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Gragert v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 24, 2014

MARIAH GRAGERT, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER AFFIRMING ALJ'S DECISION DENYING DISABILITY BENEFITS

CHRISTINE M. ARGUELLO, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Mariah Gragert's appeal of the Commissioner's April 2012 decision denying her claim for disability benefits. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the following reasons, this Court affirms the judgment of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).

I. BACKGROUND

A. MEDICAL EVIDENCE

At the alleged onset date of her disability Plaintiff was 19 years old. (AR at 1724.)[1] She was 29 years old as of the date of the ALJ's decision in April 2012. ( Id. ) After graduating high school, Plaintiff earned certification as a nursing assistant. (AR at 1724-25.) She worked at various jobs, including as a nursing assistant, motel housekeeper, waitress, kennel worker, and tax preparer. (AR at 3246, 3253-54.)

In 2002, Plaintiff began reporting headaches, as well as fainting spells that were followed by some paralysis and muscle weakness. (AR at 117-33.) She also reported some problems with her vision such as blurriness and sensitivity to light. (AR at 266, 415.) A CT Scan and an MRI revealed a non-cancerous cyst in the base of Plaintiff's skull, which was the alleged cause of many of these ailments. (AR at 117, 231-35.)

Plaintiff was initially treated with medications, which, as she reported, "drastically improved" the effects of the cyst. (AR at 328, 336); see also (AR at 290 (in January 2003, an emergency room (ER) physician noted that Plaintiff, who arrived via ambulance, stated "I'm ready to go home" after receiving pain medication).) Ultimately, however, in November 2003, a surgeon decided to "fenestrate" the cyst, i.e., he created an opening to allow the cyst to drain. (AR at 492-98, 504-07.)

After the surgery, as of February 2004, Plaintiff reported improvement of her headaches, though she claimed to still have fainting spells. (AR at 492.) Plaintiff received further non-surgical treatment for both headaches and various fainting episodes throughout 2003 and 2004. See, e.g., (AR at 1083, 1085, 1270.)

Then, in October 2004, a surgeon placed a shunt to drain Plaintiff's cyst, which also led to an improvement in her condition. (AR at 915-39.) That same month, however, Plaintiff was diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes, and she saw a specialist for assessment and management of her condition. (AR at 1208-10, 1440.)

Plaintiff continued to report both improvements and deteriorations in her condition after the 2004 surgery. On the one hand, Plaintiff reported at points that she was "doing well" and working at a tax company (AR at 1042) and that she had "good overall health" (AR at 2554) and "an active lifestyle." ( Id. ) On the other hand, during this period Plaintiff reported that she sometimes had multiple seizures in one day (AR at 1128) and that she was treated for symptoms related to her diabetes and hypothyroidism. (AR at 108-16; AR at 1482-83.) Further, the record is less than clear on the cause of many of these ailments, as multiple medical officials indicated that a worsening of Plaintiff's symptoms could have stemmed from her failure to follow prescribed treatment plans. See, e.g., (AR 1482-83; 1562.)

Additional facts about Plaintiff's medical history are supplied as they become relevant to resolving each of the matters she raises in this appeal.

B. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

This case has a long procedural history but for present purposes the underlying denial of disability benefits stems from Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income and Child's Insurance Benefits in May 2005. In that application, Plaintiff alleged disability due to, inter alia, depression, diabetes, and the cyst. (AR at 813.)

Plaintiff's claims were denied initially, and she has pursued substantial litigation related to this claim since 2005. Ultimately, the Appeals Council remanded Plaintiff's case for further consideration by the ALJ who held two hearings regarding the present claim on December 7, 2011, and April 4, 2012. At the hearings, Plaintiff was represented by counsel. Plaintiff testified, as did a Vocational Expert (VE) and Dr. Don Clark, a doctor who examined Plaintiff's medical records. See, e.g., (AR at 3253-54; Supp. AR at 3495-3510.)

The ALJ issued her decision on April 17, 2012, and issued an amended decision on April 18, 2012. In those decisions the ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation process outlined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920 to determine whether Plaintiff was disabled. In particular, the ALJ determined that:

(1) Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity as of April 26, 2002, the alleged onset date;
(2) Plaintiff had the following impairments: seizure disorder; migraine headaches; brain cyst status post-shunt; diabetes mellitus; depression; post-traumatic stress disorder and poly substance abuse;
(3) Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1;
(4) Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b);
(5) Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a motel house-keeper and could also work as an amusement recreation attendant, assembler, or cafeteria attendant.

(AR at 1803-15.) Plaintiff appealed this adverse decision to the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR at 1764-67.) Plaintiff then filed the instant action with this Court petitioning for judicial review of the ALJ's determinations. (Doc. # 1.)

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

This Court's review of the ALJ's determination is limited to determining whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner - through the ALJ - applied the correct legal standards. Wall v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 1048, 1052 (10th Cir. 2009).

Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It requires more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Wall, 561 F.3d at 1084. In reviewing the record and the arguments of counsel, the Court does not reexamine the issues de novo, Sisco v. United States Department of Health and Human Services, 10 F.3d 739, 741 (10th Cir. 1993), nor does it re-weigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, Salazar v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 615, 621 (10th Cir. 2006). Thus, even when some evidence may have supported contrary findings, the Court "may not displace the agency's choice between two ...


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