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Curtis E. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

November 12, 2019

Curtis E., Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.

          Steven J. Drummond, for Plaintiff Curtis E.

          Michael A Moss, Assistant Regional Counsel, Social Security Administration, for Defendant Andrew Saul.


          HILDY BOWBEER, United States Magistrate Judge [2]

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Curtis E. seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). The matter is now before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment [Doc. Nos. 11, 13]. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and grants the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff was born in May 1962. (R. 233.)[3] His past relevant work includes employment as a heavy equipment operator, crew foreman, and large truck salesman. (R. 240.) Plaintiff reports that he began experiencing severe pain in his back, such that he could not work, in late 2013, and he has seen several doctors, physical therapists, and chiropractors since then. (R. 368, 371-74.) Eventually, Plaintiff underwent spinal surgeries in 2018 and 2019. (R. 162, Ex. Med. R. at 5 [Doc. No. 16].)

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on December 31, 2015, alleging an onset of disability date of October 30, 2013. (R. 11.) His claims for disability were based on severe back and neck pain. (R. 13.) Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, and he timely requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ then convened a hearing, at which Plaintiff and vocational expert Jesse Ogren testified. (R. 11.)

         On December 22, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's application. (R. 8-20.) Following the five-step sequential analysis outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ first determined Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 13.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had a severe impairment: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine with radiculopathy. (R. 13.) The ALJ found at the third step that the impairment did not meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. (R. 14.)

         At step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). (R. 15-19.) As part of that assessment, the ALJ analyzed whether the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of Plaintiff's symptoms were as severe as he claimed. (Id.) The ALJ also analyzed and assigned evidentiary weight to four medical sources who opined on Plaintiff's condition. (R. 29-32.) The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b).[4] In light of this RFC, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as an Automobile Salesperson and a Broker Truck Dealer. (R. 19.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 19.)

         The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, which made the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1.) Plaintiff then filed this action for judicial review.

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred at the fourth step by concluding that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work. (Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. at 1 [Doc. No. 12].) Specifically, Plaintiff challenges as insufficient the weight the ALJ gave to the opinions of two medical sources, Dr. Andrews and Dr. Johnson. (See Id. at 5, 7-8.) Plaintiff also argues the ALJ erred by failing to consider Plaintiff's “non-exertional limitations”-that is, his pain-in determining Plaintiff's residual functional capacity. (Id.)

         On March 8, 2019, Plaintiff filed a “Notice” informing the Court that he had been granted DIB on March 3, 2019. (Notice [Doc. No. 15].) The disability benefits are retroactive, based on a finding that Plaintiff became disabled on December 23, 2017. (Id. at 1-2.) Plaintiff also filed supplemental medical records from a procedure performed in March of 2019. (Ex. Med. R.) Plaintiff did not explain how the March 3, 2019 award of DIB or the March 2019 medical records affected the merits of his claim for benefits for the relevant time period.

         Since Plaintiff has been deemed disabled beginning on December 23, 2017, the time period most relevant to the Court's consideration of the Commissioner's decision is October 13, 2013 (the alleged onset of disability date) through December 22, 2017 (the date of the ALJ's decision). Cunningham v. Apfel, 222 F.3d 496, 501 (8th Cir. 2000). Medical or other evidence before or after that period may also be relevant, but only if it relates to Plaintiff's impairments during that date range. See Vandenboom v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 745, 750 (8th Cir. 2005). Accordingly, the Court considers Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment as still active, but as only seeking benefits for the period of October 30, 2013 through December 22, 2017.

         The Court has reviewed the entire administrative record, giving particular attention to the facts and records cited in the parties' memoranda. The Court will incorporate the facts of record only to the extent they are helpful for context or necessary for resolution of the specific issues presented in the parties' motions.

         II. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the SSA's denial of benefits is limited to determining whether substantial evidence on the record supports the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion.” Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019, 1022 (8th Cir. 2002) (citing Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012 (8th Cir. 2000)). The Court must examine “evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision as well as evidence that supports it.” Id. (citing Craig v. Apfel, 212 F.3d 433, 436 (8th Cir. 2000)). The Court may not reverse the ALJ's decision simply because substantial evidence would support a different outcome, or the Court would have decided the case differently. Id. (citing Woolf v. Shalala, 3 F.3d 1210, 1213 (8th Cir. 1993)). In other words, if it is possible to reach two inconsistent positions from the evidence, and one of those positions is that of the Commissioner, the Court must affirm the decision. Robinson v. Sullivan, 956 F.2d 836, 838 (8th Cir. 1992).

         A claimant has the burden to prove his disability. See Roth v. Shalala, 45 F.3d 279, 282 (8th Cir. 1995). To meet the definition of disability for DIB, the claimant must establish that he 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 disability, not just the impairment, must have lasted or be expected to last for at least twelve months. Titus v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 590, 594 (8th Cir. 1993).

         III. Discussion

         A. Legal Standards Applicable to Step Four RFC Determination

         An RFC assessment measures the most a person can do, despite his limitations, in a work setting. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ is responsible for assessing a claimant's RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1546(c). The ALJ must base the RFC “on all relevant evidence, including medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and the claimant's own descriptions of his or her limitations.” Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004). In addition, “RFC is not simply a laundry list of impairments and limitations.” Gann v. Colvin, 92 F.Supp.3d 857, 884 (N.D. Iowa 2015). Thus, the ALJ may distill what may be numerous impairments and limitations into a descriptive phrase, as long as it accurately captures a claimant's abilities in a work setting. See Howard v. Massanari, 255 F.3d 577, 582 (8th Cir. 2001) (finding the ALJ's description of the claimant as “able to do simple, routine, repetitive work” adequately accounted for the claimant's borderline intellectual functioning).

         B. Whether the ALJ Erred in Determining Plaintiff's RFC for the Period of October 30, ...

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