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Parker v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

July 31, 2017

TINA PARKER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          ERIC F. MELGREN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Tina Parker seeks review of a final decision by Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Parker contends that the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in granting her benefits as of November 1, 2013, but not as of her alleged disability onset date, which was December 25, 2011. Specifically, Parker contends that the ALJ erred in determining that she could perform light work before November 1, 2013, in analyzing her treating physician's opinion, and in evaluating her subjective complaints. Having reviewed the record, and as described below, the Court finds that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Therefore, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         On September 12, 2013, Parker filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning December 25, 2011. She alleged disability due to a combination of impairments including a history of bilateral hip arthritis with total hip replacements in May 2012, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), depression, and anxiety. Parker was 51 years old as of her date last insured.

         Before her alleged onset date, Parker worked at a children's residential center where she helped children with their daily chores, hygiene, and schooling. After her alleged onset date, Parker continued to work part-time. From May 2013 to January 2015, she worked at a thrift store. She initially worked 35 hours per week as a sorter. In October 2013 she changed positions and became a ticketer. In November 2013, she reduced her hours to 20 to 25 hours per week. Parker's part-time earnings did not reach the presumptive level for substantial gainful activity.

         The agency denied Parker's application both initially and upon reconsideration. She subsequently requested a hearing before an ALJ. ALJ Timothy Stueve held an administrative hearing on April 15, 2015 via video conference. Parker appeared in Kansas City, Missouri, and was represented by counsel. During the hearing, she testified about her previous work, her medical conditions, and her daily living activities. The ALJ also heard testimony from a vocational expert who testified regarding work that Parker could perform based on her age, education, and work history.

         On May 5, 2015, the ALJ issued his decision finding that Parker had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. The ALJ found that Parker suffered from the severe impairments of status post bilateral total hip arthroplasty, COPD, carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, anxiety, and atrial fibrillation status post pacemaker implantation. However, the ALJ found that Parker does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         The ALJ assessed two RFCs for Parker, concluding that her conditions worsened as of November 1, 2013. For the period beginning on her alleged onset date to October 31, 2013, the ALJ determined that Parker had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with the following restrictions:

She could occasionally lift 20 pounds and frequently lift or carry ten pounds; could sit for up to six hours and stand or walk for approximately six hours during an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; could occasionally climb ramps or stairs but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; could not reach overhead with the non-dominant, right upper extremity; was able to frequently but not constantly handle and finger bilaterally; was able to understand, carry out, and remember simple, routine, repetitive tasks involving only simple work-related decisions and few, if any workplace changes; could not interact with public; and could be around co-workers throughout the day, but with only brief, incidental interaction with co-workers and no tandem tasks.

         For the time period beginning November 1, 2013, to the present, the ALJ determined Parker had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(a), with the following restrictions:

She can occasionally lift ten pounds; can sit for up to six hours and stand or walk for approximately two hours during an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; cannot reach overhead with the non-dominant, right upper extremity; is able to frequently but not constantly handle and finger bilaterally; is able to understand, carry out, and remember simple, routine, repetitive tasks involving only simple work-related decisions and few, if any, workplace changes; cannot interact with the public; and can be around co-workers throughout the day, but with only brief, incidental interaction with co-workers and no tandem tasks.

         The ALJ then determined that Parker has been unable to perform any past relevant work since December 25, 2011. He further concluded that before November 1, 2013, considering Parker's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Parker could have performed. But, as of November 1, 2013, there were no jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Parker could perform. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Parker was not disabled before November 1, 2013, but became disabled on that date and continued to be disabled through the date of his decision.

         Given that the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, Parker sought reconsideration of the ALJ's decision from the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied review on July 9, 2016. Thus, the ALJ's May 2015 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. On August 24, 2016, Parker filed a Complaint in this Court seeking reversal of the ALJ's decision and the immediate award of benefits or, in the alternative, a remand to the Commissioner for further consideration. Given Parker's exhaustion of all administrative remedies, her claim is now ripe for review before this Court.

         II. Legal Standard

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is guided by the Social Security Act (the “Act”) which provides, in part, that the “findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.”[2] The Court must therefore determine whether the factual findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard.[3] “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; in short, it is such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support the conclusion.”[4] The Court may “neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].”[5]

         An individual is under a disability only if she can “establish that she has a physical or mental impairment which prevents her from engaging in substantial gainful activity and is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months.”[6] This impairment “must be severe enough that she is unable to perform her past relevant work, and further cannot engage in other substantial gainful work existing in the national economy, considering her age, education, and work experience.”[7]

         Pursuant to the Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled.[8] The steps are designed to be followed in order. If it is determined, at any step of the evaluation process, that the claimant is or is not disabled, further evaluation under a subsequent step is unnecessary.[9]

         The first three steps of the sequential evaluation require the Commissioner to assess: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset of the alleged disability; (2) whether the claimant has a severe, or combination of severe, impairments; and (3) whether the severity of those severe impairments meets or equals a designated list of impairments.[10] If the impairment does not meet or equal one of these designated impairments, the ALJ must then determine the claimant's residual functional capacity, which is the claimant's ability “to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from his impairments.”[11]

         Upon assessing the claimant's residual functional capacity, the Commissioner moves on to steps four and five, which require the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant can either perform her past relevant work or whether she can generally perform other work that exists in the national economy, respectively.[12] The claimant bears the burden in steps one through four to prove a disability that prevents performance of her past relevant work.[13] The burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that, despite the claimant's alleged impairments, the claimant could perform other work in the national economy.[14]

         III. Analysis

         Parker contends that the ALJ's decision denying her benefits before November 1, 2013, should be reversed because the ALJ's RFC assessment is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Specifically, Parker argues that the ALJ erred (1) in determining that she could perform light work; (2) by not properly analyzing the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Punswick; and (3) by not properly evaluating her subjective complaints. The Court will address each of these arguments below.

         A. RFC Determination

         An RFC is the claimant's ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from the claimant's impairments.[15] It does not represent the least a claimant can perform, but the most.[16] In this case, the ALJ determined that before November 1, 2013, Parker could perform light work except that she was limited to only occasional climbing of ramps and stairs and no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. Parker contends that the ALJ erred in making this assessment because “light work” requires the ability to stand and/or walk for a total of six hours in an eight hour day, and the record shows that she has been unable to stand and/or walk for six hours since December 25, 2011.

         Parker cites several medical records in support of her argument that she had difficulty walking and standing before November 1, 2013. For example, she points out that in November 2011, she presented to the emergency room with a six month history of worsening pain in her lower right extremity. In March 2012, Parker presented to a neurosurgery clinic with continued complaints of back and leg pain. The following week, she returned to the emergency room with a two-day history of leg pain and walking difficulty. Parker also cites her physical therapy assessment from September 2012, which was five months after her bilateral hip replacement, that states that she continued to have ambulation deficits and decreased range of motion.

         The ALJ, however, reviewed the record and cited several medical records supporting his determination that Parker could perform light work with some restrictions. First, the ALJ noted that despite Parker's leg pain in November 2011, she had no trouble walking and normal range of motion in her lower extremities. He also noted that with regard to Parker's March 2012 visit to the neurosurgery clinic, Parker's reported deficits were inconsistent with the magnetic resonance imaging scan results. And, the ALJ reported that Parker's physical examinations from November 2012, December 2012, and June 2013 were normal.

         The ALJ also referred to other evidence in the record in finding that Parker could perform light work with some restrictions. He noted that Parker was employed just below the substantial gainful activity level from May 2013 to January 2013. For the vast majority of that time, she worked 35 hours per week as a sorter in a thrift store. The ALJ noted that Parker had to take additional breaks because she had “to rest and walk around to calm my nerves.” But, this actually supports the ALJ's position because it shows that she needed the break more for mental health reasons rather than physical reasons. The ALJ also referred to the opinion of the State agency consultant, which stated that Parker could perform light work with some restrictions.

         The ALJ's RFC assessment is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Although Parker may have cited some conflicting medical evidence in support of her argument, “the trier of fact has a duty to resolve that conflict.”[17] The ALJ's finding is based on a reasonable interpretation of the evidence in the record. Therefore, the Court affirms the ALJ's finding that Parker could perform light work with some restrictions before November 1, 2013.

         B. Treating Physician Opinion

         Parker next argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating a March 2015 opinion from her treating physician, Dr. Punswick.[18] To determine the exact weight to assign a treating source's opinion, the ALJ must follow a two-step inquiry.[19] At the first step, the ALJ must decide whether to afford the opinion controlling weight.[20] The ALJ will give controlling weight to a treating source opinion about the nature and severity of impairment only if the opinion is: (1) well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and (2) consistent with other substantial ...


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