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Guffey v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division

August 28, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [*]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Danny C. Reeves, United States District Judge

         This matter is pending for consideration of cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff Dillard Guffey and Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security. [Record Nos. 23, 25] Guffey contends that the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) assigned to his case erred by denying his claims for a period of disability, Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). [Record No. 23] He requests that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and that a decision be entered, finding him disabled. [Id. at 9] As alternative relief, Guffey requests that his case be remanded for additional findings. [Id.] The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. [Record No. 25] For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant the Commissioner's motion and deny the relief sought by Guffey.


         Guffey filed applications on September 26, 2013 for a period of disability and DIB under Title II and SSI under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). [Administrative Transcript, “Tr., ” 179, 187] He alleged that his disability began on February 7, 2006, in the applications, but subsequently amended his alleged onset date to August 4, 2007. [Tr. 32] The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied his applications initially and upon reconsideration. [Tr. 77-80] Thereafter, an administrative hearing was held before ALJ Peter Jung [Tr. 26-54] and the ALJ issued a written opinion. [Tr. 10-25] Guffey then sought review by the Appeals Council, which was denied. [Tr. 1]. Guffey has exhausted his administrative remedies and his case is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         Guffey was fifty-three years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. [Tr. 179] He has an eighth-grade education and has been employed as a construction worker and carpenter for twenty-seven years. [Tr. 32-33, 219-20] Guffey stopped working in 2006 due to severe pain in his lower back, shoulders, and neck. [Tr. 32-33, 219-20] Guffey testified that he has suffered from lower back pain for approximately fifteen years, but has worked through the pain in the past. [Tr. 36] His back pain is aggravated by heavy lifting, bending, and prolonged sitting or standing. [Id.] He takes morphine to alleviate the pain. [Id.] He is able to lift a gallon of milk, but has difficulty sitting in straight-back chairs, and sleeps in a recliner rather than flat on a bed. [Tr. 43, 37] His back pain radiates down into his hips and legs, and he uses cruise control when he drives because it hurts his hips to keep his foot on the gas pedal. [Tr. 39-40]

         As noted, Guffey testified that he has experienced pain in his neck and shoulders for approximately fifteen years. [Tr. 37-38] He has experienced pain in his right arm for approximately six years, and he recently began taking medication for hand tremors. [Tr. 38, 41] Finally, Guffey reported heartburn and difficulty swallowing and digesting food. [Tr. 40]

         William Waltrip, M.D., performed a consultative examination of Guffey on December 9, 2013. [Tr. 557-562] He noted that Guffey was moderately obese, but observed no limitations in the range of motion in his back, no muscle tenderness or muscle spasms, and no loss of sensation in his back. [Tr. 559] Guffey could walk with a normal gait, heal-to-toe and tandem, and without an assistive device. [Id.] He could perform knee squats and walk on the tip of his toes and heels. [Id.] Dr. Waltrip also found no deformity, redness or tenderness in any joint or extremity. [Id.] Guffey could make a fist, had good grip strength, and could perform fine manipulation. [Id.] His deep tendon reflexes were normal. [Id.] Dr. Waltrip concluded that Guffey has very minimal limitation of walking, standing or sitting, no motor dysfunction, sensory loss, or reflex abnormalities, and should be able to lift objects weighing up to thirty-five to forty pounds without limitation. [Tr. 560]

         Guffey underwent an MRI of his lumbar spine on March 10, 2014. [Tr. 581] The MRI revealed normal alignment, no disc bulge at ¶ 3/4, and a mild disc bulge at ¶ 4/5 with moderate spurring endplates and facets and mild narrowing of the foramina. [Id.] The MRI also noted moderate spurring of the facets at the L5/S1 level, with mild narrowing of the foramina. [Id.]

         Guffey saw his treating physician, Sherrell Roberts, M.D., six times regarding complaints of back pain from March through October 2014. [Tr. 603, 610, 612, 614, 618, 621] Dr. Roberts' examinations indicated that Guffey was not in acute distress, and examinations of his cervical, thoracic, and lumbosacral spines did not indicate tenderness to palpation, pain, swelling, edema or erythema of surrounding tissue. [Id.]

         Jack Reed, M.D., reviewed Guffey's file and provided his opinion regarding Guffey's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) on April 2, 2014 as part of the reconsideration of Guffey's initial denial. [Tr. 81-100] Dr. Reed found that Guffey had abilities consistent with medium exertion work, and that he could lift or carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently. [Tr. 96] Dr. Reed believed that Guffey could stand and/or walk for a total of six hours in an eight hour workday and sit with normal breaks for a total of six hours in an eight hour workday. [Id.] He noted no limitations in Guffey's ability to push and/or pull, and no postural, manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental limitations. [Id.]

         Dr. Roberts completed a physical assessment regarding Guffey's ability to perform work-related activities on October 1, 2015. [Tr. 745] Based on Guffey's MRI, Dr. Roberts concluded that Guffey could stand, walk, and sit for eight hours in an eight hour workday, but only one hour without interruption, and that Guffey could only lift or carry ten pounds occasionally. [Tr. 745-46] He believed that Guffey could occasionally climb, kneel, crouch, stoop, balance, and crawl, and that Guffey had no impairment reaching, handling, feeling, seeing, hearing, or speaking. [Tr. 746] However, he believed that Guffey's back would not tolerate heavy pushing or pulling, and that temperature extremes and vibration would worsen his back pain. [Tr. 746-747] As a result, Dr. Roberts did not feel that Guffey could continue to work at the jobs he had performed in the past. [Tr. 747]

         ALJ Jung issued a decision on December 1, 2015, finding that Guffey has not been under a disability since August 4, 2017, his amended alleged onset date. [Tr. 10] The ALJ found that Guffey had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, thoracic outlet syndrome, a bilateral shoulder disorder, obesity, and gastro esophageal reflux disease. [Tr. 15] However, ALJ Jung determined that Guffey did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [Id.]

         The ALJ found that Guffey's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the symptoms he alleges, but that his allegations regarding intensity, persistence, and limiting effects were not fully credible. [Tr. 17] Specifically, the ALJ noted that, according to an emergency room report from April 5, 2014, Guffey was injured “tearing [a] building down, ” [Tr. 589], suggesting that Guffey “may not be entirely forthright in discussing his recent activity level.” [Tr. 18]

         The ALJ observed that “recent physical examinations note that claimant is in no acute distress, has no pain or tenderness to palpation of the upper or lower spine, and has normal range of motion, normal gait, and no difficulty standing. Treatment notes state that pain is controlled with morphine.” [Tr. 17] Because the physical examinations reported normal to nearly normal signs and findings of the neck, back, and extremities, with normal gait and no difficulty walking, the ALJ concluded that “it is reasonable to expect that [Guffey] would be able to work consistent with the limitations set forth by Dr. Waltrip, whose opinion is given great weight as it is consistent with the underlying medical treatment history . . . .” [Tr. 18] Similarly, the ALJ gave great weight to the medical source statements of state agency medical consultant Dr. Jack Reed, “whose opinion that claimant is capable of medium work is also consistent with the overall evidence.” [Id.] However, ALJ Jung gave little weight to the medical source statements of treating physician Dr. Sherrell Roberts, “whose opinion that claimant is limited to lifting no more than ten pounds is inconsistent with the underlying medical signs and findings showing few if any abnormalities in claimant's neck, back, and extremities as detailed above.” [Id.]

         The ALJ determined that Guffey has the RFC to lift and carry fifty pounds occasionally and up to twenty-five pounds frequently. [Id.] The ALJ found that Guffey is unable to perform any past relevant work, but, based on vocational expert testimony, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Guffey can perform, such as dishwasher, dining room attendant, and linen room attendant. [Tr. ...

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