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Butler v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

October 27, 2014

CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


RESA L. SPRINGMANN, District Judge.

The Plaintiff, Joseph Wayne Butler, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. The Plaintiff requested a hearing after his applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. In May 2012, an administrative law judge (ALJ) held a hearing on the Plaintiff's applications. On September 13, 2012, the ALJ issued a Decision finding that the Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits because he was not disabled under the relevant provisions of the Social Security Act. In September 2013, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. The Plaintiff then filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3).


The Plaintiff was born on August 12, 1963. He completed the tenth grade, and later received a General Equivalency Degree. The Plaintiff has a lengthy work history that includes working as a molding machine foreman and a steel erector.

The Plaintiff claims to have become disabled on December 22, 2010, due to neck and back pain. The Plaintiff injured his back in a 2007 workplace accident. Following fusion surgery, he was released to work by Dr. Muhlbauer in April 2008 with a permanent restriction on lifting no more than 50 pounds. In summer 2009, the Plaintiff against sought treatment for thoracic back pain. Eventually, the Plaintiff began seeing a pain management physician, Dr. Lazoff. However, the Plaintiff's treating physicians continued to affirm that he could return to work without additional permanent restrictions. (R. at 278-79, 331, 358, 381 (return to work orders with no additional restrictions dated 10/19/09, 8/18/11, 4/10/12, and 5/29/12).)

The Plaintiff lives with his 22-year-old son. The Plaintiff testified that around the middle of the summer 2011, he began to experience even sharper pains, more back spasms, less sleep, and more numbing in his arms. He stated that he could stand for only 5 to 10 minutes at a time, and could only sit for 20 minutes. The Plaintiff testified that when his back locked up, his immobility would last between 2 and 3 days to a week or two. He stated that his back had started going out twice a month, and that he also experienced an additional two to three "bad days" because of other back and neck problems. He reported walking with a small limp and having a limited ability to bend. The Plaintiff testified that he could do chores on some days, such as washing and folding a small load of laundry, vacuuming the living room floor, bagging the trash, and doing a small load of dishes.


Disability is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To be found disabled, a claimant must demonstrate that his physical or mental limitations prevent him from doing not only his previous work, but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy, considering his age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The Plaintiff was unemployed and satisfied the step one inquiry. At step two, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's history of spine injury status post fusion and knee pain were severe impairments because they caused more than minimal limitations in his ability to perform basic work activities. Step three requires the ALJ to "consider the medical severity of [the] impairment" to determine whether the impairment "meets or equals one of [the] listings in" appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant's impairment rises to this level, he earns a presumption of disability "without considering [his] age, education, and work experience." Id. at § 404.1520(d). But if the impairment falls short, an ALJ must examine the claimant's "residual functional capacity"-the types of things he can still do physically despite his limitations-to determine whether he can perform this "past relevant work, " id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), or, failing that, whether the claimant can "make an adjustment to other work" given his "age, education, and work experience, " id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairment did not meet or equal any of the listings in appendix 1, and that he had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). However, the ALJ added that the Plaintiff could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and could occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. Additionally, the Plaintiff was to avoid concentrated exposure to wetness and hazards such as unguarded machinery, unprotected heights, and wet or slippery surfaces.

In arriving at the RFC, the ALJ acknowledged the Plaintiff's testimony regarding his worsening back pain and functional limitations. The ALJ found, however, that the Plaintiff's testimony about his limitations was not supported by the medical opinions and treatment notes from the Plaintiff's own physicians. The ALJ relied heavily on the treatment notes and opinions of Dr. Lazoff and Dr. Shugart, an orthopedic surgeon, and the diagnostic imaging of the Plaintiff's spine. The ALJ also discussed in detail the February 2011 independent examination conducted by Dr. Abdali Jan. He gave great weight to the opinions of State agency physicians that the Plaintiff could perform a restricted range of light work, as these opinions were supported by the record and not inconsistent with any other medical opinions, except that they were more restrictive that the opinion of the treating source. The ALJ concluded that "[a]lthough the record shows the claimant experiences pain and discomfort due to his physical impairments, it does not establish debilitating functional limitations." (R. at 25.) The ALJ found that a restricted range of light work accounted for the Plaintiff's back and knee pain and limited range of motion, and was significantly more generous than his treating source. Because a sufficient number of jobs existed in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform even in light of his restrictions, the ALJ denied his claim.

On appeal to this Court, the Plaintiff claims that the ALJ failed to give controlling weight to the Plaintiffs' treating physicians' opinions concerning his neck and low back pain, and that he failed to consider the Plaintiff's consistent and arduous work history when evaluating the Plaintiff's credibility. The Plaintiff maintains that he was entitled to "substantial credibility" and, when combined with his objective medical impairments and long term pain management, he presented a strong basis for a finding of disability. (Pl.'s Brief 12, ECF No. 28.)

In an appeal from the denial of social security benefits, the court is not free to replace the ALJ's estimate of the medical evidence with its own. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009) (stating that the court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ). Instead, the court reviews the ALJ's decision for substantial evidence, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), meaning that the court ensures that the decision rests on "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, " Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). When an ALJ recommends that the agency deny benefits, it must first "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion." Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000). "In other words, as with any well-reasoned decision, the ALJ must rest its denial of benefits on adequate evidence contained in the record and must explain why contrary evidence does not persuade." Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008). Where conflicting evidence would allow reasonable minds to differ as to whether the claimant is disabled, it is the ALJ's responsibility to resolve those conflicts. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408 (7th Cir. 2008). Conclusions of law are not entitled to such deference, however, so where the ALJ commits an error of law, the court must reverse the decision regardless of the volume of evidence supporting the factual findings. Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997).

There is no dispute that the Plaintiff has a history of complaints of back pain, and sought treatment for this purported pain. However, there is no requirement that an ALJ accept a plaintiff's subjective complaints insofar as they clashed with other, objective medical evidence in the record. Arnold v. Barnhart, 473 F.3d 816, 823 (7th Cir. 2007). The ALJ acknowledged the Plaintiff's testimony concerning his pain and the limitations it caused, stated that the medical evidence did not support the Plaintiff's testimony about his limitations, and devoted significant space in her Decision to a discussion of the medical evidence. The ALJ found that the Plaintiff had severe impairments related to his history of spine injury status post fusion. The ALJ further opined that a restricted range of light work would account for the ...

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