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Walker v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas

June 28, 2016

Timothy R. Walker, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          Tim Walker, Plaintiff, represented by Frederick S. Spencer, Attorney at Law.

          Social Security Administration, Defendant, represented by Melinda R. Newman, Social Security Administration & Stacey Elise McCord, U.S. Attorney's Office.

          RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION

          JEROME T. KEARNEY, Magistrate Judge.

         Instructions. The following recommended disposition was prepared for U.S. District Judge James M. Moody, Jr. A party to this dispute may file written objections to this recommendation. An objection must be specific and state the factual and/or legal basis for the objection. An objection to a factual finding must identify the finding and the evidence supporting the objection. Objections must be filed with the clerk of the court no later than 14 days from the date of this recommendation.[1] The objecting party must serve the opposing party with a copy of an objection. Failing to object within 14 days waives the right to appeal questions of fact.[2] If no objections are filed, Judge Moody may adopt the recommended disposition without independently reviewing all of the record evidence.

         Background. Timothy R. Walker seeks judicial review of the partially favorable decision on his application for social security disability benefits. Walker applied for disability benefits after a heart attack and triple bypass surgery.[3] The Commissioner's ALJ determined Walker was disabled beginning April 8, 2012 - the day of the heart attack - until January 31, 2014. The ALJ determined Walker's disability ended on February 1, 2014. The ALJ awarded benefits for the disability period: April 8, 2012 to January 31, 2014. Walker insists disability continued. He challenges the cessation of disability benefits.

         The Commissioner's decision. The ALJ determined Walker medically improved as of February 1, 2014.[4] The ALJ determined that, as of that date, Walker had severe impairments - coronary artery disease status post three-vessel bypass graft, diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, right shoulder pain, obesity, and depression.[5] The ALJ determined the impairments limit Walker to a reduced range of sedentary work.[6] The ALJ consulted a vocational expert about available work, determined work existed that Walker could do, and denied benefits after January 31, 2014.[7]

         Walker appealed to the Commissioner's Appeals Council.[8] He submitted new evidence to support his claim. The Appeals Council considered the new evidence, added the evidence generated during the disability period, and declined review.[9] Walker filed this case to challenge the cessation of benefits.[10] This recommendation explains why the court should affirm the decision.

         Walker's allegations. Walker challenges the determination that medical improvement occurred on February 1, 2014. He claims new evidence required the Appeals Council to remand his case for redetermination.[11]

         Applicable legal principles. Walker challenges the cessation of benefits. A decision to cease disability benefits must be supported by substantial evidence showing there has been medical improvement in the claimant's impairment such that the claimant can now engage in substantial gainful activity.[12] For substantial evidence to exist, a reasonable mind must accept the evidence as adequate to show Walker improved enough to work as of February 1, 2014.[13]

         Medical improvement. The first question is medical improvement.[14] The Commissioner determines medical improvement by comparing the claimant's present condition with his condition at the time benefits were awarded. To do that, the Commissioner compares current medical evidence with the prior medical evidence to determine whether "there have been changes (improvement) in the symptoms, signs or laboratory findings associated with [the claimant's] impairment(s)."[15] This task requires the court to determine whether medical evidence showed improvement in symptoms, signs, or laboratory findings as of February 1, 2014, as compared to the time benefits were awarded on April 8, 2012.

         The ALJ identified the same impairments for the disability period and the medical-improvement point.[16] The ALJ determined the impairments limited Walker to sedentary work for the disability time period and the medical-improvement point.[17] The difference lies in the non-exertional limitations shown in the following chart:

         

April 8, 2012 to January 31, 2014 February 1, 2014 can stand or sit for 30 minutes at a time can sit for 3 hours of 8 hour workday can sit for 6 hours of 8 hour workday can stand for 2 hours of 8 hour workday can stand/walk for 2 hours of 8 hour workday no frequent grasping or handling with right arm no pushing, pulling, or lifting with right no frequent overhead reaching with right arm above shoulder level arm no exposure to mild respiratory irritants no exposure to moderate respiratory or temperature extremes irritants or temperature extremes no unprotected heights, moving/ dangerous machinery or driving can't maintain attention or concentration can't meet normal attendance, punctuality, or production requirements needs frequent rest breaks during the day can do unskilled work involving can do semi-skilled work, routine but incidental interpersonal contact, tasks superficial interpersonal contact, tasks with few variables learned and with several variables learned by performed by rote, little judgment, experience, judgment within limits, little simple/direct/concrete supervision supervision for routine tasks, detailed supervision for non-routine tasks

         The comparison shows a reduction in non-exertional limitations. The question is whether a reasonable mind will accept the evidence as sufficient to show medical improvement.

         A reasonable mind will accept the evidence as sufficient for the following reasons:

1. Prior to bypass surgery, Walker had blockages in the intermediate, left anterior descending, and right coronary arteries.[18] Surgery cleared the blockages. Subsequent diagnostic testing showed normal ejection fractions rates and no reoccurrence of valvular disease. [19]
2. Initially, Walker complained about depression, extreme stress, headaches, numbness, weight change, constipation, vomiting, diarrhea, blurred vision, frequent urination, and pain in the hands, feet, and chest.[20] With time, Walker's strength improved.[21] Depression improved with a medication change.[22] Constipation and diarrhea resolved with medication changes. Complaints about stress, headaches, weight change, vomiting, blurred vision, and hand and chest pain ceased. Numbness in the feet persisted due to diabetic neuropathy.
The increase in physical strength and the decrease in symptoms support the determination that Walker could sit for six hours and stand/walk for two hours; it also supports the determination that he could tolerate moderate levels of respiratory irritants and temperature extremes.
3. After bypass surgery, Walker's doctor restricted driving and recommended physical activity as tolerated.[23] At the medical-improvement point, Walker had been driving for some time.[24] His doctor recommended aerobic exercise.[25] Medical recommendations for physical exercise indicate Walker could function better than alleged.[26]
4. The ALJ limited overhead reaching with the right arm. For the disability period, the ALJ included additional limitation with the right arm due to a right-shoulder injury. Although that issue resolved before February 1, ...

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