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From v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Delaware

May 24, 2019

ERIC B. FROM, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Sherry R. Fallon United States Magistrate Judge


         Plaintiff Eric B. From ("From") filed this action on January 10, 2018 against defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner"). From seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Commissioner's November 15, 2017 final decision, denying From's claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434 and §§ 1381-1383f. This court has jurisdiction over the matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[1]

         Currently before the court are From's and the Commissioner's cross-motions for summary judgment. (D.I. 10; D.I. 16) From asks the court to remand his case for further administrative proceedings. (D.I. 11 at 19) The Commissioner requests the court affirm the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision. (D.I. 17 at 20) For the reasons set forth below, From's motion for summary judgment is denied (D.I. 10), and the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment is granted.[2] (D.I. 16)


         A. Procedural History

         From protectively filed an application for DIB on February 27, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of May 31, 2013. (D.I. 8-2 at 16) The claim was initially denied on June 27, 2014, and denied again after reconsideration on November 19, 2014. (D.I. 8-4 at 2-6, 8-12) From then filed a request for a hearing, which occurred on October 12, 2016. (D.I. 8-2 at 35) On February 9, 2017, Administrative Law Judge C. Howard Prinsloo issued an unfavorable decision, finding that From was not disabled under the Act because he retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform medium work, [3] including past relevant work as a mechanic supervisor.[4] (Id. at 16-27) The Appeals Council subsequently denied From's request for review on November 15, 2017, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at 2-6) On January 10, 2018, From brought a civil action in this court seeking review of the ALJ's decision. (D.I. 1) On May 14, 2018, From filed a motion for summary judgment, and on August 13, 2018, the Commissioner filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. (D.I. 10; D.I. 16)

         B. Medical History

         The ALJ concluded that From has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, and obesity. (D.I. 8-2 at 18) From was born on April 26, 1957, and was fifty-six years old on his alleged onset date. (D.I. 8-6 at 12) From graduated high school and completed one year of college. (D.I. 8-2 at 38) He has a prior work history as a maintenance supervisor, a part-time position at the YMCA, a deliveryman for Advanced Auto Parts, and an auto parts salesman for Rhino Lining. (Id. at 38-40, 50-52)

         1. Physical Impairments

         On January 13, 2012, From had an x-ray of his left knee, which showed slight degenerative joint space narrowing medially. (D.I. 8-8 at 9) On June 14, 2012, From visited his treating physician, Dr. Oswaldo A. Nicastro ("Dr. Nicastro")[5] and reported mild to moderate knee pain. (Id. at 6) Dr. Nicastro noted that the onset had been gradual, but persistent for months. (Id.) From experienced knee pain since 1999 following a knee surgery for a meniscal tear. (Id.) From stated that he experienced a dull aching pain that was aggravated by physical activity and movement. (Id.) From continued to complain of knee pain in March 2013. (Id. at 42) When he visited Dr. Nicastro on March 27, 2013, Dr. Nicastro noted that the onset of pain was sudden and persistently recurring. (Id.) From described his knee pain as moderate to severe in his entire knee. (Id.) Dr. Nicastro noted "joint swelling, medial pain, lateral pain, instability, pain under patella, and painful [range of motion]." (Id.)

         On March 14, 2014, From reported worsening neck pain. (Id. at 71) This neck pain continued through May 2014, when From stated that the pain radiated down his left arm. (Id. at 79) Dr. Nicastro noted moderate bilateral neural for aminal stenosis and occasional left knee pain which worsened with activity. (Id.) An MRI dated March 21, 2014 described normal cervical spine alignment, vertebral body heights, and no spinal cord abnormalities. (Id. at 87) On May 3, 2015, From fell, landing on his left knee, and visited Dr. Nicastro the following day due to his worsening knee pain. (D.I. 8-11 at 3) From regularly went to physiotherapy throughout the remainder of 2015. (D.I. 8-10 at 84; D.I. 8-12 at 22-66)

         On May 13, 2015, From consulted Mr. Joseph Kelly, OT/L CHT ("Mr. Kelly"), who conducted a Disability Work Assessment and determined that From was able to safely work within the sedentary work category. (D.I. 8-10 at 3-4) Mr. Kelly concluded that From had limitations in standing, walking, lifting, carrying, and balancing activities and was limited to "no more than four hours per day with frequent breaks in an eight hour day." (Id. at 4) Furthermore, Mr. Kelly observed that From was unable to complete the balance test safely, complained that he felt dizzy when climbing stairs, could not complete the kneeling activity due to pain in his left knee, and had difficulty squatting and required assistance to stand. (Id. at 8) Dr. Nicastro signed the Disability Work Assessment, indicating his agreement with Mr. Kelly's assessment. (Id. at 10)

         2. Mental Impairments

         On March 14, 2014, From visited Dr. Nicastro, who observed his worsening depression, panic attacks, and insomnia. (D.I. 8-8 at 71) Dr. Nicastro also noted that From reported depression, repeated panic attacks, and insomnia at his May 5, 2014 appointment. (Id. at 79)

         In June 2014, From consulted Dr. Andrew Donohue ("Dr. Donohue"), [6] who performed a consultative mental status examination to assess the severity of From's mental impairments. (D.I. 8-9 at 43-45) Dr. Donohue observed that From had no degree of impairment or mild impairment in all areas, with the exception of a moderate limitation in performing repetitive tasks. (Id. at 43-44) Furthermore, Dr. Donohue noted that From scored a 30/30 on the Mini-Mental State Examination ("MMSE").[7] (Id. at 48) In summary, Dr. Donohue suggested that From's physical impairments are his main barrier to employment and recognized that From was doing better mentally than when he was employed full-time. (Id. at 44)

         On June 26, 2014, State agency psychological consultant, Dr. Christopher King ("Dr. King"), assessed that From's mental status was normal, with "no indication of any memory deficits or concentration problems" and normal social skills. (D.I. 8-3 at 7) Dr. King concluded From's mental impairments were non-severe. (Id.) Dr. King's assessment was affirmed on November 18, 2014 by Dr. Carlene Tucker-Okine ("Dr. Tucker-Okine"), a State agency psychological consultant, who concluded that From's symptoms were "well controlled with medication" and that he appeared to be stable. (Id. at 21)

         Dr. Nicastro referred From to Mr. Keith Kaut, LPCMH ("Mr. Kaut")[8] at Mid-Atlantic Behavioral Health.[9] (D.I. 8-13 at 3) On February 9, 2015, From visited Mr. Kaut and reported that he had good days and bad days with his depression and anxiety. (Id. at 6) Mr. Kaut opined that From's mental impairments were moderately severe and only interfered with some daily activities. (Id.) At his appointments on March 9 and 23, 2015, From reported improved anxiety but continued symptoms of depression. (Id. at 12, 15) On April 6, 2015, From stated that his anxiety continued to improve, but that his depression was worse. (Id. at 19) Mr. Kaut observed that From was "tangential," talking at length without pause. (Id. at 20) At his next appointment on April 20, 2015, From stated that he had experienced two panic attacks in the last week. (Id. at 23) On May 18, 2015, From stated that he felt better "emotionally and mentally." (Id. at 31) He continued to report feeling better through August 2015, even noting that he had not experienced bouts of anxiety. (Id. at 43-62)

         On June 29, 2015, Mr. Kaut completed a Mental Impairment Questionnaire, and noted that From had largely no or mild functional limitations, with the exception of moderate difficulty in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. (D.I. 8-10 at 12-17) Furthermore, Mr. Kaut determined that From was not seriously limited in mental abilities needed to perform unskilled, semiskilled, and skilled work. (Id. at 14-15) Mr. Kaut also noted that From's impairments would not cause him to be absent from work. (Id. at 16)

         On August 24, 2015, From visited Mr. Kaut and suggested that he felt about the same, but that he had good days and bad days. (D.I. 8-13 at 59) Mr. Kaut suggested that From be evaluated for bipolar disorder and noted that he had been forgetful lately. (Id. at 60) On September 21, 2015, From reported only a few anxiety attacks and depressive spells, but "nothing too bad." (Id. at 63) On October 5, 2015, From stated that he had not dealt with anxiety "for some time now," though his depression was about the same. (Id. at 67)

         In November 2015, From reported that he felt worse, but attributed this feeling to the upcoming holidays. (Id. at 71-78) On December 14, 2015, From stated that he did not suffer from panic attacks like he previously had, but still suffered with depression. (Id. at 79) On January 11, 2016, From reportedly felt better, but stated that he felt worse during his appointment on January 25, 2016. (D.I. 8-14 at 4-11) By February 24, 2016, From stated that he "felt better mentally than [he] had in a long time" after quitting his job. (Id. at 12-19) This reported improvement in his mental health continued through June 2016, despite still experiencing some occasional bad days. (Id. at 20-47)

         In June 2016, From noted that his depression had worsened because of his increased neck and knee pain. (Id. at 48) At his next appointment on July 13, 2016, From expressed that he was feeling much better, and Mr. Kaut noted that From was working on positive thinking. (Id. at 52-53) On August 10, 2016, From relayed that he experienced fewer symptoms of anxiety, and that his depression comes and goes. (Id. at 59) He felt largely the same in September 2016. (Id. at 67)

         On September 7, 2016, Mr. Kaut completed a second Mental Impairment Questionnaire, but repeatedly noted that his determinations were based upon From's self-reporting and not upon clinical findings. (D.I. 8-10 at 95-98) In this Mental Impairment Questionnaire, Mr. Kaut indicated that From was "seriously limited" in his ability to ask simple questions or request assistance and set realistic goals or make plans independent of others. (Id. at 95-96) Mr. Kaut indicated that From had "poor" abilities in: (1) accepting instructions and responding appropriately to criticism from supervisors, (2) responding appropriately to changes in a routine work setting, (3) dealing with the stress of skilled and semiskilled work, (4) interacting appropriately with the general public, and (5) traveling in an unfamiliar place. (Id.) Furthermore, Mr. Kaut found From had moderate limitations in daily activities, marked limitations in maintaining social functioning, and extreme limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. (Id. at 97) Finally, Mr. Kaut opined that From would be absent from work once per month due to his impairments. (Id.)

         C. Hearing Before the ALJ

         1. From's Testimony

         At the hearing on October 12, 2016, From testified that he worked for the Delaware Transit Company as a maintenance supervisor and part-time at the YMCA, advising individuals how to operate gym equipment. (D.I. 8-2 at 38-40) He stopped working because of "severe neck troubles," which he later learned to be a herniated disk. (Id. at 40) He also worked at Advanced Auto Parts, driving and delivering parts. (Id. at 50) He testified that he stopped working because his medications made him drowsy, and he did not feel safe driving after taking them. (Id. at 45-46, 51) Finally, From worked approximately sixteen hours per week at Rhino Lining, selling auto parts. (Id. at 52) He testified that due to his pain and anxiety, he had to stop working at Rhino Lining. (Id.)

         From testified that he generally experiences pain daily and walks with a limp due to pain in his knee. (Id. at 40-41) From also testified that it was painful for him to stand for extended periods of time and he sometimes experiences numbness in his arm. (Id. at 45-46) He stated that he occasionally experiences spasms in his lower back and pain radiating down his left arm, out to his fingers, and in his feet. (Id. at 42) From stated that physical therapy helps his neck and knee. (Id. at 40-41) He testified that he "[doesn't] seem to have [anxiety]" but still struggles with depression. (Id. at 42)

         From testified that he works part-time at Adam's Auto Parts, receiving deliveries and stocking supplies. (Id. at 43, 51, 53) He works approximately sixteen to eighteen hours per week and lifts no more than twenty-five pounds. (Id. at 43) From stated that he is able to end his work day at any point, but usually does not receive breaks. (Id. at 43-44)

         From testified that he is no longer able to play golf or run on a treadmill. (Id. at 53-54) He also stopped volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House because he believed the side effects of his medication made it unsafe for him to drive. (Id. at 54)

         2. Vocational ...

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