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Nastley v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

September 24, 2014

DAVID R. NASTLEY, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


MICHAEL J. WATANABE, Magistrate Judge.

David Nastley suffers from chronic back and hip pain, attributable to osteoarthritis and similar degenerative diseases. He hasn't kept a job for more than a few months since 2006, and in 2010 he applied for disability benefits under both Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income. The government determined, however, that Nastley was not disabled within the meaning of those programs-and he now asks this Court to review the case.

The Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §405(g) and 42 U.S.C. §1383(c)(3). Both parties have agreed to have this case decided by a U.S. Magistrate Judge under 28 U.S.C. §636(c). The Court AFFIRMS the government's determination.

Factual Background

Nastley joined the Army after high school, spending time overseas and learning to work with heavy machinery. His recent jobs include working as a diesel mechanic for the U.S. Embassy in Russia in 1998, as a diesel mechanic for Denver's Regional Transportation District from 1999 to 2006, and as an aquaculture consultant in Azerbaijan for a brief stint in 2009.

It was in 2005 and 2006 that Nastley began to find his medical conditions debilitating, and in April 2006 he had a discectomy to correct a protruding disc in his back. Upon the advice of his doctor, he decided he could no longer work as a diesel mechanic. So he went back to school, at Trinidad State College, earning an associate's degree in aquaculture. When he graduated in 2009, one of his professors helped him get a job as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, modernizing a commercial fish farm in Azerbaijan. But that job involved a fair amount of physical exertion-lifting and carrying feed, jumping in and out of raceways (the chutes through which the fish travelled), and the like-ultimately re-aggravating Nastley's chronic conditions. He left the job after four or five months, returning to Colorado and seeking treatment.

In January 2010, Nastley applied for disability benefits and, a week later, underwent hip-replacement surgery on his left side. The surgery was apparently successful-all the medical records in evidence suggest as much-but Nastley continues to complain of chronic and occasionally debilitating pain.

Coinciding with this period of physical impairment, Nastley has also suffered from depression. He has reported occasional suicidal ideations, but nothing that either his treating psychologist or the government's consultative examiner thought was more than mild. He has taken medication for his depression for a few years now.

The Social Security Administration initially declined Nastley's application for benefits. That decision was effectively made by one person: a single decision-maker ("SDM") at the Colorado Department of Human Service's Disability Determination Service. The SDM interviewed Nastley, reviewed his medical records, and determined that his physical limitations left him with sufficient residual functional capacity ("RFC") to carry out sedentary tasks like unskilled office work. Nastley appealed to an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").

The ALJ received updated medical records, up through about 14 months after Nastley's hip surgery (as opposed to the seven months of post-surgery records available to the SDM). He also had the SDM's analysis reviewed by Dr. Anthony LoGalbo, a medical consultant with the Colorado Disability Determination Service, in light of those updated medical records. Dr. LoGalbo found the SDM's analysis to be consistent with the new medical evidence and affirmed it in full-but Dr. LoGalbo's written report was exceedingly brief, totaling well under 100 words.

At the hearing in December 2011, the ALJ took testimony from both Nastley and a vocational expert. Nastley testified to the degree of his pain and exertional limitations, and he testified that his depression leads him to avoid crowds and coworkers. The vocational expert testified that an individual with physical limitations like Nastley's would be capable of performing sedentary work, as well as light work (a category involving a higher level of physical exertion than sedentary work) of the office helper or counter clerk variety. The vocational expert did not testify as to the impact of Nastley's depression.

The ALJ found that the limited evidence of mental-health impairments warranted further development, and he thus ordered a consultative psychological examination. Nastley's counsel asked for a consultative examination for physical limitations as well, on the theory that the SDM's analysis (even as evaluated by Dr. LoGalbo) was insufficient evidence. The ALJ declined to order a physical consultative examination, but gave Nastley the opportunity to procure one on his own-at the government's expense. Nastley declined to do so. When the results of the mental-health examination came in, Nastley declined a supplemental hearing.

The ALJ found that Nastley was not disabled, on the last step of the government's five-step sequential analysis. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. That is, the ALJ determined that Nastley was not currently working; that he had severe physical and mental impairments; that those impairments did not meet or medically equal the listed impairments that qualify one for benefits without further analysis; that those impairments prevented Nastley from performing his past jobs; but ultimately that those impairments did not prevent Nastley from performing other jobs that are available to him. In coming to this conclusion, the ALJ adopted the SDM's physical RFC analysis (as endorsed by Dr. LoGalbo) and the conclusions of the vocational expert-with the additional ...

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