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Ellis v. Colvin

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

June 12, 2015



R. DAVID PROCTOR, District Judge.

Plaintiff Debra Garris Ellis brings this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), seeking review of the decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for a period of disability and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Act. Based upon 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. See 42 U.S.C. ยงยง 405(g), 1383(c)(3).

I. Proceedings Below

A. Procedural History

Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability and SSI on January 26, 2011, alleging that she became disabled as of January 1, 2007. (Tr. 114, 127). After Plaintiff's applications were initially denied, she requested a hearing. (Tr. 60-64, 67-68). The hearing took place on July 26, 2012, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") George W. Merchant. (Tr. 30-57). In his decision dated September 27, 2012, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, at any time from the date of her application, January 26, 2011, through the date of the decision. (Tr. 23). When the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. This appeal followed. (Doc. # 1).

B. Facts

As of the date of her July 2012 hearing, Plaintiff was 46-years old, having been born March 22, 1966. (Tr. 33, 114). She received a GED and obtained an Associate's Degree in information science technology. (Tr. 43). She last worked in the early 2000's as a housekeeper at a department store. (Tr. 33, 53). Plaintiff stated she left the housekeeper job because it required a great deal of walking, standing, bending, and squatting, which she could not do. (Tr. 33-34). Plaintiff underwent knee surgery in October 2010 due to severe arthritis, and still has pain in her knee. (Tr. 34). Because of that pain, Plaintiff estimates she can stand for fifteen to twenty minutes and sit for ten to fifteen minutes. (Tr. 35, 44). Due to her knee swelling, she has to lie down with her knee bent, which she does three to four hours per day. (Tr. 36). Plaintiff believes her knee is the main reason she is unable to work. (Tr. 45). Plaintiff also complains of pain in her back and hips. (Tr. 36-37). She reports that her pain averages about an eight on a scale of one to ten, although she says medication helps somewhat. (Tr. 37). However, she also reports the medication makes her lightheaded, dizzy, and tired. (Tr. 40).

Plaintiff also suffers from depression and anxiety. (Tr. 37). She does not like crowds; they make her nervous and cause her to have chest pains. (Tr. 38). Therefore, she estimates she leaves her house no more than two times per week. (Tr. 38). She also indicates she has trouble concentrating and remembering, and suffers from crying spells. (Tr. 40, 41).

Plaintiff lives with her 18-year old daughter and a family friend who has moved in to help her with cooking, cleaning, and shopping. (Tr. 42, 48-49). The house where she lives is owned by her boyfriend, but he is gone six to eight weeks at a time. (Tr. 47). Sometimes she has to go to her room to be alone. (Tr. 43). She can drive short distances, and occasionally goes out to a club or to shoot pool with a friend just to get out of the house. (Tr. 45, 51). Also, she has started going to the library twice a week, as well. (Tr. 50).

Plaintiff's treating physician is Dr. Wendy Gomez. Her records reflect that Plaintiff has a fluctuating problem with back pain due to a motor vehicle accident in 1997. (Tr. 214). X-rays in August 2010 found degenerative joint disease in Plaintiff's right knee and scoliosis but no degenerative joint disease in her back. (Tr. 225, 237, 238). Plaintiff underwent arthroscopic surgery on her right knee in October 2010 for repair of a medial meniscal tear. (Tr. 201-05). Also, in October 2010, Dr. Gomez noted Plaintiff was suffering from depression with an onset one month prior. (Tr. 217). Symptoms included depressed mood, fatigue, loss of energy, panic attacks, and sleep disturbance. (Tr. 217).

Dr. Gomez's December 2010 record reflects that Plaintiff still complained of knee pain as well as back pain and chest discomfort following pulling and lifting furniture during a move. (Tr. 210-212). Those records also state that Plaintiff was alert and oriented, with "[n]o unusual anxiety or evidence of depression." (Tr. 212).

Plaintiff was sent for a consultative physical examination in March 2011. (Tr. 253). Plaintiff stated her main complaint was right knee pain, which had gradually worsened after her October 2010 surgery. (Tr. 253). Plaintiff could walk without assistance, sit comfortably, get on and off the exam table, and was able to take off and put on her shoes. (Tr. 254). Plaintiff was tender around her right knee and diagnosed with severe right knee arthritis. (Tr. 256).

Plaintiff also underwent a consultative psychological examination with Dr. Mary Arnold, Psy.D., in April 2011. (Tr. 257). Plaintiff reported to Dr. Arnold that the main reason she could not work was her knee. (Tr. 257). Although described as obese, Plaintiff's gait did not indicate pain or impairment. (Tr. 258). Plaintiff's reported activities included washing clothes, sweeping, vacuuming, shopping at local super markets and Walmart, and looking at Facebook, and playing computer games. (Tr. 258-59). Dr. Arnold assessed Plaintiff with adjustment disorder and assigned a Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") score of 60.[1] (Tr. 259).

Also, in April 2011, Plaintiff began treatment at a mental health clinic. Therapist records reflect Plaintiff suffered from Major Depressive Disorder, moderate, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Phobia, and chronic pain. (Tr. 400). She was assigned a GAF score of 50. (Tr. 400). In these records, Plaintiff complained of worsening depression and anxiety symptoms. (Tr. 396). In June 2011 Plaintiff reported anxiety and audio hallucinations at night, along with paranoia after "friends stole her daughter's laptop." (Tr. 390). She thought her stress had increased due to an upcoming court hearing, denial of her Social Security disability claim, and financial difficulties. (Tr. 388). She reported increased depression in July 2011. (Tr. 387). Plaintiff was assigned a GAF score of 55 in August, September, October, and December 2011. (Tr. 380. 382-384). In January 2012, Plaintiff related she had pain in her chest which she thought might be panic attacks because it occurred when she was under a lot of ...

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