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Reid v. Colvin

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

June 25, 2013

WILLIAM REID, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

AMUL R. THAPAR, District Judge.

The plaintiff, William Reid, brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)[1] and 1383(c)(3) to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny him disability insurance benefits. R. 1 at 1. Because substantial evidence in the record supports the Administrative Law Judge's decision, Reid's motion for summary judgment, R. 9, is denied and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment, R. 10, is granted.

BACKGROUND

Reid filed an application for disability insurance benefits on January 31, 2008. R. 7-1 at 214 (Admin. Tr. at 210 [hereinafter Tr.]). To receive disability benefits, an applicant must have "insured status, " which he attains by meeting a statutory earnings requirement. See 42 20 C.F.R. § 404.101 et seq.; Social Security Administration, Program Operations Manual System RS 00301.101, https://secure.ssa.gov/poms.nsf/lnx/XXXXXXXXXX. Since Reid's insured status expired on March 31, 2007, he had to establish that he became disabled on or before that date to qualify for benefits. R. 7-1 at 21 (Tr. at 17). Reid claimed that he has been unable to work since May 15, 2001. R. 7-1 at 21 (Tr. at 17). His alleged disabilities include problems with his left knee, left shoulder, and back; carpal tunnel syndrome; hypertension; and obesity. Id. at 23-24 (Tr. at 19-20). After the Social Security Administration denied Reid's application, id. at 123 (Tr. at 119), 127 (Tr. at 123), Reid requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Id. at 131 (Tr. at 127). The ALJ also denied Reid's claim. Id. at 105 (Tr. at 101). Upon remand from the Appeals Council, id. at 119 (Tr. at 115), the ALJ conducted a second hearing on August 8, 2011. Id. at 21 (Tr. at 17).

Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process used in Social Security decisions, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Jones v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003), the ALJ once again concluded that Reid did not qualify for disability insurance benefits between his alleged disability onset date in 2001 and his insured status expiration date in 2007. R. 7-1 at 22-29 (Tr. at 18-25). First, the ALJ found that Reid had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant period. Id. at 23 (Tr. at 19). While Reid had continued to engage in fencing, shoveling, baling, and other farm work, the ALJ determined that this labor did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity. Id. Second, Reid had severe impairments, namely (1) degenerative joint disease of the left knee status post two arthroscopic surgeries for anterior cruciate ligament repairs and meniscectomy; (2) status post left shoulder acromioplasty; (3) degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; (4) hypertension; and (5) mild obesity. Id. at 23-24 (Tr. 19-20). Third, Reid's impairments did not meet or equal one of the Commissioner's listed impairments. Id. at 24 (Tr. at 20). Fourth, Reid retained the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced range of light work through his insured status expiration date, although he was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. Id. at 24-27 (Tr. at 20-23). Finally, given Reid's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the ALJ found that he could have performed jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 27-28 (Tr. at 23-24).

The ALJ therefore determined that Reid was not disabled for the purposes of disability insurance benefits during the relevant period. Id. at 29 (Tr. at 25). The Appeals Counsel denied Reid's request for review of the ALJ's decision, id. at 5 (Tr. at 1), and Reid filed his complaint in this Court, R. 1.

DISCUSSION

Reid raises several issues in his motion for summary judgment: (1) whether the ALJ gave appropriate weight to the opinion of the treating physicians and included adequate reasoning on this subject in his decision; (2) whether the ALJ sufficiently considered the combined effects of Reid's impairments; (3) whether the ALJ considered the durational requirement of substantial gainful activity; and (4) whether a reasonable person could conclude that Reid is not disabled in light of the total medical evidence. R. 9-1 at 1-2.

Under the Social Security Act, the Court conducts a limited review of the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court may only evaluate whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard and made factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Id.; see also Rabbers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 582 F.3d 647, 651 (6th Cir. 2009) (articulating the same standard for judicial review by the court of appeals). Substantial evidence means "more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance" and includes "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Cutlip v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 25 F.3d 284, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). In assessing the evidence and the ALJ's decision, the Court cannot "try the case de novo, nor resolve conflicts in the evidence, nor decide questions of credibility." Id.; see Bass v. McMahon, 499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007). The ALJ's decision survives such review.

I. The ALJ's Decision To Discount the Medical Opinions of Drs. Cervoni and Picon

Reid alleges that the ALJ's decision improperly discounted medical opinions rendered by two of his treating physicians, Dr. Thomas Cervoni and Dr. Dora Picon. R. 9-1 at 1-2. Generally speaking, a treating physician's opinion that is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and [consistent with] other substantial evidence" must be given controlling weight. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). When an ALJ does not give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight, he must do two things. First, he must provide "good reasons" for why the treating physician's opinion does not deserve controlling weight. Id.; see also Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004) (noting that an ALJ must provide "good reasons for not giving weight to a treating physician in the context of a disability determination" (internal quotation marks omitted)). Second, he must explain what weight, if any, the treating physician's opinion does deserve. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). The relevant factors are the length, frequency, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship; the evidence supporting the opinion; the consistency of the opinion with the records as a whole; and the physician's specialization. Id. § 404.1527(c)(2)-(c)(6); see also Cole v. Astrue, 661 F.3d 931, 937 (6th Cir. 2011). While an ALJ must consider all of these factors, he need not provide "an exhaustive factorby-factor analysis" in his decision. Francis v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 414 F.Appx. 802, 804 (6th Cir. 2011).

The ALJ in this case gave good reasons for why he assigned less than controlling weight to Dr. Thomas Cervoni's opinion of Reid's residual functional capacity. Dr. Cervoni began treating Reid in 1999 for knee, shoulder, and back problems. R. 7-1 at 398 (Tr. at 394). On March 28, 2009, Dr. Cervoni evaluated Reid's residual functional capacity. Id. at 518-22 (Tr. at 514-18). Dr. Cervoni opined that Reid could walk fewer than three blocks without rest and could sit or stand for no more than thirty minutes continuously. Id. at 519 (Tr. at 515). In an eight-hour working day, Reid could stand or walk for about two hours and sit for at least six hours. Id. at 520 (Tr. at 516). According to Dr. Cervoni, Reid required a job that permitted him to shift positions at will, and he needed to take unscheduled breaks intermittently during the workday. Id. He could lift ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally; reach his arms fifty percent of the time; stoop for twenty-five percent of the workday; and crouch at no time. Id. at 521 (Tr. at 517). Dr. Cervoni estimated that Reid would miss work more than four times a month as a result of his impairments. Id.

The ALJ found these limitations unsupported by the record before March 31, 2007. Id. at 26 (Tr. at 22). First, the ALJ noted that Dr. Cervoni's assessment occurred over two years after Reid's insured status expiration date and that Reid's physical condition had changed substantially during that period. Id. Dr. Cervoni stated in June 2007, just after the insured status expiration date, that Reid had a full range of motion in his right knee and active range of motion in his left knee and that he hoped to "postpone the need for a totalknee arthroplasty for several years." Id. at 26 (Tr. at 22); id. at 392 (Tr. at 388). By July 2008, however, Reid required a total-knee replacement. Id. at 26 (Tr. at 22); id. at 71 (Tr. at 67). Dr. Cervoni did not write his report until March 2009, well after Reid's further deterioration and additional surgery. This is, in itself, a good reason for discounting Dr. Cervoni's 2009 opinion: evidence of problems that developed after an applicant's insured status expiration date cannot support a finding of disability under the Social Security Act. See, e.g., Clendening v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 482 F.Appx. 93, 95 (upholding an ALJ decision that rejected post-hoc medical opinions concerning the onset date of the plaintiff's disability).

Second, the ALJ cited contradictory evidence in the record indicating that Reid had been capable before March 31, 2007, of engaging in the type of physical activity that Dr. Cervoni's assessment proscribed. For example, Reid performed substantial work on his family farm; he tended livestock, fenced the property, shoveled, and baled hay. Id. at 26 (Tr. at 22); see id. at 399 (Tr. at 395). He went deer hunting as recently as 2004. Id. at 399 (Tr. at 395). And, in 2007, he received a clean bill of health when he applied for a commercial driver's license. Id. at 26 (Tr. at 22); id. at 482-83 (Tr. at 478-79). Third, the ALJ determined that the findings of state agency physicians who reviewed Reid's medical records were entitled to "significant weight" because they were consistent with other medical evidence in the ...


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