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Castille v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Colorado

July 31, 2019

LORETTA CASTILLE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          NINA Y. WANG MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This civil action arises under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401- 33 for review of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration's (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) final decision denying Plaintiff Loretta Castille's (“Plaintiff” or “Ms. Castille”) application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Social Security Income Benefits (“SSI”). Pursuant to the Parties' consent [#13], this civil action was referred to this Magistrate Judge for a decision on the merits. See [#19]; 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73; D.C.COLO.LCivR 72.2. Upon review of the Parties' briefing, the entire case file, the Administrative Record, and the applicable case law, this court respectfully AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Loretta Castille first filed applications for SSI and DIB benefits in May 2012, claiming an alleged disability onset of August 30, 2010. [#11-3 at 95].[1] These initial applications were denied on September 6, 2012, which was affirmed by an Administrative Law Judge on January 9, 2014. [Id. at 95-101]. Then, in June, 2015, Plaintiff filed the applications for SSI and DIB benefits underlying this appeal. [#11-2 at 32]. At the start of the July 5, 2017 hearing before the ALJ, she orally amended the date of onset of her disability to October 5, 2015. [Id. at 52]. Plaintiff alleges that her disability began with a fall on that date which worsened her prior symptoms for diabetic neuropathy. [Id. at 53]. At the hearing, she claimed she was disabled due to the combined effects of obesity, cataracts, diabetic mellitus with neuropathy, and an ankle sprain/strain. [Id. at 36].

         At the hearing, the ALJ had before her records regarding Plaintiff's medical history of these conditions-primarily the diabetic mellitus. Specifically, Plaintiff offered two main sources of information, the records and treatment notes of Drs. Costache and Abraham. Dr. Costache has been treating Plaintiff for years and examined Plaintiff on October 5, 2015, the amended date of onset, and treated her sprained foot. [#11-8 at 3]. The records from that date indicate that she was prescribed a specialized boot to help her recover more quickly and avoid further injury and that it was anticipated that she would remain in the boot for 2 weeks and then begin to phase out. [Id. at 7]. On November 20, 2015, Plaintiff was examined by Dr. Abraham who reported that her diabetes mellitus was in “excellent control” and who opined that “there appears to be no obvious long-term disability.” [Id. at 10]. Her blood sugar levels were “doing well.” [Id.]. Dr. Costache reported on November 23, 2015 that Plaintiff's ankle was improving and that it was time to begin transitioning out of the boot. [Id. at 15]. On December 7, 2015, a different doctor-Dr. Matson- reported that Plaintiff still had pain but that her ankle was “overall improving.” [Id. at 17]. Plaintiff's recovery from the ankle sprain was long and uneven, eventually developing into joint disease, but Dr. Abraham treated Ms. Castille on February 20, 2017 and noted that she was spending six hours out of the boot and should no longer require it within seven to ten days of that opinion. [#11-9 at 41]. Dr. Costache reported that, as of March 2, 2017, Plaintiff's ankle was improving. [#11-10 at 3].

         Plaintiff's diabetes mellitus is also reported to be well managed. As noted above, her blood sugar levels were well managed as of November 20, 2015, and although she reported hyperglycemia and lightheadedness on January 28, 2016, she had not eaten that day and felt better by the next day. [#11-8 at 29, 31]. Drs. Abraham and Costache consistently described Plaintiff's diabetes as “controlled.” [Id. at 41, 45, 50]. Plaintiff's foot was regularly debrided from advanced callouses during these visits, but the debriding process has been sufficient to stabilize the foot. See, e.g., [id. at 46, 51; #11-10 at 4].

         Plaintiff also has cataracts in both eyes. Medical records indicate that she was “still feel[ing] functional” despite this diagnosis. [#11-9 at 3]. On July 12, 2016, Plaintiff's eye exam revealed excellent sight when corrected with glasses. [Id.]. By the time of this visit, however, Plaintiff's foot problems had progressed to joint disease related to her diabetes with related swelling. [Id. at 6]. Dr. Abraham reported good control for Plaintiff's diabetes later that July and again in October. [Id. at 8, 19]. The most recent record before the court is from Dr. Costache's May 2017 notes reporting that Plaintiff's hypertension and diabetes were both well controlled. [#11-10 at 9, 12].

         Plaintiff underwent a Residual Function Capacity (“RFC”) from Dr. Kristine Couch from Industrial Rehabilitation Evaluation services on June 21, 2017. [#11-9 at 77]. Dr. Couch reported that Plaintiff “constantly” suffered severe pain sufficient to interfere with even simple work tasks, couldn't walk more than one city block without breaks (although she could walk for up to thirty continuous minutes without resting), and was likely to be absent from work five days or more a week. [Id. at 77-81]. Dr. Abraham later signed Dr. Couch's RFC report with some hesitation, noting “It appears that she would like to get disability but I was not asked to sign disability paperwork.” [Id. at 15]. Dr. Abraham also noted that Plaintiff seemed to be confused and unclear about what she needed the paperwork for. [Id. at 16].

         Plaintiff had a hearing on her claim for benefits before an ALJ on July 5, 2017. [#11-2 at 49]. At the hearing, she reported that she walked to the office, used public transit, went to church, did her own shopping, and once a week did “about forty” minutes of volunteer gardening at her church. [Id. at 69-70, 73, 80]. But Plaintiff's confusion was marked, sometimes giving inconsistent answers or not following a short line of questioning. See, e.g., [id. at 78 (stating she has a hard time focusing during conversations), 81 (inconsistent answer on progress to master's degree)].

         The ALJ subsequently found that Plaintiff was not disabled. [Id. at 33]. She found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, right ankle sprain/strain, cataracts, and obesity. [Id. at 36]. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's hypertension was not a severe condition as it was controlled with medication. [Id.]. The ALJ also found that none of Plaintiff's impairments met the severity benchmarks in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, the “Listing of Impairments” (“the Listing”). [Id. at 36-37]. Finally, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the ability to perform light, semiskilled work. [Id. at 37-43]. Ms. Castille appealed, and the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's determination final for purposes of appeal. [Id. at 1]. On August 6, 2018, Plaintiff filed this action. [#1].

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing the Commissioner's final decision, the court is limited to determining whether the decision adheres to applicable legal standards and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Berna v. Chater, 101 F.3d 631, 632 (10th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted); cf. Thompson v. Sullivan, 987 F.2d 1482, 1487 (10th Cir. 1993) (“[I]f the ALJ failed to apply the correct legal test, there is a ground for reversal apart from a lack of substantial evidence.” (internal citation omitted)). The court may not reverse an ALJ simply because she may have reached a different result based on the record; the question instead is whether there is substantial evidence showing that the ALJ was justified in her decision. See Ellison v. Sullivan, 929 F.2d 534, 536 (10th Cir. 1990). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Flaherty v. Astrue, 515 F.3d 1067, 1070 (10th Cir. 2007) (internal citation omitted). But “[e]vidence is not substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or constitutes mere conclusion.” Musgrave v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1371, 1374 (10th Cir. 1992) (internal citation omitted). The court may not “reweigh the evidence or retry the case, ” but must “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Flaherty, 515 F.3d at 1070 (internal citation omitted).

         Because Plaintiff is proceeding pro se, the court liberally construes her pleadings but may not act as her advocate. Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 672 (10th Cir. 1998). Indeed, although she is not represented by counsel, Ms. Castille must still comply with procedural rules and satisfy substantive law to be entitled to relief. See Murray v. City of Tahlequah, 312 F.3d 1196, 1199 n.2 (10th Cir. 2008) (observing that a party's pro se status does not relieve ...


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