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Gasaway v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

March 25, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


R. DAVID PROCTOR, District Judge.

Plaintiff Sheila Joyce Gasaway brings this action pursuant to Title II of Section 205(g) and Title XVI of Section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her claims for disability, Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). 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 applications for disability, DIB, and SSI dated December 30, 2008, [1] alleging disability beginning on February 19, 2009.[2] (R. 11, 46, 85, 238-41, 327). The Social Security Administration initially denied Plaintiff's applications on March 13, 2009. (R. 11). On March 25, 2009, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (R. 147). The request was granted and a hearing was held on December 9, 2010. (R. 48, 111). The ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's applications on January 19, 2011. (R. 120, 136-38). Plaintiff appealed that decision to the Appeals Council on March 1, 2011. (R. 179). In the meantime, on May 18, 2011, Plaintiff filed subsequent applications for disability, DIB, and SSI, which were initially denied on July 28, 2011. In a review of those applications, the Appeals Council found them to be duplicative, and in an order dated February 2, 2012, remanded those applications and the ALJ's decision of January 19, 2011, directing the ALJ to issue new decisions evaluating Plaintiff's mental impairments, and to compare the criteria of her prior relevant work with her residual functional capacity. (R. 11, 120, 136-38). Pursuant to the Appeal Council's order, a hearing was held on August 14, 2012. A new decision was issued on August 31, 2012 denying Plaintiff's applications, finding that she was not entitled to disability, DIB or SSI under §§ 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Act. (R. 11, 23). Plaintiff appealed that decision to the Appeals Council on September 19, 2012. (R. 5). On September 26, 2013, the Appeals Council issued a decision denying Plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision, and therefore a proper subject of this court's appellate review. (R. 1-3).

At the time of Plaintiff's amended disability onset date of February 19, 2009, she was thirty-seven years old and had a limited education. (R. 22, 465). Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her disability onset date. (R. 13). Plaintiff has previous work experience as a mobile home assembler, which is described as medium semi-skilled work in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. ( Id ). Plaintiff claims she has not worked since 2005. (R. 310). In her Function Report, Plaintiff states, among other things, that she cannot read or write well, is unable to finish things, cannot remember well, suffers from anxiety attacks, is uncomfortable around people, cannot lift items with her right hand, and cannot pay attention for more than a few seconds. (R. 300-07).

Plaintiff testified that her daily activities include lying on the couch until she goes to sleep at night, going to NA meetings sometimes twice a week, to church with her mother twice a month, does not go shopping, and that her daughter and mother bring groceries to her house. (R. 36-40). Plaintiff further testified that she takes Lortab 10, Cymbalta, Seroquel, and Xanax for her pain, and that her mother pays for her medication. (R. 41). Plaintiff described her pain (with the benefit of medication) on an average day at a six on a scale of zero to ten.[3] (R. 40-41).

Plaintiff's past medical history is extensive. In 1988, Plaintiff sustained an injury to her right wrist and has undergone multiple surgeries since that time. (R. 17, 463-65). A subsequent x-ray of her right hand in May 2009 revealed no acute fracture and only an old fusion of the right wrist. (R. 17, 545). Further, subsequent temporary injuries[4] to Plaintiff's right hand were described as "mild." (R. 538). Despite these injuries, clinical examinations showed little abnormality in regards to her right wrist function. (R. 17, 545).

Plaintiff retained Dr. Morrow who expressed his view that Plaintiff "had multiple medical problems which include: Back pain, Traumatic Arthritis, Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety and Depression." (R. 556). Dr. Morrow also opined in a referral note dated October 8, 2009 that Plaintiff "appears to be permanently & totally disabled." (R. 549). In addition, on March 23, 2010, he sent a formal letter addressed to Plaintiff which expressed this same opinion. (R. 556).

Plaintiff was also examined by Drs. Gillis, Reddy, and Haney. (R. 20-21, 464-67, 362-69, 588-92, 619-30). Dr. Gillis noted after his examination of Plaintiff on February 19, 2009, that Plaintiff had "[s]evere degenerative changes [to her right wrist] with virtual effusion of the radio carpal joint." (R. 464). The only portion of Dr. Gillis' records that denote mental issues is a subjective statement by Plaintiff. Dr. Gillis wrote, "[Plaintiff] states that she still has severe psychological disabilities." (R. 465).

On July 14, 2011, Dr. Reddy examined Plaintiff and concluded that she would be physically able to work but a psychological evaluation would be needed for determination of any mental impairment. (R. 589-91). Then, on July 28, 2011, Dr. Haney performed an examination of Plaintiff and opined that her ability to function in most jobs was moderately to severely impaired due to physical, emotional, and vocational limitations. (R. 21, 593-95).

In addition, Plaintiff was examined by Drs. Rankart and Estock. Dr. Rankart examined Plaintiff on March 13, 2009 and found that Plaintiff was no more than moderately limited and specifically found that she was "[a]ble to comprehend and recall brief and uncomplicated directions [and] able to carry out short and simple instructions." (R. 494-97). Dr. Estock examined Plaintiff on July 28, 2011 and found that the she was no more than moderately limited and specifically found that she could understand and remember simple instructions and attend to simple work tasks for two hour periods throughout an eight hour workday. (R. 614-17).

During the hearing on August 14, 2012, a Vocational Expert ("VE"), who had reviewed Plaintiff's medical records, was present and was questioned by the ALJ as to Plaintiff's ability to perform her past relevant work. The VE testified that Plaintiff would be able to return to her past work, which is classified at the medium level. (R. 44). Additionally, the VE testified that there is a "wide range" of unskilled and light unskilled jobs that Plaintiff could do, such as a hand packager, production inspector, or a garment folder. ( Id. ). However, the VE stated that if Plaintiff's testimony was deemed credible, she would not be able to perform her past relevant work. (R. 44-45). Nevertheless, the VE also testified that, if Plaintiff's testimony regarding her pain is accurate, she "would generally be considered [to be experiencing] a moderate level of pain... not necessarily disabl[ing]." ( Id. ).

II. ALJ Decision

Disability under the Act is determined under a five-step test. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). "Substantial work activity" is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a). "Gainful work activity" is work that is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(b). If the ALJ finds that the claimant engages in substantial gainful activity, then the claimant cannot claim disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or a combination of medical impairments that significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Absent such impairment, the claimant may not claim disability. ( Id. ). Third, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or ...

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