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Mathies v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division

December 9, 2014

MARK BRYAN MATHIES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

For Mark Bryan Mathies, Plaintiff: Charles Edward Binder, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, Law Offices of Harry J. Binder and Charles E. Binder, P.C., New York, NY; Robert J Engler, LEAD ATTORNEY, Robberts & Kirkman, L.L.L.P., Burlington, IA.

For Commissioner of Social Security, agent of Carolyn W Colvin, Defendant: Stephanie Johnson Wright, U.S. Attorney's Office, Northern District Of Iowa, Cedar Rapids, IA.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

LEONARD T. STRAND, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

Plaintiff Mark Bryan Mathies seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying his application for Social Security Disability benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq . (Act). Mathies contends that the administrative record (AR) does not contain substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision that he was not disabled during the relevant period of time. For the reasons that follow, I recommend that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

I. BACKGROUND

Mathies was born in 1960. AR 187. He has a high school diploma and past relevant work as a refrigeration mechanic. AR 59-60, 309. He filed an application for DIB on May 24, 2011, alleging disability since October 31, 2006. AR 77, 187-95. His application was denied initially. AR 82-90. Mathies requested reconsideration and on April 24, 2012, the Social Security Administration (SSA) issued a Notice of Award finding Mathies was disabled since October 31, 2006, but was only entitled to benefits beginning in May 2010 due to the date of his application. AR 92-100. Confusingly, however, a separate " explanation of determination" stated that Mathies was found disabled as of February 2, 2011. AR 79.

On June 7, 2012, Mathies requested reopening of prior DIB applications that had been denied in 2008 and 2009 and asked for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on the issue of whether those applications should be reopened based on new and material evidence. AR 101. On August 3, 2012, he requested that a fully favorable decision be made on his claim finding him disabled back to his alleged onset date and reopening his prior applications for benefits. AR 102-05

A hearing was held before ALJ Emily Cameron Shattil on February 27, 2013. AR 48-75. Mathies testified, as did a medical expert and a vocational expert (VE). During the hearing, Mathies amended his alleged onset date to June 1, 2010. AR 51. This rendered his request to reopen the earlier applications moot. Mathies testified that he is unable to work due to (a) pain in his lower back and feet, (b) a diminished capacity for exertion caused by a heart condition and (c) arthritis. AR 61-66.

On March 13, 2013, the ALJ found that Mathies was not disabled at any time from June 1, 2010, through the date he was last insured, effectively reversing the prior decision in his favor. AR 7-32. The Appeals Council denied Mathies's request for review on June 6, 2013. AR 1-6. The ALJ's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

On August 1, 2013, Mathies filed a complaint (Doc. No. 2) in this court seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. This case has been referred to me pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) for the filing of a report and recommended disposition. The parties have briefed the issues and the matter is now fully submitted.

II. DISABILITY DETERMINATIONS AND THE BURDEN OF PROOF

A disability is defined as the inability 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 that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § § 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505. A claimant has a disability when the claimant 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 significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country." 42 U.S.C. § § 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

To determine whether a claimant has a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process outlined in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007). First, the Commissioner will consider a claimant's work activity. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i).

Second, if the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner looks to see " whether the claimant has a severe impairment that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities." Dixon v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 602, 605 (8th Cir. 2003). " 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, 500 F.3d at 707; see 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(c), 404.1521(a).

The ability to do basic work activities is defined as " the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b). These abilities and aptitudes include (1) physical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, or handling; (2) capacities for seeing, hearing, and speaking; (3) understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; (4) use of judgment; (5) responding appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and usual work situations; and (6) dealing with changes in a routine work setting. Id. § 404.1521(b)(1)-(6); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 141, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2291, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). " The sequential evaluation process may be terminated at step two only when the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments would have no more than a minimal impact on her ability to work." Page v. Astrue, 484 F.3d 1040, 1043 (8th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Third, if the claimant has a severe impairment, then the Commissioner will consider the medical severity of the impairment. If the impairment meets or equals one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the regulations, then the claimant is considered disabled, regardless of age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d); see Kelley v. Callahan, 133 F.3d 583, 588 (8th Cir. 1998).

Fourth, if the claimant's impairment is severe, but it does not meet or equal one of the presumptively disabling impairments, then the Commissioner will assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) to determine the claimant's " ability to meet the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements" of the claimant's past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1545(a)(4). " RFC is a medical question defined wholly in terms of the claimant's physical ability to perform exertional tasks or, in other words, what the claimant can still do despite his or her physical or mental limitations." Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The claimant is responsible for providing evidence the Commissioner will use to make a finding as to the claimant's RFC, but the Commissioner is responsible for developing the claimant's " complete medical history, including arranging for a consultative examination(s) if necessary, and making every reasonable effort to help [the claimant] get medical reports from [the claimant's] own medical sources." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). The Commissioner also will consider certain non-medical evidence and other evidence listed in the regulations. See id. If a claimant retains the RFC to perform past relevant work, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv).

Fifth, if the claimant's RFC as determined in Step Four will not allow the claimant to perform past relevant work, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that there is other work that the claimant can do, given the claimant's RFC as determined at Step Four, and his or her age, education, and work experience. See Bladow v. Apfel, 205 F.3d 356, 358-59 n.5 (8th Cir. 2000). The Commissioner must prove not only that the claimant's RFC will allow the claimant to make an adjustment to other work, but also that the other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, then the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, then the Commissioner will find that the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). At Step Five, even though the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner, the burden of persuasion to prove disability remains on the claimant. Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2004).

III. ALJ'S FINDINGS

The ALJ made the following findings:

(1) The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2011.
(2) The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from his amended alleged onset date of June 1, 2010 through his date last insured of December 31, 2011 (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq .).
(3) Through the date last insured, the claimant had the following severe impairments: chronic atrial fibrillation; history of congestive heart failure; hypertensive heart disease; obesity; status post left ankle fracture and open reduction and fixation; mild poly neuropathy; benign positional vertigo; degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; and cervical spine arthritis with congenital fusion and spondylosis at the C4 through C6 levels (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
(4) Through the date last insured, the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526).
(5) After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to lift and carry twenty pounds on occasion and ten pounds frequently. He was able to sit, stand or walk (any), each, for two hours continuously and for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday. The claimant is able to perform work that does not require climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolding; or more than occasional climbing of stairs, stooping, kneeling, crawling or crouching.
(6) Through the date last insured, the claimant was unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565).
(7) The claimant was born on June 21, 1960 and was 51 years old, which is defined as an individual closely approaching advanced age, on the date last insured (20 CFR 404.1563).
(8) The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564).
(9) Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical--Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is " not disabled, " whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
(10) Through the date last insured, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed (20 CFR 404.1569 and 404.1569(a)).
(11) The claimant was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from June 1, 2010, through December 31, 2011, the ...

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