United States District Court, D. Colorado
PATRICIA A. QUINTANA, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
LEWIS T. BABCOCK, District Judge.
Plaintiff Patricia Quintana appeals from the Social Security Administration Commissioner's (the "Commissioner") final decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"), filed pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383c. Jurisdiction is proper under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Oral argument will not materially aid in resolving this appeal. After considering the parties' arguments and the administrative record, for the reasons below, I affirm the Commissioner's final order.
I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE
Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her October 24, 2006 application for SSI and DIB. [Administrative Record ("AR") Doc. #8-5, 2-13]. Her application was initially denied at the administrative level. [ Id. at 8-3, 2-3]. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") subsequently conducted a hearing on September 3, 2008 ( Id. at 8-2, 66-80), and issued a written ruling on June 1, 2009. ( Id. at 8-3, 5-17). The ALJ denied Plaintiff's application on the basis that she was not disabled during the relevant time period because she could perform work in the national economy given her residual functional capacity ("RFC"), age, education, and work experience. [ Id. ] Plaintiff appealed the denial of her application to the Social Security Administration Appeals Council ("Appeals Council"). [ Id. at 8-4, 2-6]. On December 30, 2011, the Appeals Council vacated and remanded the ALJ's decision for further consideration. [ Id. at 8-3, 18-20].
Upon remand, the ALJ held another hearing on August 12, 2011. [ Id. at 8-2, 36-65]. On October 31, 2011, the ALJ again found Plaintiff not disabled. [ Id. at 11-32]. Plaintiff filed exceptions with the Appeals Council on December 8, 2011, of which the Appeals Council declined to assume jurisdiction on October 15, 2012. [ Id. at 2-10]. Thus, the ALJ's decision was the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review.
Plaintiff timely filed her Complaint with this Court seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision. [Doc. #1].
The facts are largely undisputed and extensively provided in the ALJ's order. As such, I provide a limited factual background as relevant here.
Plaintiff was born in 1955 and was 51 years old on her alleged amended onset date of March 31, 2006. [AR Doc. #8-2, 11-16]. She graduated from high school and her past relevant work history consists of work as a housekeeper/cleaner, a fast-food cook, a cashier-checker, a dietary aide, and a laundry attendant. [ Id. at 77-78]. Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.130, in order to be eligible for benefits, Plaintiff must prove that her disability began before the date through which she remained insured, which in this case was March 31, 2010. [ Id. at 14]. Thus, here, the relevant time period for determining disability is March 31, 2006 through the date of the ALJ's decision, October 31, 2011. [ See id. ]; 20 C.F.R. § 404.130.
During the relevant time period, Plaintiff was not engaged in substantial gainful activity. [AR Doc. #8-2, 16]. As relevant here, Plaintiff saw her primary care physician, Dr. Vui Mai, from March 28, 2006 to July 11, 2011. [ Id. at 8-8, 49-104; 8-9, 2-131; 8-11, 9-64, 69-81]. Throughout her treatment with Dr. Mai, Plaintiff regularly complained of various pains throughout her body and had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. [ Id. at 90]. Dr. Mai described Plaintiff s fibromyalgia as resulting in "pain... pretty much throughout [Plaintiff s] body, " though it is "[m]ainly in the back, neck, and large joints." [ Id. at 51]. Throughout the relevant time period Dr. Mai noted that Plaintiff's complaints of pain related to fibromyalgia resulted in tenderness all over Plaintiff's body, even upon minimal contact, and sometimes before contact. [ See, e.g., id. at 49-50 ("Her body is diffusely tender with minimal palpation. She just kept jumping and saying ouch' even before I started touching her.")].
Dr. Mai also diagnosed Plaintiff with chronic lower back pain. [ See, e.g., id ]. Numerous MRIs and x-rays of her neck and lumbar spine show mild degenerative changes and a benign lesion in her thoracic spine, both of which are stable. [ See, e.g. id. at 8-7, 43-45 & 73]. Throughout the relevant time period, Plaintiff reported "severe lower back pain" that radiated into her legs. [ Id. at 67]. Plaintiff reported to Dr. Mai that her back pain has existed "for many, many years." [ Id. at 8-8, 84]. Plaintiff also had issues related to carpal tunnel syndrome, migraines, and gastrointestinal problems throughout the relevant time period, and complained of various problems with her knees, feet, and hips. [ See, e.g., id. at 8-8, 2-100]. Plaintiff took various medications including Valium and Neurontin to help with pain. [ See e.g., id. at 8-8, 49, 51, 71]. Dr. Mai's treatment notes provide that Plaintiff's various levels of activity include walking daily, taking care of all household chores, and traveling for several days at a time. [ See, e.g., id. at 8-9, 2-131]. Plaintiff was also diagnosed with mild depression that was managed through prescribed medications including Prozac and Cymbalta, that both help with fibromyalgia and with Plaintiff's psychological complaints (such as anxiety). [ See, e.g., id. at 8-7, 80 & 8-8, 71].
In July 2008, Dr. Mai completed a form in which he indicated that Plaintiff should be limited to lifting no more than 10 pounds, both frequently and occasionally, and could only stand for four hours in a workday. [ Id. at 8-8, 45-46]. Dr. Mai provided that he did not believe Plaintiff could return to work "unless her fibromyalgia/chronic pain syndrome is under control, her carpal tunnel syndrome is treated and her depression is under control." [ Id. at 45]. Dr. Mai also provided a second written opinion in December 2008, in which he increased Plaintiff's lifting capacity to twenty pounds. [ Id. at 8-9, 56]. He also decreased his assessment of Plaintiff's standing and sitting abilities, stating that Plaintiff could not "stand more than ½ hour, " and could sit only "for a couple of hours" before her pain began increasing. [ Id. ]
The record also contains several opinions from doctors who treated Plaintiff, examined her, or otherwise reviewed her case. The earliest opinion is a "MED-9" form from January 2007 that was completed in connection with Plaintiff's application for aid from the state of Colorado, completed by Jeffrey Perry, M.D. [ Id. at 8-7, 114-18]. The form generally indicates that Plaintiff had been, or would be, disabled for at least a year, and that Plaintiff had failed a trial of physical therapy and vocational rehabilitation. [ Id. ]
In June 2007 Plaintiff underwent a consultative examination by Jacquelyn Jonas, M.D. [ Id. at 66-71]. Dr. Jonas performed various tests of Plaintiff s physical condition and functioning and provided that Plaintiff had significant limitations including only being able to stand for short periods of time, that Plaintiff suffered from chronic pain and a decreased range of motion throughout her body, and provided that Plaintiff "appears to be able to sit comfortably with no obvious limitation." [ Id. at 71]. Dr. Jonas noted that Plaintiff used "an assistive device" to walk, but "questioned if the assistive device [was] necessary" upon "watch[ing Plaintiff] walk through the waiting room and [get] into her truck" with relative ease. [ Id. ] Plaintiff's strength, Dr. Jonas noted, appeared to be "very poor, " but also questioned Plaintiff's "effort given on the exam." [ Id. ] Nevertheless, Dr. Jonas limited the amount Plaintiff could lift and carry to 10 pounds, both frequently and occasionally. [ Id. ] Dr. Jonas also provided that Plaintiff could not bend, stoop or crouch frequently but could reach, handle, feel, grasp, and finger frequently. [ Id. ]
In August 2007, Gayle Frommelt, Ph.D. reviewed Plaintiff s records and concluded that Plaintiff had an affective disorder, but that it was not severe, as it caused only mild difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. [ Id. at 75-89]. That same month, Anthony LoGalbo, M.D. reviewed Plaintiff s medical records and noted that Plaintiff's "[s]ubjective complaints [were] out of proportion to [the] objective findings[, ] which [were] mild." [ Id. at 96]. He noted that Plaintiff's reported activities - which included "personal care, pet care, meal prep, [household] chores, driv[ing], shop[ping], and socializ[ing]" were "beyond what would be possible if the results from Dr. Jonas' examination reflected Plaintiff's true capabilities." [ Id. ] Instead, Dr. LoGalbo, concluded that Plaintiff was capable of occasionally lifting up to twenty pounds, frequently lifting up to ten pounds, and could stand/walk and sit for about six hours each during the workday. [ Id. at 92]. He also opined that Plaintiff should never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; only occasionally climb ramps or stairs, stoop, and crawl; and frequently balance, kneel, and crouch. [ Id. at 93].
In July 2009, Plaintiff underwent another consultative examination by Velma Campbell, M.D. [ Id. at 8-10, 28-32]. Dr. Campbell reviewed Plaintiff's medical records and performed a physical examination. [ Id. at 30-31]. Dr. Campbell reported that Plaintiff suffered from minor sensation loss, "mild joint deformity consistent with osteoarthritis, " and mild tenderness in her upper extremities with a somewhat limited range of motion and some loss of strength in her shoulders. [ Id. at 30]. However, Dr. Campbell provided that Plaintiff retained full range of motion and strength in her elbows and wrists. [ Id. ] Plaintiff also had some range-of-motion limitations in her lumbar spine and her lower extremities had some moderate tenderness but full strength and range of motion. [ Id. at 30-31]. Plaintiff, according to Dr. Campbell, should be limited to lifting or carrying 20 pounds less than one hour a day and 10 pounds less than 4 hours a day, could only stand/walk 20-30 minutes a day and less than 3 hours in an eight hour day, could not bend, stoop, or squat more than 3 hours per day, could not reach more than 1 hour a day, and could never climb ladders or step-stools. [ Id. at 31]. Additionally, Dr. Campbell provided that Plaintiff's psychological condition "exacerbate[ed] the impact" of her physical impairments. [ Id. ]
Plaintiff was also examined by Benjamin Loveridge, M.D. in February 2010. [ Id. at 71-78]. Dr. Loveridge reviewed a small selection of Plaintiff's medical records from 2009 and noted that he was unable to fully evaluate Plaintiff, particularly her range of motion and musculoskeletal issues, her spine, and any neurologic problems, because she appeared to be exaggerating her discomfort and gave poor effort on testing. [ Id. ] He noted that she "did not appear uncomfortable getting on and off the examination table" and was able to sit comfortably through the exam. [ Id. at 73]. Dr. Loveridge provided that, "[o]verall, [Plaintiff]'s medical complaints did not seem consistent throughout the exam." [ Id. at 76]. For example, "when she first walked in, she was able to walk and talk fine, but by the end of the exam she was exaggerating with pain movements and unable to do any physical examination secondary to exaggerated pain and poor effort throughout." [ Id. ] Dr. Loveridge provided that Plaintiff could stand/walk for 4 hours in a workday with breaks every 30-45 minutes, sit 4-6 hours with breaks every 30-45 minutes, could lift and carry less than ten pounds, and would have difficulties bending, stooping, crouching, and crawling. [ Id. ]
To qualify for benefits under sections 216(I) and 223 of the SSA, an individual must meet the insured status requirements of these sections, be under age 65, file an application for DIB and/or SSI for a period of disability, and be "disabled" as defined by the SSA. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(I), 423, 1382. Additionally, SSI requires that an individual meet income, resource, and other relevant requirements. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382. A Five-Step sequential evaluation process is used to determine whether a claimant is disabled under the SSA, which is generally defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B); see also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 137 (1987).
Step One asks whether the claimant is presently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If he is, benefits are denied. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Step Two is a determination of whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments, as governed by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520©. If the claimant is unable to show that his impairment(s) would have more than a minimal effect on his ability to do basic work activities, he is not eligible. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520©. Step Three then assesses whether the impairment is equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments deemed to be so severe as to preclude substantial gainful employment. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If the impairment is not listed, he is not presumed to be conclusively disabled. Step Four then requires the claimant to show that his impairment(s) and assessed RFC prevent him from performing work that he has performed in the past. If the claimant is able to perform his previous work, he is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), (f). Finally, if the claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability based on the previous four steps, the analysis proceeds to Step Five where the Commissioner has the burden of proving that the claimant has the RFC to perform other work in the national economy in view of his age, education and work experience. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).
IV. ALJ's RULING
The ALJ found that Plaintiff had met the insured requirements of the SSA through March 31, 2010. [AR Doc. #8-2, 14]. He ruled that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her amended alleged onset date of March 31, 2006, through the date of the ALJ's decision, October 31, 2011. [ Id. at 16]. The ALJ found that through the date of his decision the Plaintiff had the following sufficiently severe impairments: "disorders of the spine; and fibromyalgia" (Step Two). [ Id. ] However, the ALJ then determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments (Step Three) in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526). [ Id. at 20]. ...