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Jimenez v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Colorado

August 18, 2016

MARIA F. JIMENEZ, Plaintiff,



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court upon review of denial of benefits by the Defendant, Commissioner of Social Security. This matter was initiated by the Plaintiff, Ms. Jimenez, without the assistance of counsel. She filed a letter in support of her Complaint (#19). The Commissioner responded with a brief (#23). Pursuant to D.C.COLO.LAttyR 15(f), pro bono counsel entered an appearance on Ms. Jimenez’s behalf, and supplemental briefing (#34, 35) was filed. Having considered all of the documents filed, including the record (#17), the Court now finds and concludes as follows.

         I. Jurisdiction

         The Court exercises jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g). The Plaintiff filed applications in August 2010 for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Act. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted an administrative hearing, and on April 26, 2012 issued an unfavorable decision finding that the Plaintiff was “not disabled” (hereafter, the Decision). The Appeals Council declined to review the Decision (Tr. 1-3), making it final decision for purposes of judicial review. See, 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a). There is no dispute that this appeal was timely initiated.

         II. Material Facts

         Ms. Jimenez was born on May 7, 1976. At the time of the Decision, she was 32 years old. She had limited education and had worked as a pawn broker, order puller, photo finish lab worker, and as an assistant retail sales manager at Walgreens. She contends that a combination of mental impairments (post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety) and physical impairments (migraine headaches, hypertension, obesity, and lumbar back pain) prevent her from working.

         Both her mental and physical impairments have origins in a series of deaths of people close to Ms. Jimenez. In 2000, Ms. Jimenez’s fiancée was murdered in front of her while she was held hostage at gunpoint. After his murder, Ms. Jimenez started experiencing depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Two years later, Ms. Jimenez’s brother passed away from AIDS. Then, in 2008, her other brother was killed by a family member. Following this third death, Ms. Jimenez’s mental impairments and physical impairments began to severely affect her ability to work. Ms. Jimenez became unable to work in April 2010.

         Only Mr. Jimenez’s migraine headaches are the subject of this appeal. Ms. Jimenez began experiencing headaches in 2000, but they became more numerous and more intense during 2010, occurring 3-5 times per week and accompanied by nausea, photosensitivity, and sound sensitivity. In September 2010, Ms. Jimenez sought medical treatment at Clinica Campesina. Notes by treating physician, Dr. Carlos Brol, M.D., report her complaints of severe headaches more frequently than 3-5 times per week with a pain intensity of 8-10 on a 10-point scale. In November, he diagnosed the headaches as, Chronic: Migraine NOS [with] intractable migraine.

         The diagnosis continued throughout Dr. Brohl’s treatment notes and those of Dr. Rachel Miller, who took over Ms. Jimenez’s care in 2011. Although migraine headaches were not Ms. Jimenez’s only medical issue, they were a repetitive source of concern and treatment. She consistently and repetitively reported to her treating physicians, and psychologist, Elizabeth Lowell-Tupa, Ph.D., that the migraines occurred multiple times a week, seemed to get worse as her blood pressure went up, and frequently were so severe that she was photophobic, had to lie down, and could not concentrate. Her medical records reflect an initial prescription of Imitrex, but it did not prove effective. Unable to afford more expensive abortive medication, Ms. Jimenez resorted to over-the-counter analgesics, which were not effective.

         The examining consulting physician, Deborah Moore, M.D., included migraines as a diagnosis in her report. She noted, “[t]he claimant has migraines with classic symptoms and is unable to afford abortive medications. She had one this morning with nausea and vomiting but did not have a sensitive reaction to a light shined in her pupil, although she was wearing shades when I walked into the room. She did not appear to be in any pain at this time.” Dr. Moore did not opine as to the frequency or severity of the migraines, recommending only that, “[t]he claimant has limitations working around bring lights or excessive noise due to migraine headache.”

         At her disability hearing, Ms. Jimenez testified that she experiences multiple debilitating migraines each week, but can only afford over-the-counter medications. The ALJ posed hypothetical questions to a vocational expert, including whether an individual who is forced to miss one day of work per week because of headaches would be able to perform competitive work in the national economy. The vocational expert responded by stating that such symptoms were inconsistent with gainful employment.

         III. The ALJ’s Decision

         The ALJ employed the standard five-step analysis. At Step 1 he found that Ms. Jimenez met the insurance status requirements and that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after April 18, 2010. At Step 2, he found that she had severe impairments - chronic headaches, anxiety disorder, PTSD, depression, obesity, hypertension, and lumbar back pain. At Step 3, he found that none of these singly, or in combination, met or were the equivalent to one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. At Step 4, the ALJ determined Ms. Jimenez’s had a residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, but was limited to lifting and carrying 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally, sitting or standing for six hours in an eight-hour work day, avoid climbing ladders or scaffolds, not work around open machinery, only be exposed to occasional interactions with co-workers and supervisors, occasionally stoop or kneel, not be exposed to complicated instructions, not interact with the public, avoid work in sunlight, and only be exposed to moderate noise, and that she could not perform her past relevant work. At Step 5, he found that she was able to perform other jobs in the national economy, including merchandise marker and electronics accessories assembler.

         IV. The ...

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