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Abraham v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

September 30, 2019


          Stephanie Dawkins Davis Magistrate Judge



         In 2016 and 2017, perhaps earlier, Mabel Abraham suffered from a slipped vertebra in her lumbar spine and carpal-tunnel syndrome. These and other medical conditions made it hard for Abraham to work full time. So she applied for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. The Commissioner of Social Security denied Abraham’s application, finding that she was not disabled as that term is used in the Social Security Act. Abraham then filed this lawsuit, challenging the Commissioner’s disability determination. Magistrate Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis, to whom all pretrial matters were referred, recommends affirming the Commissioner’s decision. Abraham objects to that recommendation. As will be explained, the Court will overrule Abraham’s objection and accept the Magistrate Judge’s recommendation to affirm the Commissioner’s disability determination.



         Abraham’s low-back issues and carpal-tunnel syndrome are the primary reasons she sought disability insurance benefits.

         In late 2015 and early 2016, imaging studies revealed issues in Abraham’s lumbar spine. An X-ray showed grade 1 spondylolisthesis at the L4 and L5 vertebrae (i.e., a minimally-slipped vertebrae) and an MRI showed “severe spinal stenosis and crowding of the cauda equina nerve roots” at ¶ 4/L5 (i.e., crowding or pinching of the nerves that branch off the spinal cord). (PageID.370, 445.)[1] In January 2017, an electromyography (EMG) study revealed “evidence of bilateral L5-S1 radiculopathy” (i.e., pinching of a nerve root); the study did not, however, reveal any “peripheral neuropathy” (i.e., symptoms due to nerve damage in the extremities). At a post-EMG follow-up exam, a physician noted, “Patient reports tightness in her back that radiates into her buttocks and into her legs bilaterally for the past 1.5 years. She states it is getting worse. She states walking makes the pain worse. She denies anything that makes it better.” (PageID.472.) But Abraham had not yet tried physical therapy or injections. (PageID.534.)

         In 2017, Abraham regularly saw Dr. Bassam Thwainey, a family medicine practitioner, and received four epidural steroid injections in her lower spine. Dr. Thwainey’s treatment notes reflect that during most (if not all) office visits, Abraham’s lower spine was painful and that she had a reduced range of motion. (PageID.563, 567, 571, 674, 678, 684, 688.) Dr. Thwainey typically prescribed Norco for pain and Flexeril as a muscle relaxant; at one point, Dr. Thwainey planned for a specialist to evaluate marijuana for Abraham’s pain. (PageID.563, 567, 571, 674, 678, 684, 688.) As for the epidural steroid injections, they provided varying degrees of relief. The first injection only relieved pain for about a week. (PageID.753.) But the second gave Abraham relief for about one-and-half months and, during that time, “[s]he was more active and able to do her cleaning stuff.” (PageID.597.) Ultimately, Abraham’s pain returned to the nine-out-of-ten level, so injections continued at approximately 90-day intervals. (PageID.66, 600, 641, 629.) Abraham also sometimes used a cane to walk in 2017. (See, e.g., PageID.470, 632.) In August 2017, Dr. Thwainey completed a medical source statement indicating that during an eight-hour workday, Abraham could only sit for one hour, stand for one hour, and walk for one hour (apparently, he thought Abraham would need to lie down the other five hours). (PageID.545.)

         In August 2017, Abraham began seeing Dr. Samson Samuel for carpal-tunnel syndrome in both wrists. (PageID.750, 753.) In October 2017, Dr. Samuel gave Abraham a steroid injection in her right wrist. (PageID.760.) At her January 2018 disability hearing, Abraham testified that carpal-tunnel release surgery was scheduled for later that week. (PageID.65–66.)


         With that summary of Abraham’s medical history in place, the Court briefly summarizes the procedural history of this case.

         In 2016, Abraham filed an application for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration alleging that she became unable to work in April 2016.

         In time, an Administrative Law Judge, acting on behalf of the Commissioner of Social Security, reviewed Abraham’s medical records and listened to testimony about her impairments. In February 2018, the ALJ rendered a decision as to Abraham’s ability to work full time. In so doing, the ALJ found that the opinion of Abraham’s primary-care physician, Dr. Thwainey, was only entitled to “partial weight.” (PageID.50.) The ALJ thought that Dr. Thwainey’s opinions about how long Abraham could sit, stand, and walk during a workday were “not consistent” with Abraham’s treatment records. (Id.) And perhaps referring to Dr. Thwainey’s opinion that Abraham required a cane to walk, the ALJ stated, “treatment notes often indicated the claimant had a normal gait without the use of an assistive device.” (Id.) The ALJ ultimately found that Abraham was not “disabled” as that term is used in the Social Security Act. (PageID.53.)

         After further administrative proceedings proved unsuccessful, Abraham filed a complaint in federal court. In time, Abraham and the Commissioner each filed a motion for summary judgment. In her summary-judgment brief, Abraham argued that the ALJ did not properly comply with the treating-source rule in assigning Dr. Thwainey’s opinion only “partial weight.” (ECF No. 13, PageID.791–792.) (As will be discussed, it is not clear whether Abraham meant that the ALJ did not comply with the substantive prong or did not comply with the ...

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