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Halama v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

September 5, 2013

FRANCIS HALAMA, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

WILLIAM H. BAUGHMAN, Jr., Magistrate Judge.

Introduction

Before me[1] is an action under 42 U.S.C. ยงยง 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) by Francis Halama seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI").[2] The Commissioner has answered[3] and filed the administrative transcript.[4] Under my initial order[5] and supplemental procedural order, [6] the parties have briefed their positions[7] and submitted supporting charts and fact sheets.[8] The parties participated in a telephonic oral argument.[9]

For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.

Facts

A. Background facts

Halama, who was born in 1952, [10] has an eleventh grade education[11] and previously worked as a machine operator/working supervisor, as well as an assistant manager of an auto parts store.[12] Halama testified at the administrative hearing that he lives with his mother and is able to drive himself and his mother to doctors' appointments or to the store.[13] He further testified that he does not regularly visit with anyone outside the home, nor keep up with past hobbies, because of arthritis in his hands and a reduced ability to focus.[14] In that regard, Halama stated that his medications produce side effects of lightheadedness, fatigue, and nightmares.[15] He also stated that he cannot work now because of constant pain, anxiety, depression, and loss of focus.[16]

As to evidence of psychological difficulties, an examining psychologist, James Sunbury, Ph.D., diagnosed Halama as having a generalized anxiety disorder and assigned him a global assessment of functioning (GAF) score of 58.[17] Dr. Sunbury concluded that Halama had mild limits in relating to others; maintaining attention, concentration, persistence and pace; and in withstanding stress and pressure.[18] A non-examining psychologist opined that Halama has a non-severe anxiety-related disorder.[19]

The medical evidence from Jennifer Poptic, M.D., Halama's treating physician, was that Halama had degenerative disc disease and needed physical therapy as well as pain management.[20] A residual functional capacity assessment completed by Dr. Poptic found that Halama was limited to: (1) carrying five pounds frequently and 15 pounds occasionally; (2) sitting 22 minutes at a time and for three hours total; (3) rarely climbing, stooping, crouching and crawling; (4) occasionally balancing and kneeling; (5) rarely pushing and pulling; and (6) occasionally reaching.[21] Dr. Poptic further stated that Halama: (1) required extra rest breaks and a sit/stand option, (2) has been prescribed a cane, and (3) experiences severe pain.[22]

An evaluation by the physical therapist concluded that Halama was limited by his back pain, depression, and anxiety to sitting for 45 minutes, standing for 22 minutes and walking for six minutes at one time without a break.[23] In an eight-hour day, Halama estimated to the therapist that he could sit five to six hours, stand one to two hours, and walk one to two hours.[24] Exertionally he had the capability for sedentary to light work.[25]

In addition to the evidence produced in connection with this application, there was the result from a prior application before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") in this case. Specifically, Halama previously filed applications for DIB and SSI in 2005, which were denied by the Commissioner, [26] whose denial was affirmed on appeal.[27] In that earlier decision, the ALJ found Halama able to perform medium work, lifting and carrying up to 50 pounds occasionally, 25 pounds frequently, with the further ability to stand for four hours in an eight-hour workday, walk for four hours, and sit for six hours.[28]

B. Decision of the ALJ

The ALJ, whose decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, found that Halama had severe impairments consisting of emphysema and degenerative disc disease.[29] The ALJ made the following finding regarding Halama's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), essentially adopting the prior RFC finding in Halama's previous case with some additional environmental limitations concerning his emphysema:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except for the following restrictions. The claimant can lift, carry, push and pull up to 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently. The claimant can stand for 4 hours in an 8-hour workday, walk for 4 hours in an 8-hour workday, and sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. The claimant is limited to occasionally climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. The claimant also is limited to frequent climbing of ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. Finally, the claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants (fumes, odors, dusts, and gases) and extreme cold, heat, and humidity.[30]

Based on an answer to a hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert at the hearing setting forth the RFC finding quoted above, the ALJ determined that a significant number of jobs existed locally and nationally that Halama could perform.[31] The ALJ, therefore, found Halama not under a disability.

C. Issues on judicial review

Halama raises two issues on judicial review:

1. Whether the ALJ's determination that Halama has the RFC for a range of medium work is supported by substantial evidence.[32]
2. Whether the ALJ's dismissal of Halama's dysthymia and anxiety as non-severe was legal error and not supported by substantial evidence.[33]

As was developed at the oral argument, Halama's primary argument is that new and material evidence introduced in connection with his later application supports a more restrictive RFC than was established in the earlier decision. Because all parties agree that the ALJ here did acknowledge the more recent evidence and discussed it at some length, [34] this issue of the new evidence comes down to whether the ALJ gave good reasons for discounting the opinion of Dr. Poptic, Halama's treating physician.

There is also a secondary issue regarding Halama's physical impairments of whether the ALJ here should have explicitly considered Halama's use of a cane. Although Dr. Poptic's notes indicate that Halama was prescribed a cane, [35] the Commissioner contends that Halama's use of a cane was not a medical necessity and so need not be considered in fashioning the RFC.[36]

Finally, there is an additional issue raised by Halama concerning whether, at step two, the ALJ should have found mental limitations to be severe enough to include in the RFC, [37] which included no mental impairments.[38]

Analysis

A. Standard of review - ...


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