United States District Court, D. Minnesota
Sandra Laudenbach, o.b.o. Roger Laudenbach, deceased, Plaintiff,
Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
Carol Louise Lewis, Esq., counsel for Plaintiff;
Ana H. Voss, Esq., Assistant United States Attorney, counsel for Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
JEFFREY J. KEYES, Magistrate Judge.
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Sandra Laudenbach seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), who denied Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits. This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (Doc. Nos. 17, 19.) This matter has been referred to the undersigned for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636 and D. Minn. L.R. 72.1. For the reasons stated below, this Court recommends that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be denied and Defendant's motion for summary judgment be granted.
I. Procedural History
Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on March 15, 2011 (Tr. 104),  with a protective filing date of February 23, 2011. (Tr. 136.) He alleged a disability onset date of December 15, 2010 (Tr. 12), asserting disability due to diabetes, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, low back injury, varicose veins, and left leg ulcers. (Tr. 139.) The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiff's claim initially on July 7, 2011 (Tr. 12), and on reconsideration on October 23, 2011. (Id. ) Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), but Mr. Laudenbach passed away on April 22, 2012. (Id. ) Plaintiff's widow, Ms. Sandy Laudenbach, filed a substitution of party on April 24, 2012 and requested that a decision be made on the evidence of record. (Tr. 190.)
Based upon the record and with the additional assistance of vocational expert interrogatory responses (Tr. 193-198), the ALJ, Virginia Kuhn, issued an unfavorable decision on Plaintiff's application. (Tr. 9-22.) The decision was issued on September 26, 2012. (Tr. 9.) Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council denied the request for review on December 21, 2014. (Tr. 1-5.) Denial by the Appeals Council made the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.
In this action Plaintiff seeks remand to the Commissioner for further proceedings. She contends that the ALJ: (1) failed to fully develop the record as to whether Plaintiff's impairments, considered in combination, were medically equivalent to the criteria needed to meet a listed impairment; and (2) failed to correctly weigh the medical evidence, including the opinion of a treating physician, before reaching the residual functional capacity finding. This Court recommends the Plaintiff's motion to remand be denied and Defendant's motion for summary judgment be granted. The ALJ thoroughly evaluated whether Plaintiff's combination of conditions equaled a listed impairment, and there was no requirement in this case that the ALJ consult with a medical expert regarding the issue of medical equivalency. And substantial evidence supported the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding. The ALJ correctly determined that the treating physician's opinion was entitled to little or no weight, and thus he was not required to include the treating physician's limitation in the hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert.
II. Statement of Facts
Plaintiff was born on April 25, 1961, and was forty-nine years old on the alleged onset date of disability, December 15, 2010. (Tr. 135.) He was a few days shy of fifty-one years of age when he died on April 22, 2012. He was a high school graduate and had received post-secondary chef training. (Tr. 140.) For more than 15 years prior to the onset date, Plaintiff worked full-time in assembly and general production for a freezer manufacturer. (Tr. 140, 156-57.) He had also done some work as a buffet cook and caterer. (Tr. 158.)
Plaintiff was diagnosed with diabetes on February 21, 2011, upon presenting complaints of significant unintentional weight loss and elevated blood sugar to his treating physician, Dr. Leslie Lofgren. (Tr. 343.) Plaintiff was prescribed insulin and was strongly advised to quit smoking. (Tr. 345.) Upon receiving treatment, he began feeling much better and his condition improved, including improvement in reported vision problems, as stated in treatment notes on follow-up visits to Dr. Lofgren in March, April, May, and November 2011. (Tr. 347-60.) Treatment notes on a March 21, 2012 clinic visit indicated recent elevation in blood sugar level (Tr. 361), but marked decrease in edema and stable varicosities in his lower leg. (Tr. 363.) Regular cardiac rhythm, with no murmurs, rubs, or gallops was reported, and no cardiac irregularities were noted. (Id. ) A chest x-ray was taken on March 21, 2012, which revealed a small lung module to be monitored, and normal heart size. (Tr. 366-67.)
Plaintiff died on April 22, 2012. (Tr. 370.) An autopsy revealed the cause of Plaintiff's death to be "100% occlusion of the left anterior descending coronary artery by a coronary artery thrombus at a point 4.0 cm distal to its origin." (Tr. 374.)
In addition to diabetes, Plaintiff had a somewhat recent medical history that included bilateral knee pain due to osteoarthritis (Tr. 266), edema (ulcerations) on the left ankle (Tr. 218, 231), along with diagnoses of obesity, tobacco use disorder, and varicose veins of the lower extremities. (Tr. 339-62.)
III. ALJ's Findings and Decision-the Five-Step Evaluation
On September 26, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.948(b)(1) and 20 C.F.R. § 416.1448, denying Plaintiff's applications for disability and SSI benefits. (Tr. 12-22). In arriving at her decision, the ALJ applied the five-step evaluation process for determining whether an ...