United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
A. Ingram, United States Magistrate Judge
October 31, 2014, Plaintiff Janice Faye Branscum filed a
protective application for supplemental security income. D.E.
13-1 at 66, 100. She dated the beginning of her disability
period to October 1, 2004. Id. at 214. Branscum
claimed in her initial application that she is disabled due
to diabetes, kidney disease, peripheral neuropathy, and back
problems. Id. at 100. The Social Security
Administration denied Branscum's claims initially in
December 2014 and upon reconsideration on May 21, 2015.
Id. at 66.
Branscum was diagnosed in September 2015 with carpal tunnel
syndrome. D.E. 13-1 at 542, 557-58. She had surgery on her
left hand on December 2, 2015, followed by surgery on her
right hand on June 1, 2016. Id. at 704, 760.
22, 2016, upon Branscum's request, Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”) Dennis Hanson conducted an
administrative hearing. Id. at 83-98. The ALJ heard
testimony from Branscum and impartial vocational expert
(“VE”) William Ellis. Id. at 66.
Additional evidence was submitted after the hearing, which
the ALJ considered. Id.
was 42 years old when she filed her application. D.E. 13-1.
at 73. She has “a limited education”
(id.), having attended school only through the
eighth grade (id. at 87). Branscum has no past
relevant work experience. Id. at 73. The ALJ found
that Branscum had certain severe impairments (id. at
68), but that she “has the residual functional capacity
to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b),
” with certain limitations (id. at 70).
Because there were adequate available jobs she could perform,
the ALJ found Branscum was “not disabled.”
Id. at 74.
now brings this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)
and 1383(c) to obtain judicial review of the ALJ's
decision denying her application for disability insurance
benefits. D.E. 2. She argues that the ALJ ascribed
insufficient weight to the opinion of a treating physician
and that the ALJ's residual functional capacity is not
based on substantial evidence. D.E. 15-1. Specifically, she
argues that the ALJ erroneously underrepresented the effect
of diabetes on her feet and the severity of her hand
limitations as a result of carpal tunnel syndrome and hand
surgeries. D.E. 15. Both parties consented to the referral of
this matter to a magistrate judge. D.E. 18. This matter was
thus referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings
and order the entry of a final judgment in accordance with 28
U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73.
D.E. 19. The Court, having reviewed the record and for the
reasons stated herein, GRANTS
Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (D.E. 15),
DENIES the Commissioner's motion for
summary judgment (D.E. 17), and REMANDS this
matter for further proceedings.
The ALJ's Findings
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920, an ALJ conducts a
five-step analysis to evaluate a disability
claim. The ALJ followed these procedures in this
case. See D.E. 13-1 at 67-74.
first step, if a claimant is working at a substantial gainful
activity, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(b). In this case, the ALJ found that Branscum was
“not engaged in substantial gainful activity”
since the application date. D.E. 13-1 at 68. The ALJ thus
proceeded to the next step.
second step, if a claimant does not have any impairment or
combination of impairments which significantly limit the
physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, then
the claimant does not have a severe impairment and is not
disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). The ALJ found that
Branscum did suffer several significant impairments: diabetes
mellitus, peripheral neuropathy, sprains and strains, carpal
tunnel syndrome, status post bilateral release surgery,
Dupuytren's contracture, anxiety, and depression. D.E.
13-1 at 68.
third step, if a claimant's impairments meet or equal an
impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix
1, then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(d). The ALJ found Branscum failed to meet this
standard. D.E. 13-1 at 68-69.
at this step, the ALJ considered Branscum's issues with
her hands. The ALJ considered whether her conditions equal
Listing 1.02 (Major Dysfunction of Joint(s) (Due to Any
Cause)). D.E. 13-1 at 68. This listing requires an individual
to be unable to perform fine and gross movements effectively.
Although Branscum had carpal tunnel surgeries on both hands,
the ALJ found “little to no evidence” of a
“substantial loss of function in her arms.”
Id. at 69. “She has responded well to surgery,
for example.” Id. Branscum now takes issue
with the ALJ's assessment of her hands; however she does
so in the context of the residual functional capacity, not at
step three of the disability analysis. D.E. 15-1 at 1, 10.
the ALJ considered whether Branscum's diabetes could
equal one of the listed impairments. D.E. 13-1 at 69. Listing
9.00 encompasses “Endocrine Disorders” and
focuses on the affected bodily system. The ALJ found that
Branscum's symptoms were insufficiently severe to meet
the listing. Id. For example, there was “no
evidence of diabetic nephropathy or amputation of an
extremity, ” no record of chronic hyperglycemia, and no
evidence of severe diabetes-based complications, such as
peripheral neurovascular disease. Id.
then discussed whether Branscum could meet Listing 11.14
(Peripheral Neuropathies) in regard to her diabetes symptoms.
The ALJ found “little evidence of the required
disorganization of motor function, as the claimant is able to
sustain movement, gait, and station.” D.E. 13-1 at 69.
argues the ALJ understated the severity of her
diabetes-related foot issues. D.E. 15-1 at 1, 6-10. However,
Branscum does not identify any specific impairment listing as
being equivalent to her impairments. Instead, she appears to
take issue with the ALJ's residual functional capacity in
relation to her feet. See id.
also found no sufficiently severe mental health issues. D.E.
13-1 at 69-70. Branscum does not challenge this finding.
here, a claimant is found to be not disabled at step three,
the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional
capacity (“RFC”), which is the claimant's
ability to do physical and mental work activities on a
sustained basis despite limitations from the impairments. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). The ALJ determined that Branscum
has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R.
except that she can only occasionally climb ramps or stairs,
stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. The claimant can only
frequently balance, and frequently handle, finger, or feel
bilaterally. She can never climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds. She can never be exposed to unprotected heights or
dangerous moving machinery. The claimant can understand and
remember work place instructions, and can complete work place
tasks in a normal amount of time with regular breaks every
two hours. She can frequently interact with supervisors,
coworkers, and the public; and can adapt to occasional work
D.E. 13-1 at 70.
argues that the ALJ's RFC calculation underestimates her
actual disability concerning her hands and, presumably, her
feet. D.E. 15-1.
fourth step, if a claimant's impairments do not prevent
her from doing past relevant work (given the ALJ's
residual functional capacity), she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(f). Here, the ALJ found that Branscum
“has no past relevant work.” D.E. 13-1 at 72.
fifth step, if a claimant's impairments (considering her
RFC, age, education, and past work) do not prevent her from
doing other work that exists in the national economy, she is
not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). The ALJ found
Branscum was not disabled at this step. D.E. 13-1 at 73-74.
The ALJ explained that the vocational expert testified that
Branscum could “perform the requirements of
representative light and unskilled occupations with a
Specific Vocational Preparation (SVP) level of two, ”
such as ticket taker, rental clerk, and mail clerk- jobs with
significant numbers of openings in Kentucky. Id. at
73. Branscum was therefore “not disabled” as
defined by the regulations. Id. at 74.
on August 30, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding that
Branscum was not disabled and was therefore ineligible for
supplemental security income. D.E. 13-1 at 74. The Appeals
Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on October
25, 2017. Id. at 1-4. She filed this action in
federal court on December 27, 2017. D.E. 2.
General Legal Standards
the Social Security Act, a “disability” is
defined as “the inability to engage in
‘substantial gainful activity' because of a
medically determinable physical or mental impairment of at
least one year's expected duration.” Cruse v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 502 F.3d 532, 539 (6th Cir.
2007). Judicial review of the denial of a claim for Social
Security benefits is limited to determining whether the
ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and
whether the correct legal standards were applied. Rogers
v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 241 (6th Cir.
2007). “Substantial evidence” is “more than
a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance; it is
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). The substantial evidence standard
“presupposes that there is a zone of choice within
which decision makers can go either way, without interference
from the court.” Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d
535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (en banc) (quotes and
determining the existence of substantial evidence, courts
must examine the record as a whole. Id. (citing
Kirk v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 667
F.2d 524, 535 (6th Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 461
U.S. 957 (1983)). However, courts are not to conduct a de
novo review, resolve conflicts in evidence, or make
credibility determinations. Id. (citations omitted);
see also Bradley v. Sec'y of Health & Human
Servs., 862 F.2d 1224, 1228 (6th Cir. 1988). Rather, if
the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence,
it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court would decide
the matter differently, and even if substantial evidence also
supports the opposite conclusion. See Her v. Comm'r
of Soc. Sec., 203 F.3d 388, 389-90 (6th Cir. 1999);
see also Casey v. Sec'y of Health & Human
Servs., 987 F.2d 1230, 1233 (6th Cir. 1993);
Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545; Kinsella v.
Schweiker, 708 F.2d 1058, 1059 (6th Cir. 1983).
The ALJ's Weighing of Podiatrist Dr. Jensen-Stanley's
argues that the ALJ “failed to properly apply the
treating physician standard when weighing treating podiatrist
Dr. Jensen-Stanley's opinion.” D.E. 15-1 at 1.
the regulations as they existed in 2016, “if the
opinion of the treating physician as to the nature and
severity of a claimant's conditions is
‘well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with
other substantial evidence in the case record,' then it
will be accorded controlling weight.” Rogers v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 486 F.3d 234, 242 (6th Cir.
2007) (quoting Wilson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,
378 F.3d 541, 544 (6th Cir. 2004)). The ALJ must provide
“good reasons” for discounting a treating
physician's opinion, and the reasons must be
“sufficiently specific” so any reviewers will
know the ALJ's reasoning for ascribing a particular
weight to the opinion. Id.
brief, Branscum describes consultations and treatments with
Dr. Jensen-Stanley that occurred on April 22, 2015, August
19, 2015, October 21, 2015, January 13, 2016, and May 26,
2016. D.E. 15-1 at 2-6. Dr. Jensen-Stanley filled out a
two-page Physical Impairment Questionnaire about Branscum on
July 5, 2016. D.E. 13-1 at 775-76. Branscum argues the ALJ
gave this opinion insufficient weight. D.E. 15-1 at 6-10. Dr.
Jensen-Stanley's questionnaire notes that Branscum has
insulin-dependent diabetes and suffers “numbness to
feet, painful nails.” D.E. 13-1 at 775. According to
the questionnaire, Branscum would not need extra break time
to recline or lie down during a hypothetical 8-hour workday.
Id. She can walk one to two city blocks without rest
or significant pain. Id. She can stand or walk for
15 minutes out of every hour. Id. She can sit for
four hours during the work day and stand or walk for one hour
during the work day. Id. She can frequently lift
objects weighing less than ten pounds, and occasionally lift
ten- or twenty-pound objects. Id. at 776. Dr.
Jensen-Stanley reported that Branscum is not a malingerer.
made the following statement regarding this questionnaire:
This [treating source statement] limited the claimant to
sitting four hours a day, and standing and walking to one
hour. It limited the claimant to lifting or carrying only
less than ten pounds frequently, and ten to twenty pounds
occasionally. The undersigned accords this opinion partial
weight. The modest treatment records do not support such
exertional limitations, but the record does reflect that the
claimant can lift or carry at the light level.
D.E. 13-1 at 72 (citation omitted).
to Branscum, “The ALJ accepted Dr. Jensen-Stanley's
lifting limitations but rejected the walking/standing
limitations, stating the ‘record[s] do not support such
exertional limitations . . . .'” D.E. 15-1 at 7.
Branscum faults this “brief, conclusory”
explanation as being “unsupported by substantial
evidence” and inconsistent with the treating-physician
rule. Id. The pivotal question is whether the ALJ
improperly discounted Dr. Jensen-Stanley's opinion that
Branscum could sit for only four hours during the work day
and stand or walk for only one hour during the work day.
416.927 of the regulatory code describes how the Commission
is to evaluate medical opinion evidence. “Generally,
” treating sources are given “more weight”
than non-treating sources. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2).
The regulation informs claimants, “If we find that a
treating source's medical opinion on the issue(s) of the
nature and severity of your impairment(s) is well-supported
by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic
techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial
evidence in your case record, we will give it controlling
weight.” Id. However, there may be “good
reasons” for declining to ascribe “controlling
weight.” Id. Such reasons include how well the
opinion is supported by relevant evidence (id.
§ 416.927(c)(3)) and how consistent the opinion is with
“the record as a whole” (id. §
416.927(c)(4)). The “substantial evidence”
standard has already been discussed.
the ALJ provided the following explanation for ascribing only
partial weight to the relevant opinion: “The modest
treatment records do not support [Dr. Jensen-Stanley's]
exertional limitations[.]” D.E. 13-1 at 72.
to making this statement, the ALJ noted other evidence which
suggested that Branscum could sit more than four hours a day
and stand more than one hour a day. First, the ALJ noted
Branscum's testimony that her feet and legs are
“affected by neuropathy” and that “her feet
swell if they are not elevated.” D.E. 13-1 at 71.
However, the ALJ found that the reported intensity of her
claimed impairments were “not entirely consistent with
the medical evidence” in the record. Id.
Turning to Dr. Jensen-Stanley's own treatment records,
the ALJ noted that Branscum showed “no gait
abnormalities” in April 2015 and August 2015.
the diabetes that caused the foot issues was
“relatively under control with conservative
treatment.” Id. The ALJ also relied on the
opinion of a state agency medical consultant:
P. Saranga, M.D., opined that the claimant could perform
light work; could frequently perform postural activities, but
could only occasionally climb ladders; and would need to
avoid exposure to hazards. The undersigned accords this
opinion preponderant weight. It is consistent with the
longitudinal medical evidence of record that shows a variety
of testing but ...