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Nauman v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, St. Joseph Division

August 29, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Dallas Nauman seeks review of the decision by Defendant denying his claim for Supplemental Security Income. For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the ALJ's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Nauman filed an application for Supplemental Security Income on July 13, 2016 and Disability Insurance Benefits on August 12, 2016 under Titles XVI and II of the Social Security Act, respectively. Tr. 155-59, 163-64. Nauman claims he became disabled on June 18, 2016, [1]Tr. 30, and listed the following causes of his disability: chronic nausea, stomach and abdomen pain, lymphoma stomach cancer in remission, digestive issues, frequent vomiting, multiple stomach surgeries, chronic fatigue and confusion, problems with bending, stooping, standing, and walking, and weakness in his lumbar back, Tr. 185. Shortly after his alleged onset date, he reported taking, pursuant to prescriptions, Baclofen for pain, Norco, Pepcid and Viokase for digestive issues, Promethazine and Zofran for nausea, Xanax for anxiety and Pamelor for depression. Tr. 188. He has an eighth-grade education level and had worked in construction for approximately 20 years, but he stopped working in 2013 due to his condition. Tr. 186-87.

         The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) concluded, after a hearing, that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: left hip fracture, status post pinning, osteoarthritis of the right thumb, gastroesophageal reflux disease, gastroparesis, pancreatitis, reactive gastropathy, peptic ulcer disease, sun sensitivity, history of fibromyalgia/myofasciitis, history of chronic obstructive disorder, learning disorder, alcohol abuse/dependence, and cognitive neurological disorder due to past chemotherapy. Tr. 13. The ALJ nonetheless concluded that Nauman retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work as follows:

sedentary work . . . including the ability to lift and carry up to 10 pounds occasionally, stand and/or walk up to 2 hours in an 8 hours workday, and sit up to 6 hours in an 8 hour workday. The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, balance, kneel, crouch or crawl, but he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, and stoop. The claimant can frequently handle and finger with the right hand. He must avoid extreme cold weather, extreme heat, exposure to sunlight, humidity, and excessive vibration. The claimant must avoid irritants, such as fumes, odors, dust, gases and poorly ventilated areas. He must also avoid operational control of moving machinery, unprotected heights and hazardous machinery. Due to his mental impairments, the claimant is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks, which may required detailed instructions, but do not involve complex tasks. The work must be in an environment free of fast-paced production requirements and involve only simple, work-related decision, and few, if any, work place changes. He cannot have any interaction with the public. He can work around co-workers, but he can have only occasional interaction with co-workers.

Tr. 14. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Nauman's RFC would allow him to work as a lens inserter, wire wrapper, and production checker-jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 19. The ALJ therefore concluded that Nauman was not under a “disability” as that term is defined in the Act. Tr. 10-20. As the Appeals Council subsequently denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. 1-4, the ALJ's decision constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review.

         II. STANDARD

         The Court must affirm the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits “if substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the ALJ's decision.” Milam v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 978, 983 (8th Cir. 2015). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but is enough so that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the ALJ's conclusion.” Singh v. Apfel, 222 F.3d 448, 451 (8th Cir. 2000). “[A]s long as substantial evidence in the record supports the Commissioner's decision, [the Court] may not reverse it because substantial evidence also exists in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome, or because [the Court] would have decided the case differently.” Andrews v. Colvin, 791 F.3d 923, 928 (8th Cir. 2015) (quotation marks and citation omitted). The Court must “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions of the Social Security Administration.” Michel v. Colvin, 640 Fed.Appx. 585, 592 (8th Cir. 2016) (quotation marks and citations omitted).


         Nauman argues that the ALJ failed to provide reasons supported by substantial evidence for discounting the opinion of Nauman's treating oncologist and an examining phycologist, and that the ALJ failed to develop the record as to Nauman's mental abilities before formulating an RFC assessment. Nauman contends that these errors make the RFC deficient, and therefore remand is appropriate.

         The RFC is “the most a claimant can still do despite [his] physical or mental limitations.” Swink v. Saul, 931 F.3d 765, 769 (8th Cir. 2019) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 404.1520(a)(1)). An RFC must be “based on all of the relevant evidence, including the medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and an individual's own description of [his] limitations.” Myers v. Colvin, 721 F.3d 521, 527 (8th Cir. 2013) (quotations omitted). In determining the RFC, “a treating physician's opinion is generally entitled to substantial weight, ” but such an opinion “does not automatically control in the face of other credible evidence on the record that detracts from that opinion.” Brown v. Astrue, 611 F.3d 941, 951 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Heino v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 873, 880 (8th Cir. 2009)). When “discount[ing] a treating physician's opinion, [the ALJ] should give good reasons for doing so.” Id.

         Dr. Raj Rangineni, Nauman's treating oncologist, provided the following medical opinions: a brief letter dated January 8, 2014, Tr. 610; a check-the-box form titled “MEDICAL SOURCE STATEMENT - MENTAL” and a similar “MEDICAL SOURCE STATEMENT - PHYSICAL” that was accompanied by a written explanation of Nauman's treatment and symptoms, each dated October 13, 2016, Tr. 528-33; and another set of source statements similar to those submitted in October 2016 that were dated December 5, 2017, Tr. 543-48.

         These opinions generally advised that Nauman could occasionally lift up to 10 pounds, occasionally use his hands or arms, stand for up to two hours in a day and sit for four hours, but would need to change positions every 15 minutes, would require frequent breaks, would be off-task 25% of the time and absent at least four days per month. Tr. 532-33, 544-45. The ALJ afforded “partial weight” to Dr. Rangineni's opinion, incorporating his recommended limits on lifting, standing and walking in the RFC, but not Dr. Rangineni's recommendations regarding nonexertional limits, Nauman's ability to sit or be on task, or Dr. ...

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