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Shane T. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

August 30, 2019

Shane T., Plaintiff,
Andrew M. Saul,[1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Mac Schneider, Esq., Schneider Schneider & Schneider, counsel for Plaintiff.

          Linda H. Green, Esq., United States Attorney's Office, counsel for Defendant.


          BECKY R. THORSON, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying his application for Social Security disability insurance benefits. This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, in accordance with D. Minn. LR 7.2(c)(1). (Doc. Nos. 15, 17.) For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's motion is granted in part and denied in part, and Defendant's motion is denied.


         Plaintiff is a high-school graduate, is married, and has step-children. (Tr. 31, 32, 195.)[2] Between 1999 and 2014, Plaintiff worked as an auto mechanic and then as a “breakdown mechanic” who repaired malfunctioning machinery at Marvin Windows and Doors. (Tr. 32-34, 228-29.) He left the Marvin Windows job in late 2014 on the advice of his doctor. (Tr. 34.) Plaintiff had reported worsening pain in his lower back and knees, along with blurred vision and limited mobility. (Tr. 34-37, 210.) At age forty-three, Plaintiff applied for benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act on May 11, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of December 1, 2014. (Tr. 71-72.)

         In a decision dated February 28, 2017, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and denied Plaintiff's application. (Tr. 19.) The ALJ proceeded through the five-step evaluation process provided in the Social Security regulations.[3] At issue on this appeal are the ALJ's findings at step two and steps four/five as they relate to Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “(1) Seronegative Spondyloarthropathy; (2) Chronic Pain Syndrome; (3) Obesity; and (4) Coronary Artery Disease (CAD).” (Tr. 12.) The ALJ then addressed several impairments that she found to be non-severe (including Plaintiff's visual impairments), but did not address Plaintiff's alleged osteoarthritis.[4] Later in the disability analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, with several lifting, carrying, walking, and climbing limitations. (Tr. 14.) Key to Plaintiff's arguments on appeal are that the ALJ did not include a limitation for “occasional handling and fingering, ” or a limitation that would relate to Plaintiff's visual impairments. At step four, after consulting with a vocational expert, the ALJ found that a person with Plaintiff's RFC was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. 18.) At step five, however, the ALJ concluded that a person with Plaintiff's RFC was able to work in certain other representative occupations that exist in sufficient regional and national markets and therefore found Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 18-19.)

         On appeal, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's failure to assess his osteoarthritis as severe or non-severe at step two requires remand. He also argues that, related to his osteoarthritis, the ALJ further failed to make findings regarding Plaintiff's ability to handle and finger when determining Plaintiff's RFC, and erred when evaluating the weight given to treating physician Dr. Anderson's opinion that Plaintiff could only occasionally do “handling and fingering.”[5] Plaintiff argues that if proper weight is given to that opinion, then, as the vocational expert testified, a person with Plaintiff's limitations would not be able to perform the unskilled sedentary jobs identified by the ALJ at step five. Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in finding that his visual impairments were not severe at step two and by not including a limitation in his RFC that would properly address his visual impairments.


         I. Standard of Review

         Congress has established the standards by which Social Security disability insurance benefits may be awarded. The SSA must find a claimant disabled if the claimant is unable “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). The claimant's impairments must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The claimant bears the burden of proving that he is entitled to disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a). Once the claimant has demonstrated that he cannot perform past work due to a disability, “the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to prove, first that the claimant retains the [RFC] to do other kinds of work, and, second that other work exists in substantial numbers in the national economy that the claimant is able to do.” Nevland v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 853, 857 (8th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted).

         The Commissioner's decision will be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Kluesner v. Astrue, 607 F.3d 533, 536 (8th Cir. 2010). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (citations omitted); accord Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 645 (8th Cir. 2003). This standard “allows for the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions.” Culbertson v. Shalala, 30 F.3d 934, 939 (8th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). If it is possible to draw inconsistent conclusions from the record, and one of those conclusions represents the ALJ's findings, the ALJ's decision must be affirmed. McNamara v. Astrue, 590 F.3d 607, 610 (8th Cir. 2010); Pearsall v. Massanarri, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001) (stating that the court must affirm even if it would have weighed the evidence differently); Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065, 1068 (8th Cir. 2000) (concluding substantial evidence in the record supporting a contrary outcome was not enough to warrant reversal).

         II. Step-Two Arguments

         At step two, the Social Security Administration considers “the medical severity of [a claimant's] impairment(s).” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). An impairment must meet a twelve-month durational requirement to be considered severe. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509; see also David G. Berryhill, No. 17-cv-3671 (HB), 2018 WL 4572981, at *1, n.2 (D. Minn. Sept. 24, 2018). “An impairment is not severe if it amounts only to a slight abnormality that would not significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007). The claimant bears the burden of establishing that a given impairment is severe. Id. at 707-08 (citing Mittlestedt v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir. 2000)).

         A. Step Two - Osteoarthritis

         The ALJ did not discuss osteoarthritis as being either severe or non-severe at step two of the evaluation process. Plaintiff argues that this was reversible error. “[S]everal district courts in the Eighth Circuit, including the District of Minnesota, have concluded that an ALJ's failure to find that an impairment is severe at step two is harmless error where the ALJ otherwise finds another severe impairment exists and addresses any functional limitations caused by the overlooked impairment when determining the individual's RFC.” Misty G. v. Berryhill, No. 18-cv-00587-KMM, 2019 WL 1318355, at *3 (D. Minn. Mar. 22, 2019) (citing cases).[6] The functional limitation that Plaintiff argues should be considered based on Plaintiff's osteoarthritis is his ability to handle and finger. A “step two error cannot be dismissed as harmless if the RFC finding omits the claimant's relevant functional limitations, and a remand would be necessary to correct the analysis.” Misty G., 2019 WL 1318355, at *4. Here, the ALJ's RFC finding did omit the limitation for “occasional handling and fingering” as opined by Plaintiff's treating physician. As explained further below, a remand is necessary to provide good reasons for discounting Plaintiff's treating physician's opinion regarding Plaintiff's ability to handle ...

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