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Scott v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

September 23, 2016

RODNEY L. SCOTT, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, sued as Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of SSA, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Rodney L. Scott 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 Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).[1] (DE 1). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be AFFIRMED.


         Scott applied for DIB and SSI in January 2012, alleging disability as of August 1, 2009.[2](DE 10 Administrative Record (“AR”) 174-83). Scott was last insured for DIB on September 30, 2013 (AR 212), and thus, with respect to his DIB claim, Scott must establish that he was disabled as of that date. See Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1154 (7th Cir. 1997) (explaining that with respect to a DIB claim, a claimant must establish that he was disabled as of his date last insured in order to recover DIB).

         The Commissioner denied Scott's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 110-17, 121-26). After a timely request, a hearing was held on September 5, 2013, before Administrative Law Judge William D. Pierson (“the ALJ”), at which Scott, who was represented by counsel; his sister; and a vocational expert, Sharon Ringenberg (the “VE”), testified. (AR 40-83). On February 3, 2014, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Scott, concluding that he was not disabled because despite the limitations caused by his impairments, he could perform a significant number of unskilled, sedentary jobs in the economy. (AR 18-33). The Appeals Council denied Scott's request for review (DE 1-14, 317-22), at which point the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Scott filed a complaint with this Court on December 18, 2014, seeking relief from the Commissioner's final decision. (DE 1). Scott advances two arguments in this appeal: (1) that the ALJ failed to consider his medical impairments in combination when determining his residual functional capacity (“RFC”), and (2) that the ALJ improperly discounted the credibility of his symptom testimony. (DE 18 at 8-13).


         At the time of the ALJ's decision, Scott was 48 years old (AR 211); had a ninth grade education with some special education classes (AR 47, 109, 217); and possessed past work experience as a laborer, a plater, and a yardman (AR 217, 223, 248). He alleges disability due to: adjustment disorder with depressed mood, a learning disorder, borderline intellectual functioning, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), pinched nerve in his left elbow with acute denervation of the ulnar nerve innovated muscles in his left hand, post-left ulnar transposition surgery, left knee problems, dilated left upper urinary tract, markedly enlarged left kidney, marked renal parenchymal thinning/atrophy, and severe hydronephrosis. (DE 18 at 2).

         A. Scott's Testimony at the Hearing

         At the hearing, Scott testified that he was single and that he had been living with his brother-in-law and his nephew for the past year. (AR 45). He had been receiving Medicaid up until three or four months before the hearing. (AR 45-46). He had not driven for several months because his auto insurance had expired. (AR 47). Scott testified that he had worked part time in several positions through a temporary service after his alleged onset date; however, he could not perform the required lifting for at least one of the positions. (AR 47-49). Scott states that in a typical day, his breathing problems wake him up at 4:00 a.m. (AR 55). He drinks a cup of hot coffee, which “sometimes loosens [his phlegm] up, ” and he then coughs and hacks to “get[] that stuff out of [his] system.” (AR 55). Then he sits and watches traffic or does a word search, and he heats up a frozen meal or soup for lunch. (AR 64-65). His brother-in-law and nephew perform the household chores, although Scott will occasionally vacuum. (AR 65-66). Scott sleeps about four hours a night and then naps for several hours during the day. (AR 55-56, 62-63).

         Scott complained of pain in his back, hips, thighs, right ankle, and right leg; his back pain was centered right above the belt line. (AR 54). He stated that he gets sharp pain in his back after walking a half-block; the pain in his legs feels like a muscle spasm. (AR 54). He estimated that he could sit for 30 minutes, walk a half-block before needing to sit down, and stand for an hour before needing to lean on something. (AR 57, 59). He takes a cane with him when going out, but uses it only some of the time. (AR 66). He stated that he could not use his left arm much because of numbness, but he could lift up to 30 pounds with his right arm. (AR 57-59). Scott further testified that he becomes short of breath when walking fast, but does not become short of breath if he walks at his own pace. (AR 57). He was not taking any breathing medications at the time due to his loss of Medicaid benefits. (AR 56). He also complained of having a “bad right eye.” (AR 64).

         As to his reading and writing abilities, Scott testified that he could complete written job applications, stating that he writes “N/A” when he does not comprehend what is being asked. (AR 60). He particularly has difficulty when taking a test on a timed basis. (AR 60). He twice tried to obtain his GED at night school, but was unsuccessful. (AR 60). He thought that his sister, as well as others, could read and understand a grocery list that he had written. (AR 61). He stated that he could probably read a grocery list written by someone else, and that he would ask for assistance if he had difficulty doing so. (AR 61). Scott testified that he feels depressed “[s]ometimes here and there, ” causing him to sleep more, stay home, and do nothing. (AR 61-62).[4]

         B. Summary of the Relevant Medical Evidence

         In September 2009, an MRI showed a massively dilated left upper urinary tract which markedly enlarged the kidney and resulted in marked renal parenchymal thinning/atrophy. (AR 325). In December 2011, Scott saw Justin Grannell, M.D., for knee pain, reporting that he had recently twisted his knee and felt it pop. (AR 341). An X-ray showed moderate suprapatellar joint effusion. (AR 346). Dr. Grannell diagnosed capsular strain versus meniscal tear. (AR 338). The following month, Scott saw Keith Derickson, M.D., for his knee, reporting that his pain was decreasing. (AR 332). His knee pain was relieved by medication and by elevating his leg. (AR 332). He had a chronic cough, but normal breathing sounds with no crackles, rhonchi, or wheezes; he had no difficulty breathing. (AR 333). His thorax was symmetric with good expansion, and he did not use accessory muscles when breathing. (AR 333). An inhaler was prescribed for use as needed for shortness of breath or wheezing. (AR 335). On a pulmonary function test in February 2012, Scott's best pre-bronchodilator FEV 1 was 2.83. (AR 385).

         In February 2012, Candace Martin, Psy.D., evaluated Scott at the request of Social Security. (AR 351-55). On mental status examination, Scott's conversation was logical, relevant, and coherent, but many of his responses displayed lower intellectual functioning, verbal response latency, and perseveration. (AR 353). His mood appeared depressive and discouraged, and his affect was appropriate to his mood. (AR 353). He demonstrated adequate attention, concentration, and verbal concepts; good long term and intermediate memory; marginal social skills; poor abstract reasoning; and weak judgment, insight, mentation, and short term memory. (AR 353-54). Dr. Martin concluded that Scott's depression seemed to be secondary to his multiple physical complaints, unemployment, and change in housing situation. (AR 354).

         Dr. Martin also observed that Scott had a history of limited education and some difficulty with reading and math skills. (AR 354). She found that Scott's responses on the mental status examination suggested that he was probably functioning in the borderline range of intelligence, which would impact his ability to perform certain jobs. (AR 354). She concluded that he was able “to work in jobs that require simple, repetitive, and well learned tasks that do not require good skills in reading or mathematics.” (AR 354). Her diagnostic impression on Axis I was adjustment disorder with depressed mood, learning disability not otherwise specified; on Axis II, probable borderline intellectual functioning; on Axis III, multiple physical complaints; on Axis IV, coping with chronic physical complaints, unemployment, variable housing situations, inadequate finances, and limited social support; and on Axis V, a Global Assessment Functioning (“GAF”) score of 45.[5] (AR 355).

         That same month, Scott was examined by H.M. Bacchus, M.D., at the request of Social Security. (AR 357-59). Scott appeared at the examination with a cane. (AR 358). Dr. Bacchus observed that Scott's mental processes appeared somewhat sluggish, that he moved slowly to and from the exam table and chair, and that he became mildly short of breath with exertion; Scott still smoked six to seven cigarettes a day. (AR 357-58). With the cane, Scott's gait was steady with fair sustainability on even ground, but without the cane, his gait was slower and more antalgic. (AR 358). He had some difficulty with heel, toe, and tandem walk, and he did not hop due to knee pain; he could squat one-third of the way down with support. (AR 358). He exhibited range of motion deficits in his neck, low back, left shoulder, hips, knees, and right ankle. (AR 358). A straight leg raise was 70 degrees on the right and 90 degrees on the left. (AR 358). He had tenderness to palpation and range of motion to the left shoulder with mild crepitus. (AR 358). His muscle strength and tone ranged from 4-5/5, his grip strength was 4/5 bilaterally, and his sensation was intact. (AR 358).

         As to mental status, Dr. Bacchus noted that Scott appeared somewhat slow cognitively, but that he had a fair memory and was able to follow simple instructions. (AR 358). Dr. Bacchus concluded that Scott retained the physical functional capacity “to engage in light to moderate work duties, at least part-time, and repetitive in nature, ” but he had some limitations with respect to prolonged walking, prolonged climbing, and walking on uneven ground. (AR 358). Dr. Bacchus further opined that due to his COPD, Scott should avoid working in extreme temperatures or around excessive dust, fumes, or chemicals. (AR 359).

         Also in February 2012, Ken Lovko, Ph.D., a state agency psychologist, reviewed Scott's record and completed psychiatric review technique and mental RFC forms. (AR 361-78). On the psychiatric review technique, Dr. Lovko found that Scott had mild restrictions in activities of daily living, mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning, and moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. (AR 375). On the mental RFC form, Dr. Lovko found that Scott was moderately limited in understanding, remembering, and carrying out detailed instructions; maintaining attention and concentration for extended periods; performing activities within a schedule, maintaining regular attendance, and being punctual; and responding appropriately to changes in the work setting. (AR 361-62). Dr. Lovko indicated that Scott was not significantly limited in the remaining 16 work-related mental activities. (AR 361-62).

         In his narrative assessment, Dr. Lovko noted that Scott was not taking psychotropic medications, was not currently receiving psychiatric treatment or psychotherapy services, and had not been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons. (AR 363). Dr. Lovko concluded that Scott could understand, remember, and carry-out unskilled tasks without special considerations in many work environments; relate on at least a superficial basis on an ongoing basis with coworkers and supervisors; attend to task for sufficient periods of time to complete tasks; and manage the stresses involved with unskilled work. (AR 363). Kenneth Neville, Ph.D., another state agency psychologist, later affirmed Dr. Lovko's opinion. (AR 430).

         In March 2012, Earl Braunlin, M.D., performed an ophthalmology examination at the request of Social Security. (AR 391-95). He diagnosed mild myopia in both eyes, and presbyopia in both eyes due to Scott's age; he recommended that Scott obtain a pair of bifocal eyeglasses. (AR 393). Dr. Braunlin concluded that Scott should be able to work at something as far as his eyes were concerned. (AR 393).

         That same month, J.V. Cochran, M.D., a state agency physician, reviewed Scott's record and completed a physical RFC assessment. (AR 396-403). He concluded that Scott could lift 25 pounds frequently and 50 pounds occasionally; stand or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday; sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday; perform unlimited pushing and pulling within his lifting restrictions; frequently balance; and occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases and poor ventilation. (AR 397-400).

         In March 2012, Scott went to the emergency room due to swelling in his left elbow; he was diagnosed with olecranon bursitis. (AR 412). Bilateral breath sounds were clear, and his respirations were regular and unlabored; he denied any cough or shortness of breath. (AR 410-11). His mood and affect were normal. (AR 412). In April, Scott saw Keith Derickson, M.D., for a three-week history of swelling in his right elbow. (AR 420). Dr. Derickson noted Scott's history of wheezing, but Scott did not have any difficulty breathing at the visit; rather, he had normal breathing sounds without crackles, rhonchi, or wheezing. (AR 420-21). Scott saw Denise Smith, D.O., in May and June 2012 for his elbow, and he told her that ibuprofen relieved his elbow pain. (AR 428, 442). In May, Scott was noted to have scattered rhonchi and wheezes; his inhaler was continued. (AR 429). In June, Scott's chest was clear. (AR 442). Scott returned to Dr. Smith in July, complaining that his feet were swelling. (AR 440). He also complained of waking up a few days earlier with difficulty breathing; he was without air conditioning at the time. (AR 440). Dr. Smith noted that Scott had rhonchi throughout, and she continued Scott's inhaler. (AR 441; see also AR 443).

         In August 2012, Scott was examined by Ronald Caldwell, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon, for complaints of numbness and tingling in, and difficulty extending, his ring and small finger of his left hand. (AR 449-50). Dr. Caldwell noted that Scott had some difficulty understanding some of his questions even though he asked them in elementary terms. (AR 449). On physical exam, Scott had full range of motion in his left elbow and shoulder, as well as excellent strength in his shoulder. (AR 449). He exhibited minimal impingement-type signs. (AR 449). He had some flexion that looked like a bit of clawing of his ring and small fingers, and his moving two-point discrimination in those two fingers was somewhat prolonged. (AR 449). A Froment's sign was positive, showing first dorsal interosseous weakness, but his radial pulse was excellent. (AR 449). Dr. Caldwell's impression was probable relatively severe ulnar neuropathy at the elbow. (AR 450). Dr. Caldwell ordered an EMG and explained to Scott that he ...

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