five minutes he would develop numbness and need to sit and rest. He could sit for ten minutes and then would need to change his position for ten to fifteen minutes. The claimant ambulates with a cane. He could lift five pounds but ten pounds would cause burning in his shoulder leg and arm. He is right hand dominant but has difficultly using his left hand. While he is able to grab objects like a pencil and pen, he cannot hold a coffee cup. In addition, he cannot pinch or turn a doorknob. The claimant said that in December 2015 he could bend, stoop and squat. He could climb one flight of stairs but he would have pain down his left side, especially in his hips.
As for his aneurysm, the claimant said he can read ten minutes but then gets dizzy and lightheaded. He watches a couple of hours of television per day. The claimant said that in 2015 he was attending church twice a year. He got about three to four hours of sleep. He took half an hour naps. The claimant requested a cane because he had fallen. (Testimony)

(R. 16.)

         In his November 2017 Decision, ALJ Balutis determined that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: chronic L5 radiculopathy; C5-C6, C6-C7 disc herniation status post anterior discectomy with fusion and plating at ¶ 5 through C7; unruptured left middle cerebral artery aneurysm; status post left fronto-temporal craniotomy, round right ICA bifurcation aneurysm; and bilateral osteoarthritis of the knees. (R. 12.) The ALJ concluded that additional impairments in the record were non-severe including panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. (Id.) He concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. 14.) ALJ Balutis found that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work

except the claimant should be afforded the option to alternate to stand for five minutes after thirty minutes of sitting and sit for five minutes after thirty minutes of standing or walking. He could frequently reach overhead bilaterally and in all other directions, and frequently finger and feel with his left, non-dominant hand. The claimant could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, kneel, stoop, and crouch. He should never crawl or climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds. The claimant is limited to reading ordinary newspaper or book print. He should avoid exposure to unprotected heights or moving, mechanical parts.

(R. 15.) With this RFC, ALJ Balutis concluded that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work but jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy which he could perform. (R. 20-21.) On this basis, he determined Plaintiff had not been under a disability as defined in the Act from April 22, 2010, through December 31, 2015, the date last insured. (R. 22.)

         II. Disability Determination Process

         The Commissioner is required to use a five-step analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled.[1] It is necessary for the Commissioner to ascertain: 1) whether the applicant is engaged in a substantial activity; 2) whether the applicant is severely impaired; 3) whether the impairment matches or is equal to the requirements of one of the listed impairments, whereby he qualifies for benefits without further inquiry; 4) whether the claimant can perform his past work; 5) whether the claimant's impairment together with his age, education, and past work experiences preclude him from doing any other sort of work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b)-(g), 416.920(b)-(g); see Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 110 S.Ct. 885, 888-89 (1990).

         If the impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ makes a finding about the claimant's residual functional capacity based on all the relevant medical evidence and other evidence in the case record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); 416.920(e). The residual functional capacity ...

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