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Sutton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah Division

March 27, 2018

JACLYN B. SUTTON PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Greg N. Stivers, Judge

         This matter is before the Court upon Defendant's Objection to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (DN 21). For the reasons discussed below, Defendant's Objections (DN 21) are OVERRULED, and the Magistrate Judge's Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Recommendation (“R. & R.”) (DN 19) is ADOPTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for social security benefits. (Compl., DN 1). The R. & R. recommended that this Court remand Plaintiff's benefits claim on the ground that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) rejecting Plaintiff's claim was not supported by substantial evidence. (R. & R. 8, DN 19). Defendant filed objections to the R. & R., and Plaintiff responded to those objections. (Def.'s Obj. R. &. R., DN 21 [hereinafter Def.'s Obj.]; Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Obj. R. &. R., DN 24 [hereinafter Pl.'s Resp.]). The facts pertinent to Defendant's objections are as follows:

         A. Plaintiff's Disability

         In July 2011, Plaintiff Jaclyn Sutton (“Sutton”) sought treatment for a lower-back impairment that radiated pain into her lower extremities. (Administrative R. at 346 [hereinafter R.]). Dr. Quinn Regan (“Dr. Regan”) performed a micro-discectomy to address a large herniation on the left-side of Plaintiff's lower-back. (R. at 346-47). Notwithstanding this procedure, Plaintiff's impairment continued to cause her pain. (R. at 511).

         A few months after her surgery, Dr. Regan signed a work release on Plaintiff's behalf. (R. at 333). In the release, Dr. Regan indicated that Plaintiff could work four-hour shifts that allow for alternate sitting/standing and that she should not work more than sixteen hours per week. (R. at 333). As a result, Plaintiff returned to her job at Home Depot, where she worked until she was terminated in November 2012. (R. & R. 3).

         Nearly two years later, Plaintiff discovered additional information related to her back pain. Essentially, Plaintiff was hospitalized for acute pyelonephritis (an inflamed kidney). (R. at 469). To treat the inflammation, medical personnel performed a CT-scan on Plaintiff's abdomen, and, in doing so, observed: “Marked degenerative changes in the lower lumbar spine with osteophyte complexes at ¶ 4-L5 and L5-S1 that contribute to moderate to severe spinal canal stenosis (abnormal narrowing of a tubular structure).” (R. at 471-72). Medical personnel further noted that their findings “may represent calcified disc herniation[].” (R. at 472).

         B. Plaintiff's Application for Disability Benefits & the ALJ's Decision

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits on March 25, 2014, alleging that an impairment in her lower-back rendered her disabled. (R. at 27). In support of her claim, Plaintiff submitted documentation evidencing her back surgery, as well as the work release Dr. Regan signed on her behalf. (R. at 333, 346-47).

         To further substantiate her claim, Plaintiff presented reports prepared by two other physicians: Dr. Michael Meade (“Dr. Meade”) and Dr. Jack Reed (“Dr. Reed”). (R. at 93-99, 511-16). Dr. Meade, one of the SSA's one-time examining physicians, examined Plaintiff and concluded that her residual functional capacity allowed her to perform sedentary work. (R. at 511-16). Dr. Reed, however, did not examine Plaintiff. As Magistrate Judge King noted in the R. & R., it appears as though Dr. Reed “signed off on (or reaffirmed verbatim) the prior findings of the state-agency single decisionmaker (SDM) Donald Bragg [(“Bragg”)], ” as Dr. Reed's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[1] assessment form is identical to the documentation that Bragg-a lay person-completed. (R. & R. 3). Like Dr. Meade, Dr. Reed found that Plaintiff should be limited to sedentary work. (R. at 98). Notably, the record is silent as to whether Drs. Meade or Reed analyzed Plaintiff's CT-scan results in preparing their reports, and whether Dr. Reed reviewed Dr. Meade's physical examination findings before completing the form.

         Notwithstanding the fact that the three medical opinions suggested that Plaintiff be confined to sedentary work, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application and ruling that her RFC allowed her to perform light work.[2] (R. at 27-40). In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ gave “little weight” to Drs. Regan's and Meade's opinions. (R. at 36-37). Dr. Regan's opinion, the ALJ noted, was dated and “based on the [Plaintiff's] subjective report” of her condition. (R. at 37). Dr. Meade's opinion was discounted because “his examination findings were normal and, thus, not supportive of his opinion.” (R. at 36). The ALJ then gave “great weight” to parts of Dr. Reed's assessment, but discredited “the portion of [his] opinion that the [Plaintiff] could stand and walk up to two hours in an eight-hour period . . . .” (R. at 37). The ALJ reasoned: “Despite the claimant's morbid obesity, the documented findings and symptoms do not demonstrate that the claimant had recurring abnormal gait, joint instability swelling, crepitus, or limited range of motion to support these restrictions.” (R at 37 (emphasis in original)). In this way, the ALJ credited only one aspect of the medical evidence: a portion of a non-examining physician's RFC assessment form suggesting that Plaintiff could occasionally and frequently lift and/or carry enough weight to permit her to perform light rather than sedentary work.

         C. Report & Recommendation

         In response to Plaintiff's claim for judicial review of the ALJ's decision, Magistrate Judge King recommended that this Court vacate the ALJ's decision insofar as it concluded that Plaintiff could perform light work. (R. & R. 7). To support this recommendation, Magistrate Judge King noted that the ALJ essentially rejected all of the medical evidence and “played doctor”-particularly in light of the fact that no physician concluded that Plaintiff could perform light work. (R. & R. 4-7). The R&R also pointed out that the record suggested that “[n]o qualified medical source [ever] evaluated Plaintiff's complaints of low-back pain” in light of the results of the CT-scan, which Magistrate Judge King found highly problematic given that the CT-scan results could ...


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