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Mansfield v. Colvin

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

December 1, 2016

RICKY L. MANSFIELD, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PHILIP P. SIMON, CHIEF JUDGE

         Ricky Mansfield appeals the denial of his application for disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income. The ALJ assessed Mansfield as having five “severe impairments, ” but found that he was still physically capable of “medium work, ” including his previous relevant work. In finding Mansfield capable of medium physical exertion, the ALJ largely dismissed the findings of two government medical consultants who found Mansfield capable of doing only light physical exertion. The ALJ also did not find Mansfield entirely credible. As a result of the ALJ's determination of Mansfield's capabilities, the ALJ found that Mansfield is not disabled, and thus that he is not eligible for the benefits he seeks. Because I agree with Mansfield that the ALJ's opinion does not cite to substantial evidence in support of the residual functional capacity on which it relies, I must remand this case for further consideration by the ALJ.

         Background

         Mansfield's claim for benefits is based on several medical issues, both physical and mental. There is not an abundance of medical evidence in the record, but there is at least basic documentation establishing that Mansfield had hernia surgery in 2006 [DE 12 at 322, 397-99] and right flank and groin pain continuing to some degree since then [see, e.g., DE 12 at 337, 347, 349], with mild to moderate disc degenerative changes in his spine [DE 12 at 309]; anxiety and alcoholism issues [see, e.g., DE 12 at 84-85, 308, 337, 365-68]; high cholesterol [see, e.g., DE 12 at 322, 331, 397]; and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”) [see, e.g., DE 12 at 76, 84, 309; but see DE 12 at 353-55]. Ultimately, based on his own argument, Mansfield's claim of disability to work comes down to physical impairment caused by the hernia and ongoing groin and flank pain. Mansfield's challenge focuses on the exertional limitations that are due to this injury [see DE 12 at 47, 48, 56], so I will likewise focus my discussion of the evidence.

         In mid-2006 Mansfield went to a doctor complaining of right-side groin pain, at which point the doctor observed bulging and diagnosed a hernia. [DE 12 at 397-98.] A doctor operated in August 2006, inserting mesh through laparoscopic repair surgery. [DE 12 at 50, 398-99.] In August 2011 Mansfield sought emergency medical care because he felt weak and shaky, and when he was examined his abdomen appeared normal and he had no flank discomfort. [DE 12 at 307.] On October 22, 2012, Mansfield reported to a doctor that he had 6 out of 10 right groin pain at the end of the day when he lifted 30 or 40 pounds during the day (there is no indication of under what circumstances Mansfield did so, or when he had last done so). The medical record from that visit also notes that Mansfield's abdomen was firm and distended, and that his bowel sounds were hypoactive. [DE 12 at 25, 330.]

         In November 2012, Mansfield applied for benefits, alleging disability beginning in June 2012. [DE 12 at 38, 241.] During a January 2013 visit to the doctor, Mansfield's abdomen was soft and nontender to palpitation. [DE 12 at 348.] In February 2013, state agency medical consultant Dr. Brill reviewed Mansfield's file in connection with Mansfield's application for benefits. Dr. Brill assessed that Mansfield was limited to handling 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, and to assuming various postures (including climbing ramps and stairs, balancing, and stooping) only occasionally-these weight restrictions are categorized as allowing “light work, ” from the perspective of exertion level. [DE 12 at 75.] See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). In March 2013, Dr. Corcoran, another government medical consultant, likewise reviewed Mansfield's file and concurred with Dr. Brill's assessment. [DE 12 at 102.]

         At this point, it is worth pausing and considering what the import is of these state agency medical experts. According to Social Security Ruling 96-6p, “[s]tate agency medical . . . consultants are highly qualified physicians . . . who are experts in the evaluation of the medical issues in disability claims under the Act.” Their opinions are an integral part of the ALJ's consideration. “Because State agency medical . . . consultants and other program physicians . . . are experts in the Social Security disability programs, the rules in 20 CFR 404.1527(f) and 416.927(f) require administrative law judges and the Appeals Council to consider their findings of fact about the nature and severity of an individual's impairment(s) as opinions of nonexamining physicians . . . . Administrative law judges and the Appeals Council are not bound by findings made by State agency or other program physicians . . ., but they may not ignore these opinions and must explain the weight given to the opinions in their decisions.” SSR 96-6p, effective July 2, 1996, available at https://www.ssa.gov/OPHome/rulings/di/01/SSR96-06-di-01.html.

         During the March 2014 hearing Mansfield testified that he previously worked preparing cases of beverages for delivery to grocery stores. For two to three hours each day, he had to lift cases of cans, which he said weighed fifteen to twenty pounds each. He explained that he left the job because he couldn't handle the lifting, and the company didn't have any other work for him. [DE 12 at 41-43, 53.] Before that, Mansfield worked at a car dealership cleaning the cars. [DE 12 at 44.] Mansfield explained that he began having muscle spasms after the hernia operation, and felt sore and stiff. [DE 12 at 51-52.] Mansfield testified that he doesn't lift much now. [DE 12 at 53.] Mansfield was unsure of whether he could do a heavier-duty car detailing job due to the possible requirement of lifting a shop vacuum, because he did not know how heavy a shop vacuum is. [DE 12 at 56.] Mansfield testified that he has started three different jobs since claiming disability, but that he was unable to keep any of these jobs-two because he couldn't do the lifting, and one from which he was let go after a week without any stated cause. [DE 12 at 40, 229-32.] He further testified that he lives in a homeless shelter, having moved there in November 2013. [DE 12 at 39.]

         A vocational expert testified at the hearing. The VE categorized Mansfield's past work as automobile detailer (unskilled, medium-exertion work) and materials handler (semi-skilled, heavy-exertion work). [DE 12 at 62.] The ALJ asked the VE various working condition and limitation hypotheticals. Under the one the ALJ ended up using-capable of carrying, lifting, pushing, and pulling (“handling”) 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, with frequent climbing of ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, crouching, kneeling, and crawling, and occasional climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds-the VE testified that a person could work as an automobile detailer. [DE 12 at 64-65.] But a person limited to handling 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, with occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, crouching, kneeling, and crawling, would not be able to do Mansfield's past work.[DE 12 at 65-66.]

         In addressing Mansfield's application, the ALJ navigated through the familiar five-step process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). At step two, the ALJ found that Mansfield had established five “severe impairments”: high cholesterol, COPD, history of hernia surgery, adjustment disorder with anxiety and depression, and alcohol dependence in early remission. [DE 12 at 17.] At the third step, the ALJ determined Mansfield's impairments do not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ then set Mansfield's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and found that Mansfield was capable of doing medium-exertion work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567©. Specifically, the ALJ found Mansfield capable of handling 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; frequently climbing ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, crouching, kneeling, and crawling; and occasionally climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. [Id. at 21.] Based on Mansfield's RFC, the ALJ found that he was capable performing the requirements of his past relevant work, specifically work as an automobile detailer. [DE 12 at 27.] With this finding, the ALJ did not need to move to step five, and therefore she concluded that Mansfield is not disabled. [DE 12 at 28.]

         The ALJ made two critical findings in arriving at her conclusion that Mansfield is not disabled. First, the ALJ found Mansfield “not fully credible.” [DE 12 at 22.] Second, the ALJ chose to give little weight to the evaluations by the government medical consultants because “[e]vidence available for the medical consultants' review and additional evidence received into the record at the hearing level convinces the undersigned that the claimant was less limited than originally thought.” [DE 12 at 25.] Later, the ALJ explained that her assessment was that Mansfield may not be limited at all: “Although the evidence establishes underlying medical conditions capable of producing some pain or other limitations, the substantial evidence of record does not confirm disabling pain or other limitations arising from those impairments . . . . The undersigned finds that the preponderance of credible evidence establishes that the claimant experienced no greater than, at most, mild to moderate functional limitations upon his ability to perform basic work activities . . . .” [DE 12 at 27.]

         In this appeal, Mansfield first challenges the ALJ's credibility finding, essentially arguing that the ALJ misinterpreted evidence relating to Mansfield's pursuit of remedies for his ailments, his activities of daily living, his allegedly inconsistent statements, and the fact that Mansfield worked after the onset date he stated in his claim. [DE 17 at 5.] Second, Mansfield argues that the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence because the physical limitations the ALJ assessed run counter to those found by the government medical consultants, and have no factual basis in the record. [DE 17 at 11-12.] Mansfield argues that steps four and five, analyzed under a limitation of light exertion, would find him unable to do past relevant work, and his educational history, lack of transferable skills, and age would then result in a finding that he is disabled. [DE 17 at 13 (citing 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, Appx. 2, § 202.06).]

         Discussion

         The ALJ's determination must be supported by “substantial evidence.” See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Skinner, 478 F.3d at 841 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). This has also been described as sufficient evidence to form a “logical bridge” to the ALJ's conclusions. See, e.g., Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009). Additionally, the ALJ's reasoning must be sufficiently articulated to permit meaningful review. See Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002). “[W]hat matters are the reasons articulated by the ALJ.” Jelinek v. Astrue, 662 F.3d ...


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