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Chandler v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Western Division

May 14, 2018



          TU M. PHAM United States Magistrate Judge

         Before the Court is plaintiff Jason Todd Chandler's appeal from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security[1](“Commissioner”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. (ECF No. 1.) The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (ECF No. 9.) The case was reassigned to the undersigned on March 13, 2017. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.


         Chandler applied for disability insurance benefits in June 2013, alleging an onset date of August 20, 2012.[2] (R. 157.) His claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 96; 103.) At Chandler's request, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing and issued a written decision. (R. 14-27.) Both Chandler and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified at the hearing. (R. 17.) In his written decision, the ALJ first found that Chandler has not engaged in substantial gainful employment since his alleged onset date. (R. 19.) Next, the ALJ found that Chandler suffered from the following severe impairments: cervical degenerative disc disease; lumbar degenerative disc disease; right shoulder degenerative joint disease; and obesity. (R. 19.) The ALJ found that these impairments, individually and/or combined did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 19.) The ALJ also found that Chandler retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except the claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; can occasionally balance, crouch, stoop, kneel, and crawl; can occasionally reach overhead bilaterally, and can frequently reach in all other directions; can occasionally push or pull within the limits of sedentary work; can sit for 30 minutes at a time and then would need to stand for 10 minutes before sitting again.

(R. 20.) In making this RFC determination, the ALJ specifically considered Chandler's testimony at the hearing. Chandler testified that his neck is painful at extreme ranges of motion, but that his pain medication helps sometimes; he also testified that the medication caused drowsiness and he has consistent trouble sleeping. (R. 21.) He also testified that his back hurts daily, and that walking, lifting, pushing, pulling, or doing anything with his left side causes his neck and back to hurt. (R. 21.) Chandler further testified that he could sit for 30-60 minutes before needing to stand; stand and/or walk for 30-60 minutes before needing to sit; and lift 10 pounds. (R. 21.) The ALJ determined that while Chandler's medically-determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, Chandler's testimony as to the intensity, persistence and limiting effects was not entirely credible. (R. 21.)

         In making his RFC determination, the ALJ also reviewed the relevant medical records. Significantly, Dr. Lovell treated Chandler from 2009-2013 for his degenerative disc disease, shoulder pain, and obesity; Chandler underwent a cervical fusion on February 1, 2010, as part of this treatment, and reached maximum medical improvement on April 26 of that year. (R. 21.) Chandler complained of right shoulder pain to Dr. Gladwell after having surgery; at a January 26, 2011, visit, Chandler stated that while he had no complaints about his right shoulder, he was suffering from neck pain. (R. 21.) Chandler again saw Dr. Lovell for neck pain in February 2011, but Dr. Lovell noted good range of motion and no other problems and advised Chandler that he could still work full duty. (R. 22.) An independent medical examination by Dr. Dalal on April 7, 2011 found the totality of Chandler's neck and right shoulder impairments equaled 17% of his body as a whole, and that he should not lift more than 25 pounds. (R 22.) Chandler underwent an MRI at Dr. Lovell's direction on February 1, 2012, after which Dr. Lovell diagnosed degenerative disc disease and recommended a steroid injection. (R. 22.) On May 11, 2012, Dr. Lovell reviewed the past MRI and a new MRI, taken on April 23, 2012, with Chandler; Dr. Lovell noted three disc herniations that are intermittently symptomatic ranging from minimal to significant, according to Chandler. Dr. Lovell placed Chandler at maximum medical improvement and released him without restrictions. (R. 22.) After undergoing another spinal surgery on August 20, 2012, Dr. Lovell noted at a follow up that Chandler was improving well. (R. 22.) Dr. Lovell sent Chandler to physical therapy for 3 days a week for 3 weeks; his progress report indicated that his pain was down to 2 out of 10, he was sleeping better, had a hard time driving, and had to make frequent positional changes. (R. 22-23.)

         Dr. Bradberry treated Chandler from 2008 to 2014, primarily for high blood pressure and other issues not related to his disability, such as colds and fevers. (R. 23; 340-63; 440-70.) Dr. Bradberry also filled out a Medical Assessment of Ability to do Work Related Activities on April 15, 2014. (R. 455-58.) The ALJ noted that the doctor's name was illegible, and there was no indication of what the doctor reviewed in making his determination. (R. 24.) Even so, the ALJ gave partial weight to the opinion, because it was generally in consensus with the medical record and Chandler's testimony, and because the ALJ's RFC determination already accounted for the doctor's postural limitations and the sit/stand option in the RFC determination was less restrictive. (R. 24.) Dr. Bradberry also opined in a separate letter that Chandler could not sit or stand for more than 20 minutes and could not, in his opinion, engage in sedentary work; the ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Bradberry's opinion regarding Chandler's capacity to perform sedentary work because that determination is reserved for the commissioner, and some weight to Dr. Bradberry's opinion regarding Chandler's ability to sit and stand, noting that this limitation is accounted for in the RFC determination. (R. 24.)

         Finally, the ALJ determined that, while Chandler was unable to perform past relevant work, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Chandler can perform. (R. 25-26.) Because Chandler's ability to perform all or substantially all of the requirements of the sedentary level was work was impeded by additional limitations not contemplated by the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, the ALJ relied upon the VE's testimony in making this determination. (R. 26.) The ALJ specifically noted that the VE's opinion accounted for jobs with the included overhead-reaching and sit/stand limitations. (R. 26.) Thus, the ALJ determined that Chandler is not disabled. (R. 26-27.) The Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) Appeals Council denied Chandler's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1.)

         Chandler filed the instant action on July 12, 2016. (ECF No. 1.) Chandler argues that the ALJ erred by (1) failing to give substantial deference, or assign greater weight, to Dr. Bradberry's opinion, and (2) failing to take Chandler's testimony regarding his ability to maintain concentration and need for frequent breaks into account in his RFC determination. (ECF No. 11-1 at 5; 8.)


         A. Standard of Review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a claimant may obtain judicial review of any final decision made by the Commissioner after a hearing to which he or she was a party. “The court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to whether there is substantial evidence to support the decision and whether the Commissioner used the proper legal criteria in making the decision. Id.; Winn v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 615 Fed.Appx. 315, 320 (6th Cir. 2015); Cole v. Astrue, 661 F.3d 931, 937 (6th Cir. 2011); 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, and is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Kirk v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 667 F.2d 524, 535 (6th Cir. 1981) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

         In determining whether substantial evidence exists, the reviewing court must examine the evidence in the record as a whole and “must ‘take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.'” Abbott v. Sullivan,905 F.2d 918, 923 (6th Cir. 1990) (quoting Garner v. Heckler,745 F.2d 383, 388 (6th Cir. 1984)). If substantial evidence is found to support the Commissioner's decision, however, the court must affirm that decision and “may not even inquire whether the record could support a decision the other way.” Barker v. Shalala,40 F.3d 789, 794 (6th Cir. 1994) (quoting Smith v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.,893 F.2d 106, 108 (6th Cir. 1989)). Similarly, the court may not try the case de novo, resolve conflicts in the evidence, or decide questions of credibility. Ulman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 693 F.3d 709, 713 (6th Cir. 2012) (citing Bass v. McMahon,499 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 2007)). Rather, the Commissioner, not the court, is charged with the duty to weigh the evidence, to make credibility ...

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