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Johnson v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

August 29, 2014

WILLIE D. JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

R. DAVID PROCTOR, District Judge.

Plaintiff Willie D. Johnson brings this action pursuant to Title XVI of Section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), seeking review of the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denying his claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). See also 42 U.S.C. ยง 1383(c). Based on the court's review of the record and briefs submitted by the parties, the court finds that the decision of the ALJ is due to be affirmed.

I. PROCEEDINGS BELOW

Plaintiff filed prior applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and SSI on September 26, 2005, alleging a disability onset date of December 3, 2005.[1] (Tr. 52, 54). Plaintiff's claims were denied initially on December 29, 2005. (Tr. 52). On January 6, 2006, Plaintiff requested a hearing. (Tr. 52). Plaintiff's request was granted and a hearing was held before ALJ Randall C. Stout on July 19, 2007. (Tr. 52). After being denied benefits by the ALJ, Plaintiff filed a request for review. (Tr. 59-60). However, review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on April 24, 2008. (Tr. 12). Plaintiff did not file an appeal and there is no reason to further examine that prior decision. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on July 16, 2009. (Tr. 12). These claims were denied at the initial level on October 19, 2009, and Plaintiff did not file an appeal. ( Id. ).

On January 25, 2010, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI, alleging that he became disabled on November 26, 2004.[2] (Tr. 71, 110-113, 130). Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial level, and he requested a hearing before an ALJ on May 24, 2010. (Tr. 78-80, 105). A hearing was held on June 1, 2011, [3] and on August 11, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for SSI. (Tr. 12-19, 24-47). Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision on September 16, 2011, and on February 13, 2013, Plaintiff's attorney withdrew her representation. (Tr. 6-8). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on June 17, 2013. (Tr. 1). After the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, that decision became the final decision of the Commissioner and therefore a proper subject of this court's appellate review. In this memorandum opinion, the court reviews the ALJ's August 11, 2011 decision denying Plaintiff benefits.

At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was fifty years old and had a tenth-grade education. (Tr. 28). Plaintiff has specialized occupational training as it pertains to welding. (Tr. 28, 136). He reported a heart condition, diabetes, a left hip injury, and high blood pressure as limiting his ability to work. (Tr. 135). He further alleged shortness of breath, chest pain, numbness in his extremities, dizziness, loss of balance, and eye problems during his hearing with the ALJ. (Tr. 29-32).

With regard to his domestic life, Plaintiff reported the following when asked what he did all day: "Well, basically set and watch television. I will get up. I walk outside, set around outside, stuff like that." (Tr. 38). Plaintiff explained to the ALJ that he is able to operate a motor vehicle and that he still has contact with friends and associates. (Tr. 38). He lives in a house with his mother and occasionally helps with household chores, but spends the majority of his day sitting and watching television; he does no other work. (Tr. 578).

Plaintiff further reported that he has been arrested on separate occasions in recent years. In 2010, he was arrested for possession of a controlled substance, and in 2011 for harassment, menacing, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and attempting to elude. (Tr. 39). Plaintiff claims that he was in possession of the controlled substance because his friend had asked him to try some of it "because he seen how much pain I was in so I tried some of it, tried to relieve my pain, so it was personal." (Tr. 41). As to the harassment, menacing, and disorderly conduct charges, Plaintiff states that those charges stemmed from a misunderstanding with a neighbor. ( Id. ). At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was out on bond for the disorderly conduct charges. ( Id. ). The ALJ asked Plaintiff if it would be "safe in saying you're a little more active than you originally testified you were, " to which Plaintiff responded, "I might be active... I have to get up and move around and try to do what I can do." (Tr. 41).

Plaintiff has performed past relevant work as a material handler, a tack welder, a construction worker II, a poultry processor, and as an assembly line worker. (Tr. 35). Plaintiff reported that he spent most of his life employed as a welder, but stated that he performed substantial construction work as well. (Tr. 34-35). Plaintiff's work activities while employed as a construction worker and welder required him to "bend, stand, climb ladders, [or] anything like that." (Tr. 35). While working as a tack welder during the 15 years prior to his alleged disability onset date, he was routinely required to lift and move around metal, with 100 pounds being the most weight lifted by Plaintiff at any given time.[4] (Tr. 137). Plaintiff claims that he stopped working because of a heart condition, diabetes, a left hip injury, and high blood pressure. (Tr. 135). Specifically, Plaintiff reports that, "I'm in constant[] pain, 24/7. I'm in constant[] pain." (Tr. 35).

During his alleged period of disability, Plaintiff was seen by a host of different physicians. (Tr. 551, 577-79, 591, 638, 667). Medical records from Huntsville Hospital reveal that Plaintiff was treated for chest pain on December 29, 2008. (Tr. 550). Huntsville's medical records indicate that Plaintiff had previously been diagnosed with "hypertension, diabetes, dyslipidemia, untreated, and coronary artery disease, " however, upon examination Plaintiff's cardiac exam demonstrated normal cardiac rate and rhythm, with "no murmurs or rubs." (Tr. 551). The physicians noted that Plaintiff had no edema and that his neurologic exam was intact. ( Id. ). Medical records from Huntsville describe Plaintiff as "a healthy appearing 48-year-old gentleman in no acute distress." ( Id. ). Plaintiff was diagnosed with chest pain syndrome, coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes, untreated dyslipidemia, chronic tobacco abuse, and a history of medical noncompliance. ( Id. ).

After receiving treatment at Huntsville Hospital, Plaintiff was referred to Dr. Marlin Gill, a state-hired consultative examiner, for a disability examination. (Tr. 578-80). In his evaluation, Dr. Gill noted that Plaintiff reported that he was unable to work because "[h]e slipped at home about a year ago... says his legs came out from under him and he landed on his buttocks... [and] has been having back pain ever since." (Tr. 578). Dr. Gill found Plaintiff capable of sitting with no limitations and described him as "alert and oriented.... Speech is clear and understandable, and he engages in normal conversation." (Tr. 579). Dr. Gill reported that Plaintiff walked with a slight limp on the left leg, but did not require an assistive device. ( Id. ). Plaintiff's upper extremities were noted to be normal and symmetrical; "[h]e uses the hands and arms normally with no limitations and demonstrates full range of motion in joints." ( Id. ). Plaintiff's upper extremities were further described as "neurovascularly intact, " having muscle strength of "5/5." (Tr. 579). Plaintiff's back was described as looking normal, with no tenderness or palpable abnormality. ( Id. ). Plaintiff had the ability to bend forward sixty degrees, demonstrated good muscle tone in his legs, and was able to lift his legs (although he did complain of pain while lifting his left leg). ( Id. ). Dr. Gill reported that Plaintiff's joints in his lower extremities also exhibited a "good range of motion" and that, "he can squat down one-half way and come back up again." ( Id. ). Nonetheless, Dr. Gill diagnosed Plaintiff with lower back pain, coronary artery disease, and diabetes. (Tr. 580). Dr. Gill concluded his evaluation of Plaintiff by stating that, "The medical record of evidence provided by the DDS was reviewed and those findings were considered in the overall assessment of the patient." ( Id. ).

Plaintiff was seen by Physicians at Athens Family Care on January 14, 2010. (Tr. 590). Plaintiff's respiratory functions were described as normal "with no distress; normal breath sounds with no rales, rhonchi, wheezes or rubs." (Tr. 591). His cardiovascular functions were described as normal. ( Id. ). (Plaintiff had "normal S1 and S2 heart sounds with no S3, S4, rubs, or clicks."). Plaintiff's musculoskeletal system examination presented no evidence of ischemia or infection and revealed a normal gait; however, "spasms [were] noted in lumbar paraspinals" and a small mass (2 cm in diameter) was noted on the left of the lumbar spine. ( Id. ). Athens Family Care diagnosed Plaintiff with lower back pain, leg pain, shoulder pain and Type II diabetes, and Plaintiff was prescribed insulin (for his diabetic condition), Lortab (for pain) and Robaxin (for muscle spasms). ( Id. ).

Huntsville Hospital again treated Plaintiff on March 6, 2010. (Tr. 577). During his March visit to Huntsville Hospital, treating physicians at Huntsville administered a cardiology stress test. ( Id. ). The lab results from Plaintiff's stress test revealed a normal resting EGG. ( Id. ). Furthermore, Huntsville administered an EKG which was negative for ischemia and Plaintiff's LV systolic function was reportedly normal. ( Id. ).

In March 2011, Athens Limestone Hospital performed a CT scan of Plaintiff's cervical spine which revealed "no acute findings." (Tr. 640). However, the CT scan did reveal "discogenic degenerative change with small anterior and posterior osteophytes throughout." ( Id. ). In April 2011, Heart Center, Inc. examined Plaintiff in regards to his complaints of left arm and hand numbness, as well as neck pain. (Tr. 638). That medical group reported that Plaintiff complained that his legs only hurt while sleeping, not while he was awake during the day, and that Plaintiff's lower back and legs occasionally experienced a burning sensation when he walked. ( Id. ). In May 2011, Athens Limestone Hospital completed a lumbar spine radiology report, which revealed lower lumbar degenerative changes. (Tr. 637).

Toward the end of Plaintiff's hearing, the ALJ posed hypothetical questions to the Vocational Expert ("VE"). (Tr. 45-47). The ALJ, reiterating exertional capabilities discussed during Plaintiff's first hearing, asked the following vocational hypothetical:

[A]t the previous hearing, the exertional capabilities were for light work with the following restrictions: Should not climb ladders, ropes or scaffolding, must avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes and cannot work with exposure to hazards such as dangerous moving machinery and unprotected heights and, as a result of that, you gave, you indicated, that that would ...

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