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Helms v. Colvin

United States District Court, Northern District of Alabama, Southern Division

March 25, 2015

JULIE DENISE HELMS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

R. DAVID PROCTOR, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Plaintiff Julie Denise Helms (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to Title II of Section 205(g) and Title XVI of Section 1621(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for disability, disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). Based on the court’s review of the record and the briefs submitted by the parties, the court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is due to be affirmed.

I. Proceedings Below

This action arises from Plaintiff’s application for disability and DIB dated March 22, 2010. Plaintiff also filed an application for SSI dated May 28, 2010. In both applications Plaintiff alleges her disability began on September 1, 2009. (Tr. 137, 144). The Social Security Administration initially denied Plaintiff’s applications on October 20, 2010. (Tr. 66, 67). Plaintiff subsequently requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 125-29). The hearing was held on April 9, 2012, via video-conference in Birmingham, Alabama. (Tr. 34-65). Plaintiff appeared in Gadsden, Alabama, and was accompanied by her attorney. (Id.). Also present at the hearing was a Vocational Expert (“VE”). (Id.).

In her decision dated April 19, 2012, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Act. (Tr. 21-9). Furthermore, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled under section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Act. (Tr. 29). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision, thereby making that decision the final decision of the Commissioner, and a proper subject of this court’s appellate review. (Tr. 1).

II. The Evidentiary Record

At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was forty-three years old. (Tr. 39). Her highest level of education consisted of receiving a GED. Id. Plaintiff has alleged her disability began on September 1, 2009 due to bulging discs, degenerative disc disease, sciatica, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), chronic bouts of pneumonia, multiple joint pain, and spinal disorders. (Tr. 177, 181). Plaintiff previously worked as a fast food worker, cashier and checker, printer, and billing supervisor. (Tr. 57-58, 182-183, 189). Plaintiff’s last day of work was February 2, 2010 due to pain resulting from standing as a cashier and lifting objects. (Tr. 39, 182).

In her applications for disability benefits, Plaintiff noted that her daily activities include preparing meals and doing light household chores, such as washing dishes and laundry. (Tr. 206-8). Plaintiff further noted that she is able to go out alone and walk outside once or twice each day, shop in stores for groceries at least one time each week (usually accompanied by her father), and effectively use money.[1] (Tr. 209). Plaintiff’s hobbies include reading, cross-stitch, television, and ceramics. (Tr. 210).

When discussing her pain with the ALJ, Plaintiff rated her pain, on an average day, as a seven on a ten point scale. (Tr. 47). When asked about her daily activities, Plaintiff stated she can drive; however, she indicated that she gets “uncomfortable” and has back pain if she drives or rides in a vehicle for a distance of twenty to thirty miles. (Tr. 42).

Plaintiff’s past medical history ranges from 2008 to 2010. (Tr. 186). There is a gap in Plaintiff’s medical appointments between August 2009 and May 2010 which she attributes to a lack of medical insurance.[2] (Tr. 45).

In approximately June 2008, Plaintiff was evaluated for back and joint pain, chronic pneumonia, diabetes, continual elevated blood counts, and breast masses. Id. There is a progress note by Dr. John Davis which includes an assessment of folliculitis, diabetes mellitus, breast mass, hypertension, obesity, and tinea corporis. (Tr. 331). Plaintiff was prescribed Lotrmine, Doxycycline, and Maxzide. Plaintiff was instructed to have a low sodium and 1200 calorie diet. Id. Plaintiff was referred for a mammogram, which resulted in an assessment of “[p]robably benign.” (Tr. 331, 333).

In September 2010, she was treated for pneumonia. (Tr. 186). Dr. Davis made an assessment of pneumonia, nocturia, hypertension, ongoing tobacco abuse, leukocytosis, closed fracture of one or more phalanges of foot, acute pain due to trauma in the left foot, home accidents, walking, and chronic pain syndrome. (Tr. 350). Dr. Davis’s assessment also states that Plaintiff’s pneumonia was left lower lobe pneumonia, her hypertension was under good control with the current regimen, her closed fracture of one or more phalanges of foot should have initial strapping of the fifth and fourth toes, and she should use a hard soled shoe. Id. Plaintiff was also prescribed Robitussin, Phosphate, Azithromycin, Amoxil, and Proventil. (Tr. 350-1).

In August 2010, Dr. Donnellan examined Plaintiff in connection with her disability application. (Tr. 265). He found the following concerning Plaintiff: she was not in acute distress; she ambulated without difficulty; she was able to get up and out of the chair and on and off the exam table without difficulty; she had no joint effusion, crepitus, swelling, or deformity; her gait was normal; she did not require an assistive device; she could walk on her heels and toes but could not squat; she could perform heel-to-toe with some imbalance; her grip strength and motor strength were both 5/5; she had no muscle atrophy; and her range of motion was normal throughout except for some reduced range of motion in her lumbar spine. (Tr. 267-68). A sensory exam showed slightly decreased sensation to light touch in her right leg, and her cranial nerves were intact. Id. Dr. Donnellan opined that Plaintiff could stand and walk for four to six hours in an eight hour day taking frequent breaks, lift and carry no more than ten pounds occasionally, would have postural limitations including crouching, bending, stooping, climbing and crawling, and that no environmental or manipulative limitations applied to her. (Tr. 269).

During the hearing, the ALJ posed hypothetical questions to the VE. (Tr. 57). The hypothetical questions began with the most intensive to least intensive work schedule and use of physical abilities. (Tr. 58-62). In the first hypothetical, the ALJ directed the VE to assume Plaintiff could stand and sit for approximately six hours in an eight-hour day, lift and carry ten to twenty pounds, was unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding, could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, was required to avoid exposure to hazardous machinery, unprotected heights, and could occasionally bend. (Tr. 58). The ALJ then asked the VE, in light of these conditions applied, whether Plaintiff could perform past relevant work. Id. The VE stated that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a billing supervisor as well as the cashier/checker. (Tr. 59). The ALJ then posed a second hypothetical question: if the same limitations in the first hypothetical applied, and assuming further a condition of sit/stand/walk four to six hours in an eight-hour workday, [3] whether Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work. Id. Again, the VE stated that the person could perform the work of billing supervisor as well as the cashier/checker, and that this type of work is found in the national economy. Id. In a third hypothetical, the ALJ directed the VE to assume an individual of the same age, educational background, and past relevant work experience as Plaintiff and directed the VE to further assume the individual could stand or walk two hours in an eight-hour day; lift or carry ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently. (Tr. 59-60). Again, the VE stated that the person could perform the work of a billing supervisor and that this type of work was found in the national economy. (Tr. 60). Then additional ...


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