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Thomas v. Colvin

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

May 13, 2013

MAHLON DWAYNE THOMAS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

AMUL R. THAPAR, District Judge.

The Commissioner of Social Security denied Mahlon Dwayne Thomas's application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Thomas now seeks judicial review of that decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Because of an ambiguity in the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision, it is not clear whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Thomas can perform jobs that exist in the local and national economy. So, the Court will remand the case back to the ALJ for specific findings consistent with this order.

BACKGROUND

Mahlon Thomas raised three boys as a single father, and he and his wife are now raising his stepson and daughter. See R. 6-3 at 300, 303 (Tr. at 891, 894); R. 6-4 at 172 (Tr. at 168). Thomas is not afraid of hard work. He began working at age twelve, and has held a series of jobs, ranging from truck loader, to pipe fitter, to stocking shelves. R. 6-4 at 165, 172 (Tr. at 161, 168). He kept working until, at age forty-three, doing so became too painful. See id. at 17 (Tr. at 15). Thomas's degenerating lower back and knees make it hard for him to stand or walk for long periods of time. See id. at 18 (Tr. at 16).

After he stopped working, Thomas applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. R. 6-3 at 246-251 (Tr. at 827-42). His application was denied both initially and again by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Timothy Keller after a hearing. R. 6-4 at 44-51 (Tr. at 42-49). Thomas appealed that decision. While his appeal was pending, Thomas filed a second application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Id. at 101-02, 108-15 (Tr. at 98-99, 105-12). The Appeals Counsel granted his appeal and remanded the case. Id. at 34-36 (Tr. at 32-34). On remand, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Roger J. Reynolds consolidated and denied Thomas's two applications. Id. at 44-51 (Tr. at 42-49). The Appeals Council declined review. Id. at 7-9 (Tr. at 5-7). At that point, the denial became the final decision of the Commissioner, and Thomas appealed. R. 1.

THE ALJ'S DECISION

ALJ Reynolds applied the traditional five-step analysis for Social Security decisions, see Kyle v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 609 F.3d 847, 855 (6th Cir. 2010); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, and found as follows. First, Thomas had not performed substantial gainful activity since February 15, 2004, the alleged date he became disabled. R. 6-4 at 17 (Tr. at 15). Second, Thomas had "low back pain secondary to degenerative disc disease of the thoracic and lumbar spine; history of cardiomyopathy; osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease of the bilateral knees; obesity; depressive disorder, not otherwise specified; history of alcohol abuse, allegedly in remission, " which qualified as severe impairments. Id. at 18 (Tr. at 16). Third, none of Thomas's impairments qualified as one of the disabilities listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. B, App'x 1. Id. at 18-21 (Tr. at 16-19). Fourth, Thomas could perform light and sedentary work that did not require him to carry more than 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. Thomas could sit, stand, or walk for a total of six hours in an eighthour workday. But he needed to be able to switch between sitting and standing and he could not stand or walk for more than forty-five minutes at a time. Id. at 21 (Tr. at 19) ("[T]he claimant... sit, stand and walk for up to six hours each in an eight hour day. He requires a sit/stand option with no prolonged standing or walking in excess of 45 minutes without interruption."). Any job had to be entry level and could not involve frequent changes in routine, complex problem solving or planning, or more than occasional contact with the general public. Id. at 21 (Tr. at 19). Fifth and finally, Thomas could perform jobs that were available in the state and national economy, such as simple bench work, packaging and sorting work, and weighing, measuring, and inspection work. Id. at 26 (Tr. at 24).

DISCUSSION

This Court reviews an ALJ's decision to determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusions. Substantial evidence is proof that "a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir. 2007) (quotation omitted). An ALJ decision supported by substantial evidence will be upheld "even if substantial evidence would support the opposite conclusion." Ulman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 714 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007)).

Thomas argues that the ALJ decision must be reversed for three reasons. First, the ALJ violated the "treating physician rule." Second, the ALJ's residual functional capacity determination was not supported by substantial evidence. Third, the ALJ did not accurately describe Thomas's limitations when questioning the vocational expert. The first two are unpersuasive, but the third requires a remand to the ALJ to address an ambiguity in the ALJ's decision.

I. The ALJ Did Not Violate the Treating Physician Rule.

Thomas argues that the ALJ violated the "treating physician rule" by discounting or ignoring the statements of two of his treating physicians. Those statements were legal opinions that the ALJ was not required to follow.

Under the treating physician rule, an ALJ must give a treating physician's opinion about an applicant's impairments controlling weight if that opinion is "well-supported by medically acceptable... techniques and [consistent] with the other substantial evidence." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). If an ALJ does not give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight he must explain why and also explain what, if any, weight the opinion does deserve. See id.; see also Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004).

Thomas argues that the ALJ violated the treating physician rule when he rejected Dr. Grosser's opinion that Thomas was disabled and entitled to benefits. See R. 8 at 6. Dr. Timothy Grosser submitted a one-sentence letter asking the ALJ to "consider [Thomas] for disability on the basis of [his back and knee degeneration]." R. 6-3 at 245 (Tr. at 836). The treating physician rule requires an ALJ to give controlling weight to only the medical opinions of a treating physician. The ALJ did that. The ALJ took the back and knee degeneration mentioned in Dr. Grosser's letter into account when determining Thomas's residual functional capacity. See R. 6-4 at 24 (Tr. at 22) (finding that Thomas needed a job that allowed him to switch between sitting and standing and did not require him to stand or walk for extended periods of time). The ALJ did "discount[]" Dr. Grosser's implication that Thomas was entitled to disability benefits. See R. 6-4 at 24 (Tr. at 22). But the regulations that set out the treating physician rule specifically state that a physician's conclusion that an applicant is disabled is "not give[n] any special significance." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d). That decision is "reserved to the Commissioner." Id.; see also Warner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 375 F.3d 387, 390 ...


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