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Corner v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

March 14, 2017




         The Plaintiff, Michael Robert Corner, 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's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. On February 20, 2014, an administrative law judge (ALJ) held a hearing on the Plaintiff's application. On June 23, 2014, the ALJ issued a Decision holding that the Plaintiff was not entitled to benefits because he was not disabled under the relevant provisions of the Social Security Act. On January 4, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. The Plaintiff subsequently filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3).


         The Plaintiff was born on September 12, 1960. He completed four or more years of college after graduating from high school. The Plaintiff has a work history that includes working as a supervisor, training coordinator, and training expert.

         The Plaintiff applied for Social Security disability benefits on a prior occasion, in 2010, but was denied initially and also upon reconsideration. He had a hearing in front of an ALJ and on June 5, 2012, received a denial decision. The Plaintiff sought no further review. Consequently, that petition is final, not at issue in the present case, and the Plaintiff is not eligible for disability benefits before the date of the ALJ's June 5, 2012 Decision.

         In the present case, the Plaintiff claims to have become disabled on June 6, 2012, due to multiple physical and mental impairments, including a history of low back pain from a motor vehicle accident and residuals from a fractured spine, degenerative disc disease, cardiac problems, hypertension, potential memory loss issues, anxiety, sleep apnea, depression, and a history of alcohol abuse. (R. at 33, ECF No. 6.)


         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. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         An ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The first step is to determine whether the claimant no longer engages in substantial gainful activity (SGA). Id. In the case at hand, the Plaintiff has not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of disability and thus, the Plaintiff satisfies the step one inquiry. (R. at 33.) In step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment limiting the ability to do basic work activities pursuant to § 404.1520(c). Here, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments, including degenerative disc disease, residuals from spinal fracture, sleep apnea, inter alia, are severe impairments because they significantly limit his ability to perform basic work activities. (Id.) 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 . . . .” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If a claimant's impairment(s), considered singly or in combination with other impairments, rise to this level, he earns a presumption of disability “without considering [his] age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(d). But, if the impairment(s), either singly or in combination, falls short, an ALJ must move to step four and examine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (RFC)-the types of things he can still do physically, despite his limitations-to determine whether he can perform this “past relevant work, ” § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), or whether the claimant can “make an adjustment to other work” given the claimant's “age, education, and work experience.” § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         In the case at hand, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal any of the listings in Appendix 1, and that he has the RFC to perform light work, as defined by § 404.1567(b). (R. at 34-36.) Specifically, the ALJ held that the Plaintiff is able to lift, carry, push and pull 20 pounds occasionally and up to ten pounds frequently, stand and/or walk up to six hours in an eight-hour workday and sit up to six hours in an eight-hour workday, with normal breaks and allowing him to sit and/or stand alternatively at will, provided that he is not off task more than ten percent of the work period. (R. at 35-36.) However, the ALJ added that the Plaintiff can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, but can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. (R. at 36.) Additionally, the Plaintiff is to avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as moving machinery, extreme heat, and unprotected heights. (Id.) In regards to the Plaintiff's mental capacity, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff is unable to engage in complex or detailed tasks, but is able to perform single, routine, and repetitive tasks consistent with unskilled work and he can sustain and attend to tasks throughout the eight-hour workday. (Id.) The Plaintiff is also limited to low stress work and cannot engage in employment demanding a fast-paced production rate. (Id.) Furthermore, the Plaintiff is limited to superficial interactions with co-workers, supervisors, and the public. (Id.)

         In arriving at the RFC, the ALJ extensively detailed the treatment notes and opinions of Dr. Kristin Grant, Psy.D. Ultimately, the ALJ gave Dr. Grant's opinions little weight, holding that Dr. Grant's opinions are inconsistent with the Plaintiff's treatment, self-employed status, and cognitive testing results. (R. at 40, 41, 42, 43.) The ALJ also discussed the psychiatric exam conducted by Dr. Kishore Sriram, the consultative examination conducted by Dr. Abdali Jan, and imaging studies of the Plaintiff's spine. (R. at 38, 40.) The ALJ gave little weight to the opinions of state agency psychological consultants that the Plaintiff's mental impairments are non-severe, concluding that the evidence shows the Plaintiff had ongoing mental health treatment for over a year, thus warranting a “severe” finding. (R. at 42.) The ALJ gave some weight to the opinion of the state agency medical consultants, to the extent that it is consistent with the RFC finding, holding that more restrictive limitations are warranted than those provided by the state agency medical consultants, though still ultimately finding, “[T]here is really no evidence that the claimant's physical impartments have improved or worsened since [the June 2012 decision] as only conservative treatment has been ordered.” (R. at 42-43.)

         The ALJ also acknowledged the Plaintiff's testimony regarding his worsening back pain and functional limitations, holding that the Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms. (R. at 44.) The ALJ found, however, that the Plaintiff's testimony concerning the intensity of his pain and his limitations is not credible for a number of factors: (1) the Plaintiff admitted to his treating physician on multiple occasions that he is “self-employed” and makes his own hours; (2) if the Plaintiff's impairments are as severe as Dr. Grant opines, then Dr. Grant would have seen the Plaintiff in person (and not via email, telephone, and/or Skype) and ordered a more aggressive treatment protocol (including referring him to a psychiatrist so his medications could be altered), and the results of tests administered by Dr. Grant would not show that the Plaintiff is functioning mostly at an average range; (3) the Plaintiff is able to perform a considerable number of activities of daily living as he was before the June 2012 Decision, thus demonstrating that the Plaintiff still remains at most mildly limited in his social functioning and daily living; (4) the Plaintiff's treatment has been routine and conservative in nature; and (5) the Plaintiff's wife's allegations are generally consistent with those of the Plaintiff and thus, they should be weighed the same as the Plaintiff's testimony. (R. at 43-44.)

         At the final step of the evaluation, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff cannot perform any past relevant work. (R. 44.) However, because of the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the Plaintiff could perform. (R. at 45-46.) These jobs include electrical accessories assembler, small products assembler, and electronics worker. The ALJ acknowledged that, “[T]he vocational expert's testimony is inconsistent with the information contained in the Dictionary of Occupational Tiles” (DOT), but that is because “the DOT is silent with regard to the impact of a sit/stand option on the availability ...

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