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Andriulli v. Colvin

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

June 28, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Debra Andriulli (“Plaintiff” or “Andriulli”) brings this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) to deny her claim for 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

         Plaintiff filed her applications for DIB and SSI on September 19, 2012, alleging disability beginning July 5, 2012. (Tr. 76). The claim was initially denied on January 4, 2013. (Tr. 76, 197). After her application was denied, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. (Tr. 76). On June 4, 2014, Plaintiff received a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) George W. Merchant. (Tr. 76, 90). On September 30, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Act. (Tr. 90).

         On March 17, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ decision. (Tr. 1-3). Following that denial, the final decision of the Commissioner became a proper subject of this court's appellate review. See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986) (finding the ALJ decision final for purposes of judicial review when the Appeals Council denied review).

         Plaintiff Debra Andriulli was 47 years old at the time of the hearing, and 49 years old on September 30, 2014, the date of the decision. (Tr. 14-15). She has some college education and previously worked as a school bus driver, retail cashier, cook, shoe stocker, and commercial cleaner. (Tr. 48-49, 198, 224). She alleges that she hasn't been able to work since July 5, 2012 due to epilepsy, a broken back, bilateral rotary cuff tears, a bulging disc, anxiety, hypoglycemia, seizures, and bronchitis. (Tr. 197).

         The precipitating event for Plaintiff's alleged disability occurred on July 4, 2012. On that day, she had her first syncopal episode (i.e. seizure) which led to a concussion and injury to the shoulder and mid-back. (Tr. 244-45, 248-49). Various testing followed the seizure and resulting fall. An MRI of Plaintiff's brain from July 13, 2012 was “of normal signal intensity” with “no evidence of acute infarct, hemorrhage, mass or mass effect.” (Tr. 246). An MRI of Plaintiff's thoracic spine the following day evidenced “mild acute to subacute compression fractures of the superior endplates of T4 and T6” and “small Schmorl's nodes at multiple levels.” (Tr. 247). An MRI of the left shoulder revealed “hypertrophic and acute inflammatory changes at the AC joint;” and “chronic posterior tear.” (Tr. 271). An EEG produced “abnormal results most likely representative of an individual with seizures and postictal, ” and neurologist Dr. Pamela Quinn diagnosed Plaintiff with seizure disorder, initiated treatment with Depakote, and opined that Plaintiff should not continue working as a bus driver. (Tr. 243, 249). No obvious cause of the syncope was noted. (Tr. 326).

         In August 2012, Plaintiff saw Dr. Quinn for a follow-up visit related to the July syncopal episode. (Tr. 335). Plaintiff reported no seizures with the medication Depakote at 250 milligram tablets taken three times a day. (Tr. 335). The following month Plaintiff went for her re-visit, and reported “some memory loss and spacy feeling. She and her husband are worried they may be petit mal seizures. She is not sleeping well. Mood is not great.” (Tr. 334). Dr. Quinn's notes from October 31, 2012 revealed that Plaintiff was sleeping better with no seizures. (Tr. 340). Plaintiff's Depakote level was checked on that day which “[w]as already supposed to be done but she [Plaintiff] neglected to do this.” (Tr. 340).

         Dr. Quinn's notes from October 2012 evidence the last documented visit that Plaintiff had with any doctor about her seizures. The ALJ informed Plaintiff at the hearing: “my last record stopped shortly after you filed in September … So, we need to get records from Dr. Quinn, Doctors Hasting and Yeager of Lake Side North, and then Marshall Medical Center …” (Tr. 38). No such additional documentation was ever submitted. (Tr. 84).

         The record does reveal Plaintiff's later doctor visits for other medical issues, including: abdominal pain, [1] bronchitis, orthopedic issues, [2] prescription pain medication misuse, [3] and adjustment disorder.[4] Of these additional medical issues, the focus here is on bronchitis because Plaintiff bases her argument in this case on the ALJ's assessment of this impairment.

         The medical records reveal Plaintiff had several bouts with respiratory issues in 2011. (Tr. 371). She visited Lakeside North Urgent Care Clinic complaining of head and chest congestion, cough, and wheezing in July, August, and September 2011. (Tr. 255, 364, 369, 371). Records from May 2012 and July 2013 diagnose Plaintiff with sinusitis. (Tr. 468, 470). Then, in April and May 2014, there were additional reports from North Alabama Medical Care that evidence complaints of respiratory issues and some diagnoses of bronchitis and rhinosinusitis.[5](Tr. 463-66). On July 5, 2014 Plaintiff was admitted to Marshall Medical Center North for symptoms consistent with “onset of recurrent issues 2.5 months ago when she had a urinary tract infection” and “was given an unknown antibiotic and very rapidly developed very significant diarrhea.” (Tr. 462). “Note, during this time she has had exacerbations of her ‘chronic bronchitis' and has also received doxycycline. … No cough or dyspnea. No sputum production.” (Tr. 462). The hospital course notes revealed that a pulmonary consult was not available over the holiday, but that the patient was doing “much better” and “was requesting discharge.” (Tr. 462). Plaintiff was discharged on July 10, 2014 with diagnoses of persistent urinary tract infection and atypical pneumonia. (Tr. 429, 462).

         No other medical notes are present in the record evidencing Plaintiff's chronic bronchitis or limiting effects thereof. Plaintiff testified that she attempted to return to work in 2013 but after four hours of working, ended up in the hospital with symptoms of bronchitis. (Tr. 17). She testified that the bronchitis causes her to “run out of breath really fast” and “cough.” (Tr. 35). She referenced her doctor's visits in May 2014 for respiratory issues when she “just couldn't breathe” and “could hear it rattling” and “[couldn't] even walk across the floor … I can't even breathe.” (Tr. 35-36). She also referenced her albuterol inhaler or “puffer” given to her to “break up the congestion in [her] chest” but added that “it's not helping.” (Tr. 36). No information was provided by Plaintiff as to the daily limiting effects of her chronic bronchitis.

         II. ALJ Decision

         The Act uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine a claimant's disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a). First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b) and 416.920(b). Substantial gainful activity is work done for pay or profit that requires significant physical or mental activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a-b) and 416.972(a-b). If the claimant has employment earnings above a certain threshold, the ability to engage in substantial gainful activity is generally presumed. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1574, 404.1575, 416.974, and 416.975. If the ALJ finds that the claimant engages in ...

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