United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division
OPINION AND ORDER
ROGER B. COSBEY, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff John Damron appeals to the district court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying his application under the Social Security Act (the "Act") for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). (Docket # 1.) For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be AFFIRMED.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Damron applied for DIB in January 2011, alleging disability as of October 14, 2002. (Tr. 105-06.) He was last insured for DIB on December 31, 2008 (Tr. 45); therefore, he must establish that he was disabled as of that date. See Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1154 (7th Cir. 1997) (explaining that a claimant must establish that he was disabled as of his date last insured in order to recover DIB benefits).
The Commissioner denied his application initially and upon reconsideration, and Damron requested an administrative hearing. (Tr. 45-47, 50-53, 60-61.) On April 19, 2012, a hearing was conducted by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Yvonne Stam, at which Damron, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified. (Tr. 25-44.) On May 16, 2012, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Damron, concluding that he was not disabled because despite the limitations caused by his impairment, he could perform a significant number of light, unskilled jobs in the national economy. (Tr. 9-17.) The Appeals Council denied Damron's request for review, at which point the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-4.)
Damron filed a complaint with this Court on August 12, 2013, seeking relief from the Commissioner's final decision. (Docket # 1.) In this appeal, Damron argues that: (1) the residual functional capacity ("RFC") assigned by the ALJ is not supported by substantial evidence; and
(2) the ALJ failed to adequately consider the effect of Damron's obesity. (Social Security Opening Br. of Pl. 8-15.)
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
On his date last insured, Damron was fifty years old (Tr. 105); had a high school education and training in real estate sales, auctioneering, and as a broker (Tr. 145-46); and had worked at Dana Corporation for more than twenty-five years as a machinist (Tr. 146, 321). Damron alleged in his DIB application that he became disabled because of a left shoulder injury, diabetes, and depression. (Tr. 144.)
At the hearing, Damron testified that other than serving on the town council in 2008, he has not worked since going on permanent disability through his employer in October 2002. (Tr. 28-29, 32, 35.) He stated that his health steadily declined after his alleged onset date in 2002 and continued to decline after his date last insured in 2008. (Tr. 30.)
Damron estimated that he was five feet ten inches tall and weighed 354 pounds at the time of the hearing, but weighed 320 pounds in 2009. (Tr. 31.) He complained of constant pain in his right hip. (Tr. 30.) In 2009, he could sit through hour-long council meetings and stand for just a few minutes. (Tr. 31-32, 39.) When standing he had to lean on something because he gets "hot and sweaty, and feel[s] like [he's] going to pass out." (Tr. 31). He could walk at a slow pace for no more than ten minutes, and then has to lie down. (Tr. 31-32.) He could lift twenty pounds with his right arm. (Tr. 32.) To control his pain, he took medication, including Vicoden, and used a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation ("TENS") unit. (Tr. 38.)
Damron reported that he could not cook a meal without becoming dizzy and having to lie down. (Tr. 37.) He could ride a mower for an hour, but would have to lie down afterwards. (Tr. 37.) He rode a bicycle until 2007, but would get hot and out of breath. (Tr. 37.) After showering, he had to lie down for fifteen minutes to "catch his breath" and "get some strength back." (Tr. 38.)
As to his mental health, Damron testified that in 2009 he had at least fifteen "bad days" a month in which he stayed in bed all day. (Tr. 35.) His bad days started before 2002, but his employer had a liberal attendance policy and he was able to use vacation days, so he was never disciplined for missing work. (Tr. 35.) Every few weeks, he had difficulty sleeping because of nightmares about his daughter's death in 2002 from an auto accident and his brother's suicide in 1989. (Tr. 35-36.) He stated that he would rather be dead, but will not commit suicide because he is afraid of going to hell, which is what he believed happened to his brother. (Tr. 35.)
B. Medical Evidence Pertaining to Damron's Physical Health
On February 28, 2001, Damron hurt his shoulder while lifting a basket of parts at work. (Tr. 261, 321.) He saw several doctors and was treated with medication, including Vicoden; physical therapy; and injections. (Tr. 261-62, 659.) Damron attempted to return to work in May 2001, but after three days his shoulder pain increased and began radiating to the left side of his neck and down his left arm. (Tr. 262.) After further treatment, including three trigger point injections, Damron's symptoms completely resolved, and he returned to work. (Tr. 326.)
In September 2001, however, Damron's job duties changed and required increased repetitive use of his shoulders, which aggravated his symptoms. (Tr. 326.) He was again placed off work. (Tr. 326.) He began using a TENS unit, which reduced his symptoms by about fifty percent. (Tr. 390.)
On June 14, 2002, Damron returned to work with no restrictions; his condition, however, soon worsened. (Tr. 388.) On October 14, 2002, Dr. Larry Kennedy, Damron's treating specialist, released him to return to medium work (frequent lifting up to twenty-five pounds and occasional lifting up to fifty pounds), but with no repetitive work with the left arm. (Tr. 536.) In light of the restrictions, Dana placed him off work. (Tr. 388.)
In November 2002, after Damron had repeated episodes of chest pain and syncopal or near-syncopal symptoms, Dr. Larry Watkins, Damron's family practitioner, suspected he had Syndrome X, a metabolic disorder. (Tr. 661.) He started Damron on Niaspan and advised him to lose weight. (Tr. 661.)
In September 2003, Damron underwent a functional capacity evaluation. (Tr. 346, 502-05.) He walked one mile in twenty-one minutes, stood thirty minutes with two one-minute breaks due to low back pain, and sat for thirty minutes. (Tr. 503.) He was unable to tolerate overhead reaching with the left upper extremity due to pain. (Tr. 503.) The evaluation revealed that Damron could tolerate a "light to medium category of physical demands, " which translated to frequently handling up to twenty pounds bilaterally and fifteen pounds in either hand; he was restricted only in his ability to lift or use the left upper extremity above chest height. (Tr. 505.) Dr. Kennedy signed the functional capacity report, reflecting Damron's "update[d] work restrictions" and that he could return to full-time employment. (Tr. 506-09.)
On February 15, 2004, Damron felt ill after taking Niaspan and went to the emergency room. (Tr. 353.) He was assessed with chest pain and a history of being released from niacin therapy; he was encouraged to see his primary physician the next day. (Tr. 353.)
On June 3, 2004, Damron went to the emergency room after a syncopal episode with abdominal pain. (Tr. 363.) By the time of examination, Damron had sustained complete pain relief and was essentially asymptomatic. (Tr. 363.) The emergency room physician noted that Damron was morbidly obese. (Tr. 362.) He was diagnosed with orthostatic and vasovagal syncope; and abdominal wall muscle pain, resolved. (Tr. 363.) He was instructed to visit his doctor the following week, drink plenty of water, and avoid caffeine. (Tr. 363.)
On June 8, 2004, Damron reported to Dr. Watkins that he had experienced several more pre-syncopal episodes after the emergency room visit. (Tr. 731.) Dr. Watkins suspected that Damron's blood pressure medication, Benicar, was "working too well"; thus, he halved the dosage. (Tr. 731.) He reminded Damron to lose weight. (Tr. 731.)
On June 24, 2004, Damron reported more near-syncopal spells; Dr. Watkins discontinued the Benicar. (Tr. 731.) On September 13, 2004, Damron told Dr. Watkins that the syncopal spells had stopped for a time after discontinuing the Benicar, but had recently returned. (Tr. 659.) They occurred most often when he was up and moving, but at times he felt light-headed when sitting. (Tr. 659.) He had also experienced chest pain and shortness of breath; Dr. Watkins referred him to a cardiologist. (Tr. 659.)
On October 25, 2004, an MRI of Damron's lumbar spine revealed stable degenerative disc disease at L4-5 and L5-S1, with no evidence of lumbar disc herniation or central spinal stenosis. (Tr. 711.) Similarly, an MRI of his cervical spine showed a minimal central disc bulge at C5-6, but no ...