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Dyer v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maine

April 28, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant


          JOHN H. RICH III, Magistrate Judge.

         This Social Security Disability ("SSD") appeal raises the question of whether the administrative law judge supportably found the plaintiff capable of performing past relevant work as a delivery driver. The plaintiff seeks remand on the bases that the administrative law judge erred in weighing the medical opinion evidence and in assessing his credibility. See Plaintiff's Statement of Errors ("Statement of Errors") (ECF No. 15-1), attached to Fact Sheet for Social Security Appeals: Plaintiff (ECF No. 15), at 2-7. I affirm the commissioner's decision.

         Pursuant to the commissioner's sequential evaluation process, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Goodermote v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 690 F.2d 5, 6 (1st Cir. 1982), the administrative law judge found, in relevant part, that the plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017, Finding 1, Record at 11; that he had a severe impairment of Addison's disease, Finding 3, id.; that he retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the full range of medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c), Finding 5, id. at 13; that he was capable of performing past relevant work as a delivery driver, which did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by his RFC, Finding 6, id. at 14; and that he, therefore, had not been disabled from October 15, 2012, his alleged onset date of disability, through the date of the decision, November 25, 2014, Finding 7, id. at 15. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision, id. at 1-3, making the decision the final determination of the commissioner, 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Dupuis v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 869 F.2d 622, 623 (1st Cir. 1989).

         The standard of review of the commissioner's decision is whether the determination made is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Manso-Pizarro v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 76 F.3d 15, 16 (1st Cir. 1996). In other words, the determination must be supported by such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion drawn. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Rodriguez v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981).

         The administrative law judge reached Step 4 of the sequential evaluation process, at which stage the claimant bears the burden of proving inability to return to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). At this step, the commissioner must make findings of the plaintiff's RFC and the physical and mental demands of past work and determine whether the plaintiff's RFC would permit performance of that work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f); Social Security Ruling 82-62 ("SSR 82-62"), reprinted in West's Social Security Reporting Service Rulings 1975-1982, at 813.

         I. Discussion

         A. Weighing of Medical Opinions

         The administrative law judge explained that, in assessing the plaintiff's RFC, she gave "great weight" to the opinions of agency nonexamining consultants J.H. Hall, M.D., and Lawrence P. Johnson, M.D., and treating physician S. Thomas Bigos, M.D., because they were "supported by substantial evidence[, ]" and "[l]ittle weight" to the opinions of agency examining consultant Robert N. Phelps Jr., M.D., and treating nurse practitioner Stacia K. St. John, N.P., because "the medical evidence d[id] not support their assessments of the [plaintiff's] limitations." Record at 14 (citations omitted); see also id. at 59-61 (Hall), 71-73 (Johnson), 519-23 (Phelps), 595-96 (Bigos), 607-10 (St. John).

         In a report dated February 13, 2014, Dr. Phelps stated, inter alia, that the plaintiff's ability to lift and carry occasionally was markedly limited, his ability to lift and carry frequently was severely limited, his ability to stand or walk was moderately to markedly limited, he required a hand-held assistive device to ambulate, his ability to push and/or pull was markedly limited at the right shoulder and left lower extremity and mildly limited at the right lower extremity, and he had no ability to bend, climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, or reach on the right. See id. at 522-23.

         Dr. Phelps explained that those limitations were based on (i) mildly limited cervical extension, (ii) the plaintiff's reported history of right shoulder dislocation with ongoing episodes of subluxing or possibly dislocation, together with a finding of snapping on examination, (iii) the plaintiff's reported history of increased back pain, together with findings on examination of marked thoracic kyphosis and limited side bending and extension, (iv) the plaintiff's reported history of bilateral hip pain, popping right hip, and increased pain with long strides and abduction, together with findings on examination of increased left hip pain on strength testing and right hip pain on full flexion, and (v) the plaintiff's reported history of left knee injury, pain, swelling, the use of a knee support and cane, and difficulties driving, walking on uneven ground and stair climbing, together with findings on examination of left knee pain on straight leg raising, left thigh and calf atrophy, and a mild varus deformity. See id. at 523.

         In a physical RFC opinion dated September 19, 2014, St. John indicated, inter alia, that the plaintiff could only occasionally lift/carry 10 pounds or less and rarely lift/carry 15 pounds or more, needed to lie down or recline for about three hours of an eight-hour workday due to fatigue and stress, could sit for only about five hours and stand/walk for only about an hour in an eighthour workday, would need daily unscheduled breaks, and frequently experienced pain and/or stress severe enough to interfere with his attention and concentration. See id. at 608-09. She stated that the plaintiff was diagnosed with Addison's disease, hypothyroidism, anemia, gastritis, and gastroparesis, and had symptoms of nausea, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, and pain in the knees, hips, and back. See id. at 607.

         Drs. Hall and Johnson, in physical RFC assessments dated February 20, 2014, and April 17, 2014, respectively, each found the plaintiff capable of lifting/carrying up to 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, standing and/or walking for about six hours in an eighthour workday, and sitting for about six hours in an eight-hour workday. See id. at 60, 72. They indicated that, in light of the plaintiff's Addison's disease, it would be best to avoid heavy lifting, but his knee complaints did not seem limiting in that he was able to do cardio and weight exercise. See id. They noted that his hypothyroidism was not limiting, that no hip impairment was documented, and that he biked and jogged. See id. at 60, 73. They disagreed with the limitations set forth by Dr. Phelps, explaining that his opinion relied heavily on the plaintiff's subjective report of symptoms and limitations, was not supported by the totality of the evidence, and was "an overestimate of the severity of the [plaintiff's] restrictions/limitations and based only on a snapshot of [his] functioning." Id. at 61, 73.

         In a note dated July 31, 2014, Dr. Bigos, the plaintiff's treating endocrinologist, stated that he had declined to fill out Social Security disability paperwork for the plaintiff, explaining that "his endocrine diagnoses would not place him in a permanently disabled category since it would be expected that compliance with a replacement program of endocrine therapy would restore him to both a euthyroid and euadrenal state in which case there would only be very exceptional occupations for which he would be considered disabled." Id. at 595. He provided, as examples of "types of work that an endocrinologically restored person would be able to perform[, ]" clerical work, manual labor, truck driving, and working as a mail carrier, teacher, or other professional. Id. at 595-96.

         The plaintiff acknowledges that St. John, a nurse practitioner, is not an acceptable medical source as defined by Social Security regulations. See Statement of Errors at 3; see also, e.g., 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2) (defining "medical opinions" as "statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of your impairment(s), including your symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what you can still do despite impairment(s), and your physical or ...

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