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Brian S. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

August 29, 2019

Brian S., Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Brian S. seeks review of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's (the “Commissioner”) denial of the claimant's application for supplemental security income (“SSI”).[2] See generally (Compl. [Doc. No. 1].[3]) The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [Doc. No. 13]; Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [Doc. No. 16].) For the reasons set forth below, the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied and the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         On January 30, 2015, Plaintiff protectively filed for SSI benefits. See, e.g., (R. 10, 86). Plaintiff alleged the he was disabled due to “Multiple conditions”; “Arthritis-Whole Body”; “Knee Pain”; and “Low Back Pain.” See, e.g., (id. at 86.) Plaintiff asserted an alleged onset date (“AOD”) of January 1, 2009. (Id.)

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on May 23, 2017. (R. 10-21). Pursuant to the five-step sequential evaluation procedure outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a), the ALJ first determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since at least his AOD of January 1, 2009. (Id. 12.) At step two, the ALJ determined that the claimant had severe impairments of “arthritis and organic mental disorder.” (Id. 12.) The ALJ found at the third step that no impairment or combination of impairments met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. (Id. 13-14).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[4]

[T]o perform light work . . . except he requires a sit/stand option every half hour and he would need to move about for three minutes while remaining on task. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. He can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He is limited to performing simple, routine tasks and making simple work related decisions. He can have occasional, brief, and superficial interactions with the public, coworkers, and supervisors.

(Id. 14.) The ALJ also found at step four that Plaintiff was not able to perform his past relevant work as a progressive assembler and fitter and meat clerk. (Id. 19.) The ALJ based this conclusion largely on testimony from the vocational expert that “an individual of the claimant's age, education, vocational background, and residual functional capacity” was incapable of performing such work. (Id.)

         At step five, however, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found Plaintiff could work in jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including: housekeeping cleaner, small products assembler, and bench assembler. (Id. 20.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. 21.)

         Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council, which denied his request. (R. 1- 6). The ALJ's decision therefore became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id.); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review.

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in evaluating the claimant's impairments and in determining that the claimant is not disabled because, inter alia, the ALJ did not provide good specific reasons-supported by the evidence-to explain why opinions of Mary Lamusga, RN, PAC, A. Neil Johnson, MD, Ed Modahl, MS.Ed., LP, and Sheila Froemming, MD, were discounted. (Pl.'s Mem. in Sup. at 5-18.) Plaintiff also asserts that if those opinions were afforded proper weight, the ALJ's determination is not supported by substantial evidence. (Id. at 9-10.) Consequently, Plaintiff requests that the case be remanded to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Id. at 18.)

         B. Factual Background[5]

         1. Plaintiff's Background and Testimony

         At the time of his AOD, Plaintiff was thirty-eight years old, and therefore a “younger person.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.963(c). (R. 86.) Plaintiff has a high school education, “but all through school” he attended special education. (Id. 39; see also Id. 242.) From April 1997 until January 2003, Plaintiff worked as an assembler for a landscaping business. (Id. 265.) From September 2003 until November 2004, Plaintiff worked as a meat processor. (Id.) There is no reported employment income after 2004. (Id. 225.)

         At a March 2017 hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff testified that he was single and living in a home by himself, but that he was receiving a relative's help to handle the mortgage payments because he “can't afford [them].” (Id. 39.) At home, he cares for two dogs and a cat. (Id. 49-50.) To pass the time, he watches TV, sitting as long as he can before getting up and moving around, and when it's nice out, he tries “to get what exercise I can get.” (Id. 51.) Plaintiff also testified that he is able to wash and dress himself, but he uses a chair in the shower so he does not need to stand, except when he washes his hair. (Id. 51.) Plaintiff also discussed other assistive devices in his home, including rails on the walls, and an elevated toilet seat. (Id. 51.) In response to questioning by his attorney, Plaintiff also testified that a cane that Plaintiff had with him was prescribed by a doctor, and that he has it with him all the time. (Id. 46.) Plaintiff testified that he could only walk about 200 feet with or without his cane. (Id. 55.)

         He further testified that he had some trouble reading but had some assistance in that respect. (Id. 39-40.) That said, Plaintiff stated that he had no problems making change at a store, paying bills, or otherwise handling his finances. (Id. 40.) With respect to other activities of daily living, Plaintiff testified that he does dishes, but that he has “to be very careful because I drop them and break them” because he has trouble making a fist and holding on to things. (Id. 42-43.) He also stated that he does his own shopping, although he has to “lean up against the grocery cart” to help him mitigate the pain in his lower extremities and he makes frequent stops as he walks down the aisles. (Id. 44-45.) He also mentioned trying to use electronic carts and scooters when shopping, but noted that oftentimes they are not available. (Id. 45.) Plaintiff also testified that his impairments now prevent him from hunting or fishing and he has not engaged in those activities in at least five years. (Id. 50.)

         Plaintiff testified that he is able to prepare his own meals, and uses a grill during the summer, although he needs to be seated while using the grill. (Id. 52.) With respect to his cooking, Plaintiff stated that he does not follow recipes; he will “just throw things together and make it taste good.” (Id.) Plaintiff also testified that although he had some help with reading, he received no help with grocery shopping, doing household chores, yard work, or paying bills. (Id.) In response to questions from the ALJ, Plaintiff stated that it “takes me all day to mow my grass because I mow for a while.” (Id. 53.) Plaintiff estimated that his lawn was about an acre and that he used a riding mower to mow his lawn. (Id.)

         With respect to other aspects of his impairments, Plaintiff stated that he has pain in his knees, back, wrists “going into [his] shoulders” and that his “ankles are starting to pop.” (Id. 42.) Plaintiff testified that an unnamed doctor told him his arthritis was “unbelievable, ” and because of his arthritis he was unable to bend one of his fingers and one wrist “don't move.” (Id. 43.) He stated that he cannot sit for too long and needs to get up from time to time to manage his pain. (Id. 45-46.) He takes medication three times per day as prescribed by his doctors to manage his arthritis but that “it's not doing me no good yet.” (Id. 47.) Plaintiff stated that his sleep is sometimes interrupted by his pain. (Id. 54.)

         2. Relevant Evidence

         a. Plaintiff's Functional Reports

         As part of his application for benefits, Plaintiff completed two functional reports in 2015. See, e.g., (id. 246-63, 282-89.) In both reports, Plaintiff indicated no problems with many activities of daily living, including dressing, bathing, shaving, using the toilet, and attending to other personal care needs. (Id. 249, 283.) He stated he cooked daily, prepared each meal, which were “complete meals with several courses.” (Id. 250; see also Id. 284.) Plaintiff noted it could take thirty minutes to an hour to prepare each meal. (Id. 250.) Plaintiff was able to clean, do laundry, mow his lawn, and remove snow, and these tasks could take twenty minutes to two-and-a-half hours. (Id. 250; see also id. 284.) Plaintiff also indicated that he could drive and shop for himself for both food and clothing. (Id. 251, 285.) Plaintiff stated that his ...

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