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Barnes v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

September 27, 2017

MORRIS L. BARNES, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Morris Barnes (hereinafter “Plaintiff”), seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq., and 1381, et seq. On May 25, 2017, the parties consented to have the undersigned conduct any and all proceedings in this case. (Doc. 15). Thus, the action was referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. Upon careful consideration of the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties, it is hereby ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed his applications for disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on March 23, 2010, alleging disability beginning on April 16, 2009, based on “left knee problems.” (Tr. 129-130, 377). Plaintiff's application was denied and upon timely request, he was granted an administrative hearing on March 16, 2012, before Administrative Law Judge Linda Helm (hereinafter “ALJ”). (Id. at 89). Plaintiff attended the hearing with his counsel and provided testimony related to his claims. (Id. at 91-121). A vocational expert (“VE”) also appeared at the hearing and provided testimony. (Id. at 121-127). On June 18, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 42-53). In an opinion dated August 28, 2013, the Appeals Council remanded this matter and instructed the ALJ to obtain additional evidence regarding Plaintiff's left knee impairment, such a consultative orthopedic examination and source statement, further evaluate Plaintiff's subjective complaints, and give further consideration to Plaintiff's maximum residual functional capacity during the entire period at issue.[2] (Id. at 158-160).

         Following remand, a second hearing was held on March 13, 2014. Plaintiff attended the hearing with his counsel and provided additional testimony. A medical expert and vocational expert also attended the hearing and offered testimony.[3] (Id. at 58-65, 82-85). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on June 10, 2014. (Id. at 21-36, 42-88). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on February 5, 2016. (Id. at 1). Therefore, the ALJ's decision dated June 10, 2014, became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed the present civil action. (Doc. 1). Oral argument was conducted on June 1, 2017, before the undersigned Magistrate Judge (Doc. 17), and the parties agree that this case is now ripe for judicial review and is properly before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         II. Issue on Appeal

         Whether the ALJ erred in assigning little weight to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Otis Harrison, M.D.?

         III. Background

         A. Plaintiff's testimony

         Plaintiff was born on April 11, 1972, and was thirty-nine years of age at the time of his administrative hearing on March 16, 2012. (Tr. 89, 96, 377). Plaintiff alleges that he became disabled on April 16, 2009, based on “left knee problems.” (Id. at 129-130, 377).

         Plaintiff completed the eleventh grade and pursued his GED; however, he left the program after getting a job. (Id. at 98-99). Plaintiff's past work includes shipyard welder, construction laborer, ripsaw operator, and production assembler. (Id. at 82, 101-105, 122). In 2006, following partial medial meniscectomy surgeries on his left knee, he returned to work as a heavy laborer. (Id. at 58, 106). In April 2009, following a boating accident in which he reinjured his left knee, Plaintiff's employer placed him on light duty and sent him for an MRI. (Id. at 100, 105, 451).

         According to Plaintiff, he cannot work now due to pain, swelling, and arthritis in his left knee, which causes him to barely be able to walk. (Id. at 106). Plaintiff testified that he takes Lortab and uses creams and a stretch machine for his knee pain. (Id. at 106-107). Plaintiff received worker's compensation payments for his knee and a lump sum settlement of $125, 000. (Id. at 105).

         B. ALJ's Decision

         In her decision issued on June 10, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of degenerative joint disease of the left knee, diabetes mellitus, and obesity.[4] (Tr. 23). The ALJ further found that, while Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, the Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were not entirely credible. (Id. at 25-26). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced range of light work, subject to the following restrictions: Plaintiff can lift/carry no more than twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; he can stand/walk no more than thirty minutes at a time and no more than two hours in an eight-hour workday; he needs to be able to use a cane for prolonged walking; sitting is unrestricted with the usual breaks; he can never climb ladders, scaffolding, or ropes, kneel, crawl, or work around unprotected heights or in temperature extremes; and he can only occasionally climb stairs and ramps, bend, stoop, crouch, and operate moving equipment. (Id. at 25). Utilizing the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff cannot perform his past relevant work; however, he can perform the jobs of bench assembler, surveillance system monitor, and call-out operator. (Id. at 36).

         C. Medical Evidence

         The medical records reflect that Plaintiff reported injuring his left knee in a boating accident in April 2009 and that he was treated by the Industrial Medical Clinic of Mobile. (Id. at 450-455). He was initially diagnosed with lumbar region strain and left knee strain. (Id.). Plaintiff was placed on restricted duty, which included no climbing, no squatting on the left knee, and no lifting over 20 pounds. (Id.). An MRI of Plaintiff's left knee revealed previous medial meniscectomy, tear of lateral meniscus, chrondromalacic change of the patella, mild change of degenerative joint disease, and small structure in the suprapatellar bursa. (Id. at 454).

         Plaintiff was seen by Dr. Clayton Lane, M.D., on April 28, 2009, and reported left knee pain. (Id. at 455). On exam, Dr. Lane observed that Plaintiff had moderate tenderness over the lateral joint line, negative Lachman, negative drawer, negative patellar grind, and positive McMurray's laterally. (Id.). Dr. Lane diagnosed Plaintiff with left knee pain and left knee anterior horn lateral meniscus tear and prescribed Mobic and physical therapy three times a week. (Id.). During Plaintiff's May 12, 2009 visit, he reported that physical therapy made his pain worse. (Id. at 457). Dr. Lane prescribed Lortab and noted that Plaintiff would be scheduled for an arthroscopic partial lateral meniscectomy with chondroplasty of the patellofemoral joint. (Id.). On May 20, 2009, Dr. Lane performed arthroscopic partial medial and lateral meniscectomies with microfracture patella to address the meniscus tear and assess the chondral damage. (Id. at 458). Plaintiff was placed in a hinged knee brace, and his range of motion was 0 to 30. He was set up with a home CPM for range of motion and was instructed to remain completely non-weight bearing. (Id. at 458-59).

         Dr. Lane's treatment records dated May 28, 2009 reflect that Plaintiff reported 8/10 pain and was placed in a hinged knee brace 0 to 20 degrees range of motion. Additionally, Dr. Lane prescribed physical therapy three times a week for six weeks and noted, “I am keeping him out of work.” (Id. at 461). By July 2009, diagnostic imaging of Plaintiff's left knee showed no evidence of fracture or other pathology, and Dr. Lane's treatment notes dated July 7, 2009, reflect that Plaintiff had an “excellent range of motion, ” although he reported “catching” under the kneecap with a certain motion. (Id. at 463). During Plaintiff's July 28, 2009 visit, he had 0 to 140 degrees of knee flexion but experienced pain under the patella with that range of motion. (Id. at 464). He also had mild crepitus but no significant locking or mechanical black to motion. X-rays showed no evidence of loose body or fracture. (Id.). Dr. Lane prescribed Lortab 7.5 and four additional weeks of ...

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