United States District Court, D. Colorado
KATRINA M. HAYS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
LEWIS T. BABCOCK, District Judge.
Plaintiff Katrina M. Hays 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 November 7, 2006 applications for DIB and SSI. [Administrative Record ("AR") Doc. #11-5, 2-11]. Her application was initially denied at the administrative level. [ Id. at 11-4, 2-5]. Plaintiff thereafter filed a written request for a hearing on March 20, 2007. [ Id. at 6-7]. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") subsequently conducted a hearing on July 29, 2008 ( id. at 11-2, 58-78), and issued a written ruling on January 7, 2011 ( id. at 9-27). The ALJ denied Plaintiff's application on the basis that she was not disabled during the relevant time period because she was capable of performing work in the national economy given her residual functional capacity ("RFC"), age, education, and work experience. [ Id. at 20-21]. Plaintiff appealed the denial of her application to the Social Security Administration Appeals Council ("Appeals Council"). [ Id. at 11-2, 2-6]. On May 13, 2011, the Appeals Council declined to review the decision of the ALJ, making the denial final for the purpose of judicial review. [ Id. at 2-7]. Plaintiff then requested review by this Court. On March 13, 2012, this Court remanded the case for further proceedings and instructed the ALJ to more extensively evaluate Plaintiff's RFC and opinion evidence. [ Id. at 11-13, 10-11].
Upon remand, the ALJ held another hearing on November 14, 2012. [ Id. at 11-12, 29-57]. On November 28, 2012, the ALJ issued another decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. [ Id. at 10-23]. Plaintiff filed exceptions with the Appeals Council on December 21, 2012, of which the Appeals Council declined to assume jurisdiction on March 13, 2013. [ Id. at 2-5]. 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 on July 11, 1972, was 34 years old on her alleged amended onset date of September 28, 2006, and was 40 at the time of the ALJ's decision at issue here. [AR Doc. # 11-5, 2]. She has a high school education, is able to communicate in English, and her past relevant work history consists of assembly technician, forklift operator, clerical worker, and car driver. [ Id. at 11-2, 21]. 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 is December 31, 2011. [ Id. at 13]. Thus here, the relevant time period for determining disability is September 28, 2006, through November 28, 2012, the date of the ALJ's decision. [ See id. ]; 20 C.F.R. § 404.130.
During the relevant time period Plaintiff earned no income. [ Id. at 15] Plaintiff injured her wrist at work on October 13, 2005. [ Id. at 11-8, 90]. Plaintiff filed a workers' compensation claim and was examined and treated by Michael A. Dallenbach, M.D. [ Id. at 2-71]. Immediately after her injury, Dr. Dallenbach told Plaintiff not to use her right upper extremity. [ Id. at 67-71]. Two weeks after her injury, he released her to return to work with the temporary restriction to not work in safety sensitive positions. [ Id. at 68-70]. Dr. Dallenbach provided that Plaintiff's injury was "improving" in November 2005 and continued the temporary restrictions on her performance of work related tasks. [ Id. at 64-67]. As her treatment progressed, Dr. Dallenbach gradually increased the amount Plaintiff could lift and the amount of time she could lift with her right upper extremity. [ Id. at 61-64]. However, in January 2006, Dr. Dallenbach noted that Plaintiff had a ganglion cyst in her right wrist and referred Plaintiff to Phillip C. Marin, M.D. for "further evaluation and treatment recommendations." [ Id. at 22]. He provided that after surgery, performed by Dr. Marin, Plaintiff could return to work in a full capacity. [ Id. at 60]. After Plaintiff's surgery, Dr. Dallenbach continued to see Plaintiff through 2007. [ Id. at 11-94-33].
On referral from Dr. Dallenbach, Plaintiff sought treatment from Phillip C. Marin, M.D. [ Id. at 79-105]. Dr. Marin treated Plaintiff for her De Quervains tenosynovitis (a condition affecting the tendons on the thumb side of the wrist). [ Id. ] Throughout his treatment of Plaintiff he performed four surgeries on Plaintiff's right wrist, and completed two check-box questionnaires related to her condition (one in April 2008 and one in October 2010). [ Id .; see also id. at 11-10, 63-64; 11-11, 26-27]. Dr. Marin performed his first surgery on Plaintiff's wrist in March of 2006, after which Plaintiff was restricted from use of her right hand/wrist until June 2006, when Dr. Marin provided that she could use her hand on a limited basis. [ Id. at 11-8, 79-105]. Dr. Marin performed his second surgery on Plaintiff's wrist for a De Quervains release and radial sensory nerve decompression. [ Id. at 84]. In April 2007, Plaintiff underwent her third surgery with Dr. Marin for a TFCC debridement on her wrist and in January 2008, Dr. Marin removed sensitive scar tissue from Plaintiff's wrist. [ Id. at 79-105].
In August 2006, Plaintiff underwent a Functional Capacity Evaluation performed by Barry D. Brown, P.T. (Physical Therapist). [ Id. at 11-7, 17-43]. Based on this evaluation, Mr. Brown concluded that Plaintiff could perform medium level work with some limitations of her wrist. [ Id. ]. Mr. Brown examined Plaintiff again in October 2010 to complete another Functional Capacity Evaluation at which Mr. Brown concluded that Plaintiff could perform sedentary work. [ Id. at 64-65].
Dipesh Amin, M.D., performed a consultative examination of Plaintiff in March 2008. [ Id. at 11-8, 113-17]. Dr. Amin noted Plaintiff's wrist/hand and knee pain and provided that Plaintiff could lift and carry up to 10 pounds continuously, 11-20 pounds occasionally, could reach, handle, and finger occasionally with the right hand, could sit for an unlimited amount of time, and could stand and walk for four hours at a time, and four hours in a workday. [ Id. ] He also limited her ability to climb and crawl because of her right wrist. [ Id. ]
In July 2008, Robert Tuchler, M.D., performed an independent medical examination of Plaintiff. [ Id. at 11-10, 78-87]. During the examination, Dr. Tuchler noted that Plaintiff "entered the examination room with a large purse hung on her affected forearm and did not display discomfort" and "[w]hen her attention was not directed toward her hand, she made a complete fist and moved the wrist without any signs of discomfort, and less limitation in range of motion than when it was specifically tested." [ Id. ] Dr. Tuchler observed no objective evidence of reflex sympathetic dystrophy or complex regional pain syndrome and recommended Plaintiff follow the activity restrictions and accommodations in the most recent FCE, which limited Plaintiff to performing medium work, monitoring her right wrist and hand, and alternating with her left hand to avoid repetition strain. [ Id. ]
In July 2012, Plaintiff saw nurse practitioner and reported suffering from migraine headaches. [ Id. at 11-18, 33-34].
To qualify for DIB 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 for a period of disability, and be "disabled" as defined by the SSA. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423. 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 she is, DIB is 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(c). If the claimant is unable to show that her impairment(s) would have more than a minimal effect on her ability to do basic work activities, she is not eligible for DIB. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). 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, she is not presumed to be conclusively disabled. Step Four then requires the claimant to show that her impairment(s) and assessed Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") prevent her from performing work that she has performed in the past. If the claimant is able to perform her previous work, she is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), (f). Finally, if the claimant establishes a prima facie case ...