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Hartman v. Astrue

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

August 2, 2013

PATRICIA L. HARTMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

CHARLES R. SIMPSON, III, Senior District Judge.

This matter is before the court for consideration of the Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Recommendation of the United States Magistrate Judge ("magistrate judge's report") concerning this appeal of an administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

The plaintiff, Patricia Hartman, filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for review of the decision denying her application for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits. She contends that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") who heard her case erred in failing to evaluate whether her rheumatoid arthritis and/or rotator cuff tendonitis met or equaled a Listed Impairment under 20 CFR Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, and in failing to give appropriate weight to the opinion of her treating rheumatologist.

The magistrate judge considered the parties' fact and law summaries and the administrative record, and concluded that the ALJ committed reversible error by failing to include an analysis of the medical evidence and particular provisions of the Listing of Impairments when he concluded that Hartman's impairments did not meet or equal a Listed Impairment. The magistrate judge further concluded that this was not harmless error, and recommended that the district court remand the matter to the Commissioner for further consideration.

The Commissioner filed objections to the magistrate judge's report, and Hartman responded to those objections. The matter is presently before the court for consideration of the magistrate judge's report and the objections thereto.

This court has conducted a de novo review of those portions of the report to which objection has been made, in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The Commissioner contends that the ALJ complied with the applicable legal standards in the case and that substantial evidence in the record supports the ALJ's decision that Hartman was not disabled. This court agrees with the Commissioner. The court will accept, adopt, and incorporate sections I (Background), II (Findings of Fact), and III (Standards of Review) of the report. However, for the reasons stated herein, the court will reject section IV (Conclusions of Law) and the recommendation that the matter be remanded to the Commissioner of Social Security for further consideration. This opinion will stand in place of the magistrate judge's report.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Procedural History

Hartman filed applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits in February 2009, alleging that on July 4, 2007, she became disabled as a result of rheumatoid arthritis and rotator cuff tendonitis.[1] After Hartman's applications were denied, both initially and on reconsideration, she requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ. The ALJ issued an opinion in which he found that none of Hartman's severe impairments met or equaled a Listed Impairment, and that Hartman retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work, including her past relevant work as a therapist, with certain restrictions, and was therefore not disabled.[2] Hartman timely requested review by the Appeals Council. Her request was denied. She then timely appealed to this court.

B. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

In reaching a determination regarding a claimant's disability, an ALJ is required to perform a five-step sequential evaluation process. If the ALJ is able to find that a claimant either is or is not disabled at a particular step, he must not go on to the next step. The five steps are as follows:[3]

(1) At the first step, the ALJ consider the claimant's work activity, if any. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled.
(2) At the second step, the ALJ consider the medical severity of the claimant's impairments. If there exists no severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment (or combination of impairments) that meets the duration requirement, the claimant is not disabled.
(3) At the third step, the ALJ also considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairments. If the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals one listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App 1, and meets the duration requirement, the ALJ must find that the claimant is disabled.

Before the ALJ proceeds from step three to step four, he must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity, which the ALJ then must use at both step four and step five when evaluating the claimant's alleged disability.

(4) At the fourth step, the ALJ must consider his assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity and his past relevant work. If the claimant can still do his past relevant work, the ALJ must find that he is not disabled.
(5) At the fifth and last step, the ALJ must consider his assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity and his age, education, and work experience to see if the claimant can make an adjustment to other work. A claimant who can make an adjustment to other work is not disabled, but one who cannot is disabled.

Hartman asserts that the ALJ erred (1) at step three, when he failed to find that her rheumatoid arthritis and/or rotator cuff tendonitis met or equaled a Listed Impairment, and (2) when assessing Hartman's residual functional capacity, he failed to give appropriate weight to the opinion of her medical doctor, a specialist who had treated her over a period of years, in favor of the opinion of doctor of osteopathy who examined her only once and at a time when she was pregnant.

II. FINDINGS OF FACT

The ALJ found that Hartman suffers from the severe impairments of "rheumatoid arthritis and rotator cuff tendonitis."[4] Hartman does not dispute this Finding (Number 3), but asserts that the ALJ's next finding regarding whether any of her impairments met or equaled an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, was erroneous as a matter of law and unsupported by the evidence in the record.

In Finding Number 4, the ALJ wrote only two paragraphs. He stated:

4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 ...

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