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Reed v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

September 26, 2019

JOSEPH REED, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Joseph Reed seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which denied his applications for disability and disability insurance benefits, as well as supplemental security income. On appeal, Reed contends that ALJ John Martin (the “ALJ”) erred by failing to: (1) adequately assess his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) in light of his subjective symptoms; (2) give sufficient weight to the treating physician’s medical opinion; and (3) properly evaluate claimant’s obesity. (Opening Br. (dkt. #11) 1.) The court held oral argument on June 11, 2019, at which counsel for both sides appeared. For the reasons set forth below, the final decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded for reconsideration of Reed’s entitlement to SSI benefits beginning in 2014.


         Reed filed applications for disability, disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on August 20, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of June 15, 2012. (AR 20.) The Social Security Administration denied his applications initially on March 25, 2014, and then on reconsideration on November 13, 2014. Reed appeared before an ALJ at a video hearing on October 25, 2016, to challenge those rulings. (Id.)

         A. Hearing Testimony

         Before his claimed disability on June 15, 2012, Reed was self-employed, painting houses, making furniture, and running what was described as a “two-cabin resort.” (AR 55-56.) When he was 21 years old, Reed took a bad fall at work and injured his back, which prompted him to start his painting business. (AR 57.) Reed further explained that he stopped working because both his knees needed to be replaced and his shoulders would get inflamed, limiting his ability to move his arms. (AR 57-58.)

         Reed also testified that he was also in “extreme” pain, such that every day is “bad, and some days it’s unbearable.” (AR 58.) On a scale of zero to ten, he described pain ranging from five to seven every day. (AR 59.) Reed explained that his pain is worse when he first wakes up because of his arthritis and laying in a sleeping position, despite sleeping on a modified mattress. (AR 60.) He reported needing approximately half an hour every morning just to get out of bed, including taking his pain medication before trying to get up. (AR 60-61.) To make getting dressed easier, Reed also waits until after his medications kick in each morning. (AR 63.) In addition to pain medication, Reed takes an anti-depressant, anti-inflammatory, blood pressure medication, muscle relaxer, something to control his urination, and vitamins. (AR 66-67.)

         At the time of the video hearing in 2016, Reed testified that he was six feet tall and weighed 318 pounds, after losing approximately 100 pounds in the ten months following gastric bypass surgery. (AR 51.) However, Reed reported that his weight loss did not decrease his pain. (AR 53.)

         As to his activities of daily living, Reed described being able to drive for approximately one hour during a typical week, with pain increasing in his back, knees and shoulders because of the rough road near his house. (AR 52-53.) As a result, his doctors’ appointments were the only times he went out. (AR 53.) Reed also testified that he could sit for approximately 20 minutes at a time without having to move around, and he was limited in his ability to twist. (AR 59.)

         Given these limitations, Reed’s wife helps him attend to his personal needs. For example, he cannot get out of bed in the middle of the night and must instead urinate in a container near the bed, which means that “[s]ometimes [his wife] holds [his] urine jug, and sometimes she also helps . . . wipe [his] behind.” (AR 61-62; see also AR 75 (wife testifying claimant cannot get to the bathroom first thing in the morning and that she helps wipe his bottom when his back goes out).) Similarly, Reed is limited to showering twice a week, with his wife helping him wash his hair and his back. (AR 62.) In addition, Reed testified that he cannot stand long enough to wash dishes or vacuum, but can help prepare dinner by chopping things on the TV tray in front of his recliner. (AR 63-64.) Finally, he has not been shopping for years, and he does none of the shoveling in the winter. (AR 64.)[1]

         B. ALJ’s Decision

         The ALJ concluded that Reed had a number of severe impairments: affective disorder, anxiety disorder, degenerative disc disease, major joint dysfunctions, personality disorder, and obesity. (AR 22.) He explained that Reed’s back MRIs showed “degenerative changes, ” as well as “a small disc protrusion without nerve root displacement, ” and “mostly mild to moderate abnormality with foraminal narrowing that would result in L4 or L5 radiculopathy.” (AR 23.) He also found Reed morbidly obese, even after his bariatric surgery, with a BMI ranging from 43.4-54.8. (Id.) Finally, the ALJ recognized that Reed had “mild to moderate bilateral knee osteoarthritis” following knee surgery in 2013, as well as “mild to moderate degenerative joint disease” in his shoulders. (Id.)

         Despite Reed’s testimony about his many limitations, the ALJ found his “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [his] symptoms” to be “not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” (AR 26.) As an initial matter, the ALJ noted that he “attributed his physical problems to a 1991 work accident and a number of subsequent falls, ” but that all of “these falls occurred well before his alleged onset date.” (Id.) Likewise, Reed had reported approximately the same level of pain for years, and he had been taking narcotics and other pain medications for years for the same issues, yet continued to work during much of this time, such that the ALJ found Reed could have continued working after his alleged onset date. (Id.) Reed also continued performing some work after his alleged onset date, even though he delegated more of the physical labor to others. (AR 27.)

         Next, the ALJ noted Reed’s “conflicting information about the effectiveness of treatment.” In particular, the ALJ questioned Reed’s assertion that treatment was ineffective, noting that he could perform physical tasks without significant pain during treatment, and he only seemed to complain about pain after engaging in strenuous activities. (Id.) Nor did the medical records corroborate claimant’s alleged restrictions. Rather, those records confirmed that Reed’s “treatment effectively relieved his pain, except for those occasions when he engaged in strenuous activities.” (Id.) For example, following Reed’s knee surgery: (1) his doctor released him to return to work without restriction; (2) he could get on and off the exam table without assistance; and (3) he did not require postoperative physical therapy because the procedure was so routine. (AR 27-28.) Similarly, the record revealed that his medication side effects were mild. In particular, the record reveals that his medications did not significantly interfere with Reed’s ability to perform work activities. (AR 28.)

         As to the medical opinion evidence in the record, Reed’s treating physician, Dr. James Dunn, opined that he would miss at least four days of work each month, although the ALJ noted that Dr. Dunn “apparently relied quite heavily on the subjective report of symptoms and limitations provided by the claimant.” (Id.) The ALJ also found Dunn’s opinion to be “inconsistent with the claimant’s reports [that he was] still operating a resort and doing yard work to some degree in 2013, ” as well as “with the fact that the claimant was sustaining medium to heavy exertional work with many of the same treatment and objective findings by the doctor.” (AR 28-29.) Accordingly, the ALJ gave Dunn’s opinion little weight, while giving the opinions of the state agency physicians, Ruiz and Byrd, partial weight.[2]

         In determining Reed’s RFC, the ALJ concluded that he could perform sedentary work, with specified limitations: (1) no ladders, ropes, scaffolds, unprotected heights, moving machinery, operating motor vehicles, or concentrated exposure to extreme cold; (2) occasional ramps, stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling; and (3) only “simple, routine and repetitive tasks that are not performed at a production rate pace, ” “simple work-related decisions, ” and no more than “10% of off-task time in addition to regular breaks.” (AR 25.) Finally, the ALJ concluded that there were “jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy ...

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