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Linden v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

April 14, 2017

RILEY Q. LINDEN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          John M. Gerrard United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on the denial, initially and upon reconsideration, of the plaintiff Riley Linden's application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. and supplemental social security income benefits under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. The Court has considered the parties' filings and the administrative record. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this order.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Linden applied for disability insurance benefits on May 2, 2012. T165-178. His claim was denied initially on July 31, and upon reconsideration on November 9. T57-58, 81-82. Linden appealed and requested a hearing from an administrative law judge (ALJ). T27-30. The ALJ held a hearing on March 28, 2014. T31. In a decision dated April 18, the ALJ found that Linden was not disabled as defined under 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) or 423(d), and therefore not entitled to benefits. T19-21.

         Sequential Analysis

         Disability, for purposes of the Social Security Act, is defined as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) & 423(d).

         To determine whether a claimant is entitled to disability benefits, the ALJ performs a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At step one, the claimant has the burden to establish that he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date. Cuthrell v. Astrue, 702 F.3d 1114, 1116 (8th Cir. 2013). If the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity, he will be found not to be disabled; otherwise, at step two, he has the burden to prove he has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits his physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. Id.

         At step three, if the claimant shows that his impairment meets or equals a presumptively disabling impairment listed in the regulations, he is automatically found disabled and is entitled to benefits. Id. Otherwise, the analysis proceeds to step four. But first, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), which is used at steps four and five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). A claimant's RFC is what he can do despite the limitations caused by any mental or physical impairments. Toland v. Colvin, 761 F.3d 931, 935 (8th Cir. 2014). At step four, the claimant has the burden to prove he lacks the RFC to perform his past relevant work. Cuthrell, 702 F.3d at 1116. If the claimant can still do his past relevant work, he will be found not to be disabled; otherwise, at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience, that there are other jobs in the national economy the claimant can perform. Id.; Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 971 (8th Cir. 2010).

         The ALJ's Findings

         Linden alleged disability as a result of Type II diabetes mellitus, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bilateral knee osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, and post-L4/S1 fusion. T262. He also reports experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorder, rule-out narcissistic personality disorder, and alcohol abuse in full remission, although these do not appear to have been advanced to the Commissioner as a basis for disability. T262. He alleges an onset date of October 15, 2010. T165, 172. At that time, Linden was 51 years old. T165. The ALJ found that, based on his earnings record, Linden could remain insured through December 31, 2015. T10. So, the question for the ALJ was whether Linden had demonstrated a disability for some period of not less than 12 months between October 10, 2010 and March 31, 2015.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Linden had not engaged in substantial gainful activity following his alleged onset date. T12. Next, at step two, the ALJ found that Linden had several severe impairments: postL4/S1 fusion, degenerative disc disease, bilateral knee osteoarthritis, COPD, and type II diabetes mellitus. T12. At step three, the ALJ found that Linden had no impairment that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. T14. The ALJ then determined that Linden had the RFC to

perform medium work . . . as he can lift/carry 25 pounds frequently and 50 pounds occasionally; sit, stand, and walk 6 hours each in an 8-hour workday; and push/pull within the weight limits. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but cannot climb ladders and scaffolds. He cannot have concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants. He cannot work at unprotected heights or with vibrating tools.

T14-15. Because the ALJ's RFC finding is the critical issue in this appeal, the Court will examine the ALJ's underlying reasoning in more detail.

         The ALJ found that Linden had made inconsistent or unsupported statements concerning his functional abilities, that diminished his credibility. T16. The ALJ also noted a history of medical non-compliance. T17. And, the ALJ noted, although Linden "complains of significant back pain and other musculoskeletal symptoms, the evidence shows that he sought treatment only at the emergency room and with his primary care providers, but ...


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