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Winn v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 6, 2018

Mike L. Winn Plaintiff- Appellant
Commissioner, Social Security Administration Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: February 15, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Jefferson City

          Before LOKEN, BENTON, and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.


         Mike L. Winn applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits between June 12, 2007, the alleged disability onset date, and December 31, 2012, his "date last insured." See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.130, 404.131, 404.315(a). During Winn's prior appeal from the denial of benefits after an administrative hearing, we granted the Commissioner's motion to remand for consideration of additional evidence from Winn's treating physician and reassessment of his residual functional capacity (RFC). On remand, the Commissioner's Appeals Council consolidated a second application Winn filed in December 2012 and remanded the combined proceedings to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) to consider additional evidence, redetermine Winn's RFC, and solicit testimony from a vocational expert (VE). After a hearing at which Winn and a VE testified, a second ALJ denied Winn's application for benefits. Winn petitioned for judicial review. After thorough review, the district court[1] upheld the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits, concluding that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the administrative record as a whole. Winn appeals. We apply that same standard and affirm. See Van Vickle v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 825, 828 (8th Cir. 2008) (standard of review).

         Applying the five-step process defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a), the ALJ found that, during the period in question, Winn suffered from severe but non-listed impairments -- degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, carpal tunnel syndrome, and neuropathy. After considering the entire record including additional evidence from Winn's treating physician, the ALJ found that his RFC as of the date last insured was --

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that he could lift and/or carry and push and/or pull up to 10 pounds occasionally and 5 pounds frequently; he could stand and walk up to 6 hours in an 8hour workday and sit up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; he could n[ot] climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; he could occasionally climb ramps and stairs; he could occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; he could frequently reach, but could only occasionally reach overhead; he could frequently handle, finger and feel; and he needed to avoid hazards such as dangerous moving machinery or unprotected heights.

         Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that Winn could not perform his past relevant work, which was operating heavy equipment at a Missouri rock quarry. However, based on the VE's testimony that someone with Winn's age, education, work experience, and RFC could perform jobs available in the regional and national economy at that time, such as bench assembler, laundry worker, and ticket seller, the ALJ found that Winn was not disabled. On appeal, Winn argues, as he did to the district court, (1) that the ALJ did not give the opinions of his treating physician, Dr. Gary LaMonda, sufficient weight; and (2) that the RFC found by the ALJ attributed greater hand functioning to Winn than the medical evidence supported.

         1. The Treating Physician Issue.

         Dr. LaMonda, an internist, had treated Winn for many years when, in late 2005, Winn's complaints of neck and shoulder pain and hand numbness caused Dr. LaMonda to order an MRI of the cervical spine and to refer Winn to Dr. Donald Meyer, a pain management specialist. The MRI showed degenerative disc disease and spinal stenosis. Steroid injections improved Winn's pain, but by mid-2007 chronic neck pain led Dr. Meyer to refer Winn to Dr. Jeffrey Parker, a surgeon. Based on an MRI and a new myelogram, Dr. Parker diagnosed severe cervical stenosis and recommended that Winn not return to work. In a second appointment, Dr. Parker diagnosed carpal tunnel syndrome and referred Winn to Dr. John Havey, who performed carpal tunnel release procedures on each hand. Dr. Havey opined that Winn was doing well after the procedures but should remain off work for another month and not do "heavy gripping or lifting." Later that fall, after another MRI, Dr. Parker performed fusion surgery on Winn's cervical spine. Seven weeks after the surgery, Winn told Dr. Parker he was "doing fine" and had "no problems at all." In January 2008, Winn told Dr. Parker his neck pain was gradually improving but he doubted he could return to work as a heavy-equipment operator. Dr. Parker kept Winn off work and noted he should consider a different profession. Also in January 2008, Dr. Havey noted Winn was doing well after his carpal tunnel surgeries.

         The record reflects that Winn received unemployment compensation benefits from the fourth quarter of 2007 through the second quarter of 2008. In April 2008, Winn told Dr. Parker he was experiencing neck soreness and hand numbness and was pursuing a workers' compensation claim. Dr. Parker noted mild limitation of cervical motion but "good grip strength in both hands." He advised Winn he could return to light work. The following month, Dr. Daniel Kitchens conducted an independent medical evaluation of Winn in connection with his workers' compensation claim. After reviewing Winn's extensive medical history, Dr. Kitchens opined that Winn could "work with light to medium-duty restrictions." In July, Winn again saw Dr. Meyer. Though Winn claimed no post-surgery improvement in pain and numbness, Dr. Meyer opined that Winn's symptoms were "relatively mild" and his pain "is not something that should be completely disabling."

         Winn next saw Dr. LaMonda in August 2009. Winn said he felt "okay" but reported neck and shoulder pain. Neurodiagnostic testing showed some spinal radiculopathy and severe bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. Dr. LaMonda referred Winn to Dr. Thomas Turnbaugh, an orthopedic surgeon, who performed additional carpal tunnel surgery on Winn's left wrist in December 2009. At a checkup the next month, Winn told Dr. LaMonda he felt well except for chronic headaches.

         In June 2010, Winn saw Dr. LaMonda for "some paper work" regarding his disability application. In response to written interrogatories from Winn's attorney, Dr. LaMonda stated that Winn's hands are restricted from ten pound lifting and repetitive use; he has shoulder pain while standing for fifteen minutes and cannot sit for more than thirty minutes without having to lie down to stop muscle spasms and arm pain; his "neck will not tolerate sitting for more than 30 minutes"; his cervical stenosis precludes "repetitive stooping or standing for more than 30 minutes"; and lying down every two hours for thirty minutes will relieve pain and muscle spasms. In December 2010, after the first ALJ found Winn not disabled, Dr. LaMonda provided a telephonic sworn statement in which he elaborated on these opinions and explained his role as internist in coordinating treatment by medical specialists such as Dr. Meyer, Dr. Parker, and Dr. Havey. Dr. LaMonda opined that, while the MRI after Winn's neck surgery showed there was no longer nerve blockage, "because it was a long-standing impingement on those nerves, he had had long-standing and permanent damage . . . to both the nerves going to the arms, the C5-6 nerve roots, and off the spinal cord."

         Winn saw Dr. LaMonda again in November 2011 and February 2012. The district court agreed with the ALJ that Dr. LaMonda's notes are ambiguous as to the effectiveness of Winn's most recent carpal tunnel procedure. In February 2013, Winn saw Dr. Dennis Velez for a consultative examination. Dr. Velez observed that Winn demonstrated "normal range of motion" and "full sensation" during a motor examination and concluded he "does not have limitations for sitting, standing or walking." Dr. Velez opined that Winn "may have some manipulative limitations using the right hand side, but would not have any lifting or carrying limitations." In ...

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