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Bakewell v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Northern Division

April 2, 2018

PATRICIA A. BAKEWELL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          GORDON J. QUIST UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is a social security action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). Plaintiff Patricia A. Bakewell seeks review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "Our review of the ALJ's decision is limited to whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the findings of the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence." Winslow v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 566 Fed.Appx. 418, 420 (6th Cir. 2014) (quoting Blakley v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec, 581 F.3d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 2009)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court may not conduct a de novo review of the case, resolve evidentiary conflicts, or decide questions of credibility. See Garner v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 383, 387 (6th Cir. 1984); see also Jones v. Comm 'r of Soc Sec, 336 F.3d 469, 475 (6th Cir. 2003). It is the Commissioner who is charged with finding the facts relevant to an application for disability benefits, and the Commissioner's findings are conclusive provided they are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Substantial evidence is defined as more than a mere scintilla of evidence but "such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Jones v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 945 F.2d 1365, 1369 (6th Cir. 1991). In determining the substantiality of the evidence, the Court must consider the evidence on the record as a whole and take into account whatever evidence in the record fairly detracts from its weight. See Richardson v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 735 F.2d 962, 963 (6th Cir. 1984). The substantial evidence standard presupposes the existence of a zone within which the decision maker can properly rule either way, without judicial interference. See Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir. 1986) (citation omitted). This standard affords to the administrative decision maker considerable latitude, and indicates that a decision supported by substantial evidence will not be reversed simply because the evidence would have supported a contrary decision. See Bogle v. Sullivan, 998 F.2d 342, 347 (6th Cir. 1993); Mullen, 800 F.2d at 545.

         PROCEDURAL POSTURE

         On November 30, 2012, Plaintiff filed a protective application for DIB. (PageID.251.) The alleged onset date was October 26, 2012, and her last insured date was June 30, 2016. (PageID.251.) In her initial application, Plaintiff alleged that she was disabled by the following medical conditions: (1) peripheral vascular disease, (2) aortabifemoral bypass, (3) stress, and (4) panic attacks. (PageID.255.) After her initial application was denied (PagelD. 126-138), Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (PagelD. 146-147). On May 14, 2015, the ALJ held an administrative hearing in which Plaintiff was represented by Attorney Robert C. Angermeier. (PagelD.69-114.) On July 8, 2015, the ALJ issued his decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (PagelD.52-63.) The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on July 12, 2016, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review. (PageID.33-35.)

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on March 13, 1970. (PageID.251.) She has a high school degree, and has previously worked as a telephone operator and 911 dispatcher in North Carolina. (PageID.251.)

         While living in North Carolina in 2011, Plaintiff began experiencing pain in her lower extremities. On November 1, 2011, a physician noted that he was "concerned about lack of pulses in the feet and cyanotic toes in a smoker with a triglyceride of 600." (PageID.357.) On December 7, 2011, Plaintiff reported severe pain in both thighs and calf muscles after walking 50-100 feet. (PageID.361-364.) One physician noted that Plaintiffs "level of fatigue is profound and is almost out of proportion to what I would expect with her anatomical findings and resting ABI's of 0.5 in both limbs." (PageID.361.) On December 15, 2011, Plaintiff underwent aortibifemoral bypass surgery. (PageID.382.) The day following the surgery, Plaintiff underwent a second operation to correct a valve profusion in her lower right extremity. (PageID.385-386.) Four days later, on December 20, 2011, Plaintiff was readmitted to the hospital due to nausea and vomiting. (PagelD.387-388.) However, Plaintiff was sent home after it was determined that she was suffering from only a postoperative ileus.

         In a postoperative appointment on January 23, 2012, Plaintiff reported some numbness in her right foot, but she was "doing well" and "starting to resume normal activities." (PagelD.365.) The physician noted that Plaintiff had normal femoral pulses bilaterally, normal popliteal pulses bilaterally, and normal pedal pulses bilaterally. (PagelD.366.) Plaintiff was informed that she could return to work on a part-time basis and should be able to return to all normal activities in 4-6 weeks. (PageID.367) In her final postoperative appointment on February 28, 2012, the physician informed Plaintiff that that she could return to work full-time and that she should come back for a vascular study in one year. (PagelD.369-370.)

         Plaintiff subsequently returned to work full-time, however, she quit on October 26, 2012. (PageID.85, 92.) Plaintiff then moved from North Carolina to Northern Michigan, where her husband was already living. (PageID.86) Between her last postoperative appointment on February 28, 2012, and January 4, 2013, Plaintiff did not seek any medical treatment. On January 4, 2013, Plaintiff was examined by Dr. Joel A. Johnson, a vascular specialist at Bell Medical, Upper Great Lakes Vascular. (PageID.414.) At this appointment, Plaintiff reported "pain starting in her buttocks of [sic] her right leg and radiating down the back of her leg." (PageID.414.) Although she had palpable femoral pulses bilaterally, Dr. Johnson noted an "absence of all pulses distally in her right leg." (PageID.414.) Dr. Johnson subsequently performed an atherectomy and an aortogram with bilateral runoff. (PagelD. 414-428) The majority of the test results were normal. However, Dr. Johnson noted that the left side two-vessel runoff to the anterior tibial vessel and peroneal vessel was more sluggish than the right. (PagelD.424.) Following the tests, Dr. Johnson recommended that Plaintiff be placed on Trental initially and, if there was no improvement, switched to Plavix. (PageID.417.) Plaintiff also had an MRI on her lower back, which was unremarkable. (PagelD.645.)

         Plaintiff continued to complain of the pain in her lower extremities for the next several months. On May 31, 2013, she complained that her leg pain was getting worse. (PagelD.461.) On June 10, 2013, she complained of tingling in both her arms and her legs. (PagelD.463-464.) On July 19, 2013, she complained of right leg swelling and left foot cramping, and the physician noted that Plaintiff walked with a limp. (PagelD.465-466.) On September 26, 2013, Plaintiff again complained of pain in her lower extremities. (PagelD.459-460.)

         On December 31, 2013, Plaintiff was evaluated by Dr. Curtis Marder, another vascular specialist. (PagelD.446-449.) Dr. Marder noted that, "[apparently she did have some trash embolization event associated with surgery." (PagelD.446.) Dr Marder conducted an Arterial Doppler Study and found that "there does not appear to be significant peripheral vascular occlusive disease and one is left with two etiologies for her pain; either neuropathic from vascular injury or neuropathic radicular pain from a lower back nerve root compression problem." (PagelD.449.) Dr. Marder requested to see Plaintiff in one year for another appointment.

         In June 2014, Plaintiff underwent EMG testing, which revealed no abnormalities. (PagelD.687.) In his report, the neurosurgeon noted, "I am not sure what the cause of low back pain with diffuse lower limb pain and numbness is that accounts for her symptoms and reported inabilities." (PagelD.687.) He also wrote, "Patricia has clarified that while it slows her down, she is capable of getting to where she needs to be and taking care of the things that have to be taken care of in her home." (PagelD.687.) Plaintiff was subsequently referred to a physical therapist. (PagelD.670-671.) Although Plaintiff initially rated her pain as a 7 out of 10, she began rating her pain lower as she progressed through physical therapy. Notably, Plaintiff rated her pain at 0, 1, or 2, out of 10 on multiple occasions. (PagelD.672-682.) Plaintiff even walked to at least one of her physical therapy sessions. (PagelD. 679.) After two months of physical therapy, Plaintiff reported a 50% improvement in her symptoms. (PagelD.680.)

         On February 4, 2015, Dr. Marder evaluated Plaintiff for a second time. (PagelD.699-703.) Following an ultrasound and an arterial graft examination, Dr. Marder found there "was good flow through both limbs at the graft; however, at the level of the left graft femoral artery anastomosis and in the deep femoral, there are high velocities and significant turbulence suggesting the possibility of an anastomotic stenosis." (PageID.699.) Dr. Marder further opined Plaintiff "does have a significant component of neuropathic pain." (PageID.699.) On March 5, 2015, Dr. Marder performed a surgical revision of femoral anastomosis. (PageID.713-714) The surgery was successful, but Dr. Marder noted that Plaintiff may suffer from "some underlying element of chronic neuropathy." (PageID.717.)

         At the hearing before the ALJ on May 14, 2015, Plaintiff testified that the medication she takes, specifically gabapentin, makes her feel fatigued. (PageID.90) She has trouble sleeping at night because of the pain. (PageID.90.) The pain in her legs affects her ability to pick items up off the ground, and she has difficulty balancing. (PageID.94.) On an average day after taking her medication, Plaintiff rates her pain at 5 out of 10. (PageID.96.) When the pain gets worse, Plaintiff tries to elevate her legs and keep them warm with an electric blanket. (PageID.98.) Plaintiff testified that while working as a 911 dispatcher in North Carolina, she lost focus once and disconnected from an officer when she was not supposed to. (PageID.100.) As for her anxiety, Plaintiff testified that it is very scary and she has been dealing with it for four years. (PagelD. 101.) On a typical day, Plaintiff performs chores around the house with breaks in between. ...


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