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Armstrong v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

July 24, 2018

Mark Armstrong, Plaintiff,
Nancy Berryhill, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Karl E. Osterhout and Edward C. Olson, for Plaintiff.

          Pamela A. Marentette, for Defendant.



         Plaintiff Mark Armstrong seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner (“Commissioner”) of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), who denied his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. This Court has jurisdiction over the claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The parties have submitted cross motions for summary judgment. See ECF Nos. 11 and 14. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED, and the case is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.


         On April 16, 2014, Armstrong applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging a disability onset date of March 19, 2014. Administrative Record [hereinafter “AR”] 140, ECF No. 10. Armstrong's application was denied initially on September 19, 2014, and upon reconsideration on January 13, 2015. AR 65, 78. Thereafter, Armstrong filed a written request for a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Roger Thomas, which was held on February 23, 2016. AR 30. On March 10, 2016, the ALJ denied Armstrong's DIB application. AR 13-22, 28. On April 26, 2017, the SSA Appeals Council denied Armstrong's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision final for purposes of judicial review. AR 1-3; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. On June 26, 2017, Armstrong commenced this action, seeking an award of benefits, or alternatively, remand for further proceedings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). See ECF No. 1.


         A. Background

         Armstrong was fifty-seven years old on his alleged disability onset date. AR 140. Armstrong claims that the following medical conditions impair his ability to secure and maintain competitive employment: osteoarthritis, narrowing of the spine, bulging discs, pinched nerves, nerve damage in neck, carpal tunnel syndrome, shoulder pain, knee pain, tremors, tingling, and numbness in both hands. AR 199. Armstrong's past relevant work includes employment as a truck-part salesman, sterile processer at a hospital, and substitute custodian for a school district. AR 201. This work was semiskilled and its physical demands ranged from sedentary to medium. AR 273.

         B. Hearing Testimony

         Armstrong testified on his own behalf at the February 23, 2016, administrative hearing. AR 30-56. Armstrong was represented by an attorney at the hearing, Natalie Ratzlaff. AR 30. Ratzlaff made no objection to the admission of exhibits into the record and was not aware of any other documents that needed to be added to the file. AR 31. Armstrong testified that he stopped working as a custodian because his hands would cramp after using a mop for an extended period, and the work was complicated by his hand tremors. AR 45. Armstrong also testified that he can carry groceries, such as a gallon of milk, but cannot completely squeeze and grip. AR 46. Armstrong also testified that he suffers from poor concentration and that neck and back pain, specifically a pinched nerve, render extended sitting and standing painful. AR 48.

         A neutral medical expert, Dr. Andrew Steiner, also testified regarding Armstrong's physical limitations. AR 49. He testified that Armstrong's neck, shoulder, and knee conditions did not meet or medically equal the SSA listings, and that Armstrong's “bilateral carpal tunnel condition is not associated with the kinds of strength loss or sensory loss that would get to a listings level or meet it [in] a neurologic category.” AR 51. Steiner concluded that the record “describes somebody functioning at the light level as far as lifting and standing, ” with various other limitations. AR 51-52. In addition, a vocational expert (“VE”), Mitch Norman, testified that based on Armstrong's age, education, skills, and limitations, he could perform his past relevant work as a truck-part salesman and hospital sterilizer. AR 54.

         C. Medical Evidence

         1. Physical Impairments

         On January 20, 2014, Armstrong's primary care physician, Kurt Partoll, M.D., treated him for bilateral hand numbness, hand weakness, and a finger infection. AR 281-82. Partoll referred Armstrong for image testing of his brain to determine the source of his hand numbness. Id. The image testing showed no definite cause of Armstrong's hand symptoms. AR 288-89. On August 12, 2014, A. Neil Johnson, M.D., noted Armstrong's history of neck pain, rotator cuff bilateral, left knee pain, sleep apnea, and carpal tunnel syndrome. AR 300. On November 11, 2014, and May 26, 2015, Paul Dickmann, M.D., of Twin Cities Orthopedics treated Armstrong for assorted physical pain. AR 311, 420. During those visits, Dickmann similarly noted Armstrong's history of neck, knee, and shoulder pain, as well as pain from carpal tunnel syndrome. AR 311, 420. Dickmann treated Armstrong with steroid injections for left knee pain and noted that “using a lot of tools or providing a lot of force or repetitive motion of the hands may be difficult[, ]” but that Armstrong “walked normally.” AR 311. However, Dickmann opined that Armstrong's “gait looks stiff a little antalgic on the left.” AR 422.

         On March 19, 2014, Partoll completed a SSA general medical source statement. AR 385. Partoll stated that he began treating Armstrong in October of 2009. Id. Partoll opined that Armstrong would be capable of low stress jobs, limited to “sedentary work, lifting up to 10 lbs. occasionally, lifting and carrying small items, standing/walking no more than two hours in an eight-hour day.” AR 386. In his opinion, Armstrong was capable of limited part-time ...

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