United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee
For Robert E Hatmaker, Plaintiff: Eric L Buchanan, R Scott Wilson, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Jeremy L Bordelon, Eric Buchanan & Associates, PLLC, Chattanooga, TN.
For Social Security Administration, Commissioner of, Defendant: Tammy O Combs, LEAD ATTORNEY, U S Department of Justice (Chattanooga USAO), Office of U S Attorney, Chattanooga, TN.
Plaintiff Robert Hatmaker (" Plaintiff" ) brought this action on May 2, 2012, seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (" Defendant" ) denying Plaintiff a period of disability, disability insurance benefits (" DIB" ), and Supplemental Security Income (" SSI" ) under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § § 416(i), 423, 1382. The Court referred the matter to United States Magistrate Judge William B. Mitchell Carter, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and in accordance with Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for a report and recommendation (" R& R" ) regarding the disposition of Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings (Court File No. 11) and Defendant's motion for summary judgment (Court File No. 13). The magistrate judge filed a R& R (Court File No. 16) recommending the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed, Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings be denied (Court File No. 11), Defendant's motion for summary judgment be granted (Court File No. 13), and the case be dismissed. Plaintiff timely filed an objection to the R& R (Court File No. 17). For the following reasons, the Court will ACCEPT and ADOPT the magistrate judge's R& R (Court File No. 16).
I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
A. Medical History
Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability, disability benefits, and
supplemental security income on February 9, 2009. These claims were denied in April and August 2009, after which he sought a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ" ). The hearing was held June 7, 2010. The ALJ issued his decision on September 24, 2010, in which he determined Plaintiff did not qualify for benefits. Plaintiff sought leave from the Appeals Council, which denied his request for review on March 12, 2012. The instant action ensued.
Plaintiff, now fifty-one-years old, was forty-nine-years old at the time of the decision. Plaintiff does not have a high school diploma and had previously worked as a construction painter and roofer (Tr. 22). The alleged onset date of Plaintiff's disability is December 31, 2003 (Tr. 13). The ALJ determined Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since that date (Tr. 15). Plaintiff established the following impairments before the ALJ: degenerative changes of the lumbar spine, essential hypertension, slight tremor of the left upper extremity, depression, and anxiety (Tr. 15). The ALJ concluded Plaintiff could perform light, unskilled work with only occasional grasping with his left upper extremity (Tr. 19). Although the ALJ found Plaintiff could not perform his prior relevant work, based on the testimony of a vocational expert he concluded there were a significant number of jobs in the economy Plaintiff could perform (Tr. 22).
The ALJ considered the examinations of Benjamin Biller, M.S.,  and Dr. William Holland. Mr. Biller, a licensed psychological examiner, evaluated Plaintiff on March 2, 2009 at the request of the Social Security Administration (Tr. 20). Mr. Biller found Plaintiff's appearance and behavior to be unremarkable, and his activities of daily living uncompromised by mental limitation. He rated his Global Assessment of Functioning (" GAF" ) score as 70, which suggests some mild symptoms. Dr. Holland evaluated Plaintiff on April 3, 2009, again at the request of the Social Security Administration. Plaintiff reported a history of low back pain, and pain in his right hip and lower leg. Plaintiff was able to sit, stand in seated position, and got on and off the examination table without much difficulty. He exhibited normal range of motion with a slight tremor in his left arm. Dr. Holland examined him again in July 2010 without significant change in his assessment.
Plaintiff, on the other hand, stresses the examination of his treating physician, Dr. Frank Wood. Plaintiff was evaluated by Dr. Wood in March 2009, when Plaintiff sought treatment for hip pain and depression. Dr. Wood prescribed blood pressure medication and medication for depression and pain. In June 2009, he stated Plaintiff possibly could be experiencing rheumatoid arthritis, but blood tests returned negative for that diagnosis. Despite the prescribed medicine, Plaintiff's blood pressure continued to exceed proper parameters.
In August 2009, Plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident. He was treated for a nosebleed and left shoulder pain at the emergency room. He did not have any fractures and x-rays revealed slight facet joint degenerative arthritis in his spine and small anterior osteophytes.
B. Procedural Background
The ALJ analyzed Plaintiff's claim under the five-step framework outlined in 20 C.F.R § 404.1520(a)(4) :
1. If claimant is doing substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled.
2. If claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity, his impairment must be severe before he can be found to be disabled.
3. If claimant is not doing substantial gainful activity and is suffering from a severe impairment that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months, and his impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, claimant is presumed disabled without further inquiry.
4. If claimant's impairment does not prevent him from doing his past relevant work, he is not disabled.
5. Even if claimant's impairment does prevent him from doing his past relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that accommodates his residual functional capacity and vocational factors (age, education, skills, etc.), he is not disabled.
Nejat v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 359 F. App'x 574, 576 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Walters v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 529 (6th Cir. 1997)). At steps one through four, the claimant bears the burden of proof. Id. However, at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to identify jobs in the economy that the claimant could perform considering his impairments. Id.
At step one, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff had not performed any substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of his condition. The ALJ then concluded Plaintiff has severe impairments, namely degenerative changes of the lumbar spine, essential hypertension, slight termor of the left upper extremity, depression, and anxiety. At step three, however, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff's impairments or combination thereof did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have the ability to perform past relevant work. However, at step five, the ALJ concluded other work exists in the national economy that accommodates Plaintiff's residual functional capacity and vocational factors. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled and not entitled to the benefits he seeks.
After the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, he sought relief in this court. Plaintiff argued before the magistrate judge that the ALJ erred in failing to sufficiently address Dr. Wood's opinions regarding Plaintiff's mental restrictions and limitations and his physical limitations. As to the his mental limitations, the magistrate judge concluded, although the ALJ did not explicitly mention Dr. Wood's assessment of Plaintiff's mental limitations, this failure was harmless error because it is evident from the ALJ's opinion he considered the treatment of Plaintiff's physician as well as the other opinions in the record. Moreover, Dr. Wood's assessment was so patently defective the ALJ could not have credited it. As to Plaintiff's physical limitations, the ...