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Buchanon v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division

March 4, 2015




Plaintiff Monica M. Buchanon challenges the Commissioner of Social Security’s (the “Commissioner”) final denial of her claim for disability benefits. Cross motions for summary judgment are pending. For the reasons set forth below, defendant’s motion for summary judgment shall be granted and plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment shall be denied.

I. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on May 7, 2010, alleging that she became disabled on January 2, 2000, due to endometriosis, depression, leg pain, fibromyalgia, lupus, bipolar disorder, ovarian cyst, and kidney disease. (Tr. 198). The Commissioner denied that application on July 28, 2010. (Tr. 77). Plaintiff appeared before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Andrew Sloss with counsel on July 25, 2011. Id. In an August 2, 2011 written decision, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 74-85). Plaintiff timely requested an Appeals Council Review, and on February 13, 2012, the Appeals Council issued an order remanding the case to an ALJ for further evaluation of plaintiff’s claimed mental impairments. (Tr. 89-92). Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Sloss with counsel on July 30, 2012, and in a written decision he again denied her claim for benefits. (Tr. 13-25). Plaintiff timely requested an Appeals Council review, and on August 27, 2013, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council declined further review. (Tr. 1-3).

II. Administrative Record

A. Plaintiff’s Background and Testimony

Plaintiff was born on January 1, 1979 making her 33 years old at the time of the remand hearing (Tr. 15). Plaintiff has an eleventh grade education and worked in the past as a package/line assembly worker. Id. She last worked as a mail sorter until 2008. (Tr. 200). Plaintiff testified that she cannot work because of her fibromyalgia and bipolar disorder. (Tr. 17). She further testified that she has back, knee, and elbow pain, and suffers from depression. (Tr. 17-18). She testified that her depression limits her daily activities but she can cook and perform household chores when she has enough energy. (Tr. 18). The ALJ determined that plaintiff’s testimony as to the severity of her symptoms was not supported by the medical evidence of record. Id. He also noted that plaintiff had no trouble sitting for the entire hearing. (Tr. 23).

B. Medical Evidence

1. Physical Limitations

The ALJ determined that plaintiff has fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. Plaintiff sought emergency treatment for her back and leg pain on several occasions, but an MRI of her spine performed on November 17, 2009 revealed normal results with no bulge, protrusion, central canal stenosis, or foraminal stenosis at any level. (Tr. 18, 342). Pain specialist James Culver, M.D., treated plaintiff with steroid injections for her back pain and by the third injection, she reported a 75% improvement in her pain level. (Tr. 18, 411). An EMG and nerve conduction study of the bilateral lower extremities performed on February 18, 2011, revealed an essentially normal study. (Tr. 18, 499). An MRI of the spine performed on February 19, 2011, revealed degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 18, 432). On June 14, 2011, orthopedist Ajay Srivastava, M.D., examined plaintiff for complaints of leg pain and x-rays indicated no significant arthritis and normal joint space and treated plaintiff with physical therapy and over the counter pain medication. (Tr. 19, 504). On April 26, 2012, rheumatologist, Ali Karrar, M.D., examined plaintiff for complaints of back and joint pain and diagnosed plaintiff with osteoarthrosis, fibromyalgia, lumbar disc degeneration, and inflammatory polyarthropathy, and prescribed pain medication. (Tr. 19, Tr. 511-12).

Plaintiff treated with Seif Saeed, MD., who opined in February, 2010, that plaintiff’s pain and symptoms were occasionally severe enough to interfere with her attention and concentration. (Tr. 21, 366). He also stated that plaintiff could tolerate work stress, could sit for two-hours at a time for a total of at least six hours in an eight hour work day, could stand for 45 minutes at a time, with unscheduled breaks, and could occasionally lift and carry less than 10 pounds. (Tr. 21, 366-68). His March 28, 2011 medical source statement reported that plaintiff’s condition was stable and she could meet her needs in the home. (Tr. 21, 449-50). His June 28, 2012 assessment concluded that plaintiff’s condition had improved and that most of her symptoms responded to medication. (R. 21, 699-702). At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff’s physical impairments did not meet or equal the criteria of 1.00 musculoskeletal system or any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appx. 1. (Tr. 15).

2. Mental Limitations

The ALJ determined that although plaintiff suffers from bipolar disorder and anxiety, plaintiff’s mental impairments do not meet or equal the criteria of listings 12.04 and 12.06, and thus, plaintiff is not disabled at step three. (Tr. 15). Plaintiff has not challenged this finding.

Plaintiff treated with Pamela Griffin, a limited license psychologist for complaints of anxiety and depression. In 2011, Griffin opined that plaintiff’s level of depression was very high and she would not be able to perform any work (Tr. 22, 460), but in 2012, Griffin improved her opinion of plaintiff’s mental status and opined that plaintiff’s prognosis was good with medications and therapy. (Tr. 22, 535). On July 26, 2010, state agency examiner, Blaine Pinaire, Ph.D., conducted a psychiatric review of plaintiff and determined that she had only mild restrictions of daily living activities and social interactions, and mild difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 23, 67-72). On September 9, 2010, certified nursing assistant Denise Will performed a psychiatric evaluation of plaintiff and concluded that plaintiff’s prognosis was “good with treatment.” (Tr. 19, 470-73). Plaintiff’s mental status improved with the use of psychiatric medications until plaintiff stopped taking her medications and was hospitalized. (Tr. 19-20, 688-70). Once plaintiff resumed taking her medications and her prescriptions were adjusted, and upon completing a substance abuse treatment program, plaintiff reported feeling better emotionally. (Tr. 20, 526). On May 2, 2012, at her medication review, plaintiff reported that she had no concerns of issues, and notes indicate that her sleep was improved, and she displayed a “euthymic mood” and “fair insight.” (Tr. 20, 516). Plaintiff’s primary care physician, Joyce Stevens, M.D., treated plaintiff for insomnia, anxiety, chronic back pain, ovarian cysts, and fibromyalgia. She opined that plaintiff’s psychological symptoms would limit her ability to sustain concentration and to interact socially. (Tr. 20-21, 399).

C. Vocational Expert Testimony

The ALJ held that plaintiff was only able to perform light work subject to several additional limitations. Specifically, in defining her residual functional capacity (“RFC”), he determined that plaintiff could only “occasionally climb, balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, or crawl, ” was “limited to frequent handling and fingering bilaterally, ” and that her “psychological symptoms limit her to unskilled work.” (Tr. 17). The vocational expert considered her age, education, past work experience, and RFC, and determined that a ...

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