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Kraft v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

May 22, 2019

WALTER KRAFT, Plaintiff,

          Honorable Arthur J. Tarnow, Judge.


          David R. Grand, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Walter Kraft (“Kraft”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g), challenging the final decision of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Title II Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Both parties have filed summary judgment motions [11, 15], which have been referred to this Court for a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §636(b)(1)(B).


         For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) conclusion that Kraft is not disabled under the Act. Accordingly, the Court recommends that the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment [15] be GRANTED, Kraft's Motion for Summary Judgment [11] be DENIED, and that, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. §405(g), the ALJ's decision be AFFIRMED.

         II. REPORT

         A. Procedural History

         On December 9, 2015[1], Kraft filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging a disability onset date of March 1, 2012. (Tr. 189-96). He later amended his alleged onset date to July 2, 2014. (Tr. 40).[2] These applications were denied initially on March 25, 2016. (Tr. 103-36). Kraft filed a timely request for an administrative hearing, which was held on December 5, 2016, before ALJ Therese Tobin. (Tr. 32-62). Kraft, who was represented by attorney Nicole Thompson, testified at the hearing, as did vocational expert Elizabeth Pasikowski. (Id.). On May 24, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision finding that Kraft is not disabled. (Tr. 15-27). On February 27, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review. (Tr. 1-5). Kraft timely filed for judicial review of the final decision on April 27, 2018. (Doc. #1).

         B. Framework for Disability Determinations

         Under the Act, SSI and DIB are available only to those who have a “disability.” See Colvin v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 727, 730 (6th Cir. 2007). The Act defines “disability” 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. §1382c(a)(3)(A) and 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A). The Commissioner's regulations provide that a disability is to be determined through the application of a five-step sequential analysis:

Step One: If the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Two: If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments that “significantly limits . . . physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Three: If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, has a severe impairment that is expected to last for at least twelve months, and the severe impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the regulations, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled regardless of age, education, or work experience.
Step Four: If the claimant is able to perform his or her past relevant work, benefits are denied without further analysis.
Step Five: Even if the claimant is unable to perform his or her past relevant work, if other work exists in the national economy that the claimant can perform, in view of his or her age, education, and work experience, benefits are denied.

Scheuneman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2011 WL 6937331, at *7 (E.D. Mich. Dec. 6, 2011) (citing 20 C.F.R. §404.1520); see also Heston v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 245 F.3d 528, 534 (6th Cir. 2001). “The burden of proof is on the claimant throughout the first four steps …. If the analysis reaches the fifth step without a finding that claimant is not disabled, the burden transfers to the [defendant].” Preslar v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).

         C. Background

         1. Kraft's Reports and Testimony

         At the time of the administrative hearing, Kraft was 47 years old, and at 5'11” tall, weighed 252-254 pounds. (Tr. 40-41). He lived in a home with his fiancée with her three children, as well as his five year old son. (Tr. 41, 45). Kraft completed tenth grade. (Tr. 45). Previously, he worked as a truck driver, repair person, and auto mechanic. (Tr. 36). Kraft has not worked since March 1, 2012. (Tr. 237).

         Kraft alleges disability as a result of arthritic back and knee pain, recurrent abscesses, HIV, syphilis, depression, and diabetes. (Tr. 236). Kraft testified that he can stand for five minutes, and sit for ten to fifteen minutes before he needs to stand up and move around. (Tr. 50). He is able to drive, but not for long periods of time. (Tr. 42). He testified that he is not able to perform household tasks such as cooking because his back starts bothering him after standing for 10-15 minutes. (Tr. 49). He also needs help with bathing, dressing himself, clipping his toenails, and other personal care. (Tr. 48). He cannot bend, squat, or crawl without needing help getting back up, and cannot climb more than one or two stairs. (Tr. 50). He does not have difficulty reaching in front of him, but does have difficulty reaching overhead. (Tr. 50-51.) He does not have problems using his hands or fingers, nor does he have memory problems. (Tr. 51.) Kraft testified that the only way he can spend time with his five year old son is to sit, watch tv, or hold his son. (Tr. 51). He further testified that he spends 75% of the day in bed or lying down, experiences nausea which he treats with marijuana, and only sleeps a few hours at a time overnight. (Tr. 51).

         2. Medical Evidence

         a. Physical Impairments

         Kraft has been diagnosed with cervical, thoracic, and lumbar degenerative disc disease, an HIV infection, osteoarthritis of both knees, diabetes, syphilis, peripheral neuropathy, peptic ulcers, osteoarthritis of the back, and abscesses.

         Kraft's neck and back pain originated as early as April 2013, when he presented to Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital with pain and was admitted for several days. (Tr. 282, 311). An MRI showed mild to moderate stenosis L2-L3, degenerative changes, modic changes, and spondylosis.[3](Tr. 307, 309). At Henry Ford Wyandotte, he received joint injections with blocks for pain and showed improvement. (Tr. 305). At a follow-up appointment, he reported his pain “is getting better.” (Tr. 584). Also in 2013, he was diagnosed with syphilis and HIV. (Tr. 589).

         In January 2015, he presented to the emergency department at Henry Ford Hospital complaining of a gluteal abscess. (Tr. 333). He was admitted due to his diabetic history, cellulitis, and sepsis. (Tr. 337-38). Afterward, he reported to a physician at a follow-up appointment that he was “fine and doing ok.” (Tr. 519).

         He presented to Henry Ford Hospital again in June 2015 for right middle finger pain due to an abscess. (Tr. 356, 358). In early August 2015, he underwent a study of his cervical spine. (Tr. 553-55). The results showed that his residual myelomalcia was “not significantly changed” since an August 2013 study; his T2 hyperintensive cord signal at ¶ 3-C4 was “improved” since May 2013; and his cervical and lumbar spine showed “improvement, ” “with only minimal progression of lumbar degenerative change.” (Tr. 555).

         In late August 2015, he presented to Oakwood Hospital with chest pain. (Tr. 415). Evaluation showed “no evidence of acute intrathoracic process. No thoracic aortic injury, ” and his CT evaluation “otherwise unremarkable” and “normal aorta and nothing acute.” (Tr. 428, 436). Days later, he presented to Oakwood Heritage Hospital with reports of bilateral blurred vision, which his provider found to be “most likely related to his hyperglycemia.” (Tr. 460, 463). At his follow up appointment, when given advice on diabetes management, he “got angry and left the clinic without examination.” (Tr. 531).

         In early September 2015, Kraft saw his doctor for routine HIV follow-up care. (Tr. 531). He reported he was, “[f]eeling well” and “100% compliant with his antiretroviral medication.” (Tr. 532). His assessment was: “HIV disease, stable immune function and virologically suppressed, compliant with current antiretroviral medication regimen.” (Tr. 533).

         In October 2015, he arrived at Henry Ford Hospital for treatment for a gluteal abscess, and was admitted. (Tr. 360, 542, 549). In regard to his HIV infection, he stated “he was diagnosed about 4 year[s] ago and is compliant with his medication. (Atripla).” (Tr. 549). After his abscess procedure, he stated that he wished to leave the hospital against ...

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