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Curtis Butler v. Commissioner of Social Security

February 27, 2012

CURTIS BUTLER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Monte C. Richardson United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER*fn1

THIS CAUSE is before the Court on Plaintiff's appeal of an administrative decision denying his application for Social Security benefits. The Court has reviewed the record, the briefs, and the applicable law. For the reasons set forth herein, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") on May 22, 2009, alleging a period of disability beginning October 31, 2008. (Tr. 10, 92-95). The Social Security Administration denied this application initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 10, 47-53). Plaintiff then requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (the "ALJ") on August 27, 2010. (Tr. 23-41). On September 22, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 7-22). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on December 3, 2010 (Tr. 1-5), rendering the ALJ's decision final. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Plaintiff timely filed his Complaint in the U.S. District Court for review of the Commissioner's decision. (Doc. 1).

II. NATURE OF DISABILITY CLAIM

A. Summary of Evidence Before the ALJ

Plaintiff was fifty-one years old at the time of his alleged onset date (Tr. 17). Plaintiff has a limited 10th grade education and past relevant work experience as a heavy equipment operator, dump truck driver, and pipefitter (Tr. 40, 173). Plaintiff's medical history is discussed at length in the ALJ's decision and will be summarized herein.

Plaintiff began experiencing back pain in 2001 due to a work related injury (Tr. 208, 227). In 2002, Plaintiff had a lumbar fusion performed on his back (Tr. 193, 218). On January 21, 2003, orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Michael S. Scharf, M.D. indicated that Plaintiff had reached maximum medical improvement and opined he was capable of performing "sedentary work" (Tr. 178, 175).

On February 6, 2007, Plaintiff presented at the Baptist Medical Center emergency room complaining of neck pain associated with movement (Tr. 272). Additionally, Plaintiff claimed to be suffering from left shoulder pain with numbness/tingling to the left hand along with headache pain (Tr. 106-111, 115-116, 254, 260).

In 2008, Plaintiff presented at Shands Jacksonville with sharp and stabbing pain down the middle of his back and radiation to his right side. Plaintiff's pain medications kept his discomfort "somewhat control[ed]" (Tr. 317). Plaintiff was diagnosed with the following conditions: (1) failed back syndrome; (2) axial low back pain; (3) possible gout, right big toe (Tr. 318, 319); (4) internal hemorrhoids (Tr. 332); (5) thrombophlebitis of the saphenous vein, varicose veins (Tr. 336, 345); (6) obesity (Tr. 336); (7) carpal tunnel syndrome (Tr. 336); (8) shoulder pain (Tr. 338); and (9) anxiety (Tr. 318, 336).

Further treatment records from Shands Jacksonville dated September 23, 2009 through August 17, 2010, stated that Plaintiff refused epidural steroid injections because his pain was "pretty well controlled" as long as he takes his pain medication (Tr. 322). An August 11, 2010 progress note described Plaintiff as standing 5'7" and weighing 225 pounds, which equates to a Body Mass Index ("BMI") of 35.40*fn2 (Tr. 322, 345).

On July 14, 2009, examining physician Dr. Susan Yandle opined that Plaintiff suffered marked limitations in walking and standing for extended periods of time. (Tr. 232-38). Dr. Yandle further stated that Plaintiff's neurological exam showed no motor or sensory deficits (Tr. 234), and that he had a normal gait, could walk on his heels, and did not require an assistive device to ambulate (Tr. 233). Additionally, state agency physician Dr. Cristina Rodriguez reviewed the medical evidence and opined Plaintiff was capable of performing light work with standing and/or walking about six hours in an eight hour day. (Tr. 291-98). With respect to mental impairments, state agency psychiatrist Dr. Gildegardo Alidon opined that Plaintiff did not have any "severe" mental impairments (Tr. 299-311).

Case 3:11-cv-00110-MCR Document 30 Filed 02/27/12 Page 4 of 18 PageID 558

B. Summary of the ALJ's Decision

A plaintiff is entitled to disability benefits when he is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to either result in death or last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505. The ALJ must follow five steps in evaluating a claim of disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, if a claimant is working at a substantial gainful activity, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, if a claimant does not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limit his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, then he does not have a severe impairment and is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Third, if a claimant's impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, he is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). Fourth, if a claimant's impairments do not prevent him from doing past relevant work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Fifth, if a claimant's impairments (considering his residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work) prevent him from doing other work that exists in the national economy, then he is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). Plaintiff bears the burden of persuasion through step four, while at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146, 107 S.Ct. 2287 n.5 (1987).

In the instant case, at step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 31, 2008, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 12). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and a history of lumbar fusion. (Tr. 12-13). At step three, the ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have an impairment, or any combination thereof, which met or equaled any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P of Regulation No. 4. (Tr. 13). At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC")*fn3 to perform a full range of light work.*fn4 (Tr. 13-17). In ...


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