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Seipel v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

January 25, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Stanley L. Seipel seeks judicial review of a denial of his application for disability insurance benefits by the Commissioner of Social Security. Before the court is plaintiff's motion for summary judgment which asserts that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by failing to assess adequately: (1) medical findings made by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”), and (2) a finding of long-term disability by his insurer, Hartford Insurance. (Dkt. #8.) For the reasons discussed below, the court agrees with defendant that neither assertion is a sufficient basis for remand.

         BACKGROUND [1]

         A. Claimant

         Plaintiff Seipel, born on March 14, 1961, was 50 years old on his alleged disability onset date, April 28, 2011. (AR 19, 25.) Seipel has at least a high school education and can speak English, and he worked full-time as an instructor in the United States military “for many years.” (AR 25.) Seipel claims that he is disabled based on several physical impairments, including “right shoulder arthralgia, back impairment, and coronary artery disease, ” all of which the ALJ found to be severe impairments in step two of the Social Security Administration's five-step evaluation process.[2] (AR 22.)

         B. Medical Record

         Plaintiff emphasizes several medical treatment notes, reflecting his heart, shoulder and back conditions, beginning in 2011. More specifically, Seipel had triple bypass surgery for his coronary artery disease on April 28, 2011, and in November of that same year, he underwent a stent placement procedure. (AR 442, 449.) As for his shoulder, a physical therapist noted on October 26, 2011, that Seipel was experiencing “extreme” and “unusual” pain in his right shoulder, had a “poor” prognosis. (AR 569.) With regard to his back, a “Disability Benefits Questionnaire” completed for Seipel's application for disability benefits from the VA on January 3, 2012, included Dr. Craig Saltzgiver's notes that Seipel had been diagnosed with degenerative disk disease of the lumbar spine and had “less movement than normal” due to his back-related impairments. (AR 525-28.)

         As cited by plaintiff, that same questionnaire also included the medical opinion that Seipel's back and shoulder impairments limited his ability to lift, stand, push, pull, stoop, kneel and do overhead work, as well as “preclude[d] gainful employment” at the “heavy or moderate” level. (AR 541.) Ultimately, however, Dr. Saltzgiver concluded in that questionnaire that Seipel was “able to seek and maintain substantially gainful employment in the light labor or sedentary employment positions based on [service connected] conditions.” (Id.)

         C. ALJ's Decision

         ALJ John Pleuss held a hearing by video on February 20, 2014. In an opinion dated April 18, 2014, the ALJ concluded that Seipel was not disabled. (AR 26.) After finding that Seipel had not engaged in substantial gainful activity at the first step, the ALJ found that his impairments did not result in a finding of disability at the second and third steps.

         The ALJ then determined Seipel's residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

The claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except for the following restrictions. The claimant requires a sit/stand option so that he need not sit or stand for more than 30 minutes at a time. He is precluded from more than occasional reaching with his right hand/arm. He is precluded from any overhead reaching with his right hand/arm.

(AR 22.) In explaining his formulation of Seipel's RFC, the ALJ credited to some degree Seipel's report of subjective symptoms, namely pain and discomfort from sitting or standing for too long, and reaching or lifting weight with his right arm. (AR 23.) Consistent with those findings, the ALJ also credited Seipel's claimed inability to perform his past medium-level work in the military. (Id.)

         Among the medical evidence that the ALJ relied upon in reaching the RFC were treatment notes, which suggested that Seipel recovered well from his cardiac symptoms after surgery and a stent placement in April and November of 2011, respectively, and Seipel's own reports as early as December 14, 2011, that he was not experiencing chest pain, palpitations or shortness of breath, even with exertion. (AR 449.) The ALJ also cited medical evidence of Seipel's additional management of his cardiac symptoms after the hearing, including a treatment note, dated November 1, 2013, indicating that Seipel ...

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