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Joyce A. Jones v. Michael J. Astrue

June 24, 2011

JOYCE A. JONES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kugler, United States District Judge:

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

This is an appeal from a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Disability Insurance Benefits ("DBI") and Supplemental Security Income payments ("SSI"). Plaintiff claims that she is entitled to DBI and SSI because she is unable to work. After a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. (the "Act"), because she is able to perform past relevant work. Plaintiff now appeals that decision to this Court. Because the ALJ's decision was based on substantial evidence on the record, the Court upholds the ALJ's decision.

I.BACKGROUND

Prior to November 2005, Plaintiff worked for six months as a "parts cleaner" at a facility that made compact discs. (R. 35-36). The job required Plaintiff to move 55 pound barrels of nitric acid with a hand cart and clean certain machine parts with the nitric acid. (Id.). On November 5, 2005, Plaintiff was injured on the job. (R. 36). She returned to work briefly after her injury, but she was unable to continue work because of her injury. (R. 36-37). She now claims that she has been completely disabled since November 13, 2005 because she suffers from obesity, depression, hypertension, diabetes, carpal tunnel syndrome, and cervical radiculopathy.

A.Procedural History

In January 2007, Plaintiff applied for DBI and SSI. (R. 114-25). She alleged that she was unable to work beginning November 13, 2005 because of diabetes, a back injury, and high blood pressure. (Id.). The Social Security Administration (the "Administration") denied Plaintiff's claims. (R. 71-82, 88-90). Upon request, the Administration granted Plaintiff a hearing regarding her application. (R. 93-94, 97-98). Administrative Law Judge Daniel N. Shellhamer presided over the hearing. After the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's DBI and SSI. (R. 8-28). Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of the ALJ's decision with the Appeals Council. (R. 6-7). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request. (R. 1-5). In March 2007, Plaintiff timely filed the Complaint in this matter challenging the Commissioner's denial of her application for DBI and SSI.

B.Plaintiff's Testimony before the ALJ

Plaintiff was born in 1961. (R. 180-81). She has a high school graduate equivalence diploma. (R. 142). Beginning in approximately 1999, Plaintiff worked for Sony as a "replication operator," which involves operating a machine that makes compact discs. (R. 39). The "physical demands" on a "replication operator" were "minimal" and required only "light lifting (5-10 lbs)." (R. 238-39). Sometime in 2005, Plaintiff began to work as a "parts cleaner" for Sony. (35, 39). That job required Plaintiff to place 55-pound barrels of nitric acid on hand carts and move them across the building. (R. 35-36). Plaintiff would then clean a machine part called a "mast." (Id.). She worked as a parts cleaner for approximately six months. (R. 35, 39).

As a parts cleaner, Plaintiff worked twelve-hour shifts. (R. 36). She spent most of that time "on her feet." (R. 36).

Plaintiff injured her right knee and leg on November 5, 2005 while working for Sony. (R. 36). Plaintiff testified that she felt suddenly limp while moving a barrel of nitric acid, and that she was unable to get out of her car when she got home that evening. (R. 45-46). Because of extreme pain, Plaintiff went to the emergency room where she received Percocet so she could undergo testing. After undergoing magnetic resonance imaging ("MRI") and computerized axial tomography ("CAT") scans, doctors diagnosed her with a back problem. (R. 46). She received three epidural injections in two-week intervals. (R. 46-47). Plaintiff does not believe that the epidural injections helped with her back problem. (R. 47). Plaintiff also testified that during this period she began to experience loss of bladder control and claims that doctors told her that this was due to too many steroids delivered by the epidural injections. (R. 47). Plaintiff has diabetes, and she testified that it has "worsened" since her injury at Sony. (R. 47). She also claims that "facet blocks" administered to help with her back pain caused her "sugar to rise." (R. 47).

She tried to return to work after the injury at Sony, but was unable to do so. (R. 46, 137). She stopped working on November 13, 2005, and collected worker's compensation benefits. (R. 137). She has not worked since November 13, 2005. (R. 137). Plaintiff's injury at Sony is the subject of a worker's compensation claim, but she does not currently receive any treatment or cash benefits from the worker's compensation carrier. (R. 45). Plaintiff does not have health insurance and is not currently receiving any treatment for her conditions. (R. 45).

Before joining Sony, Plaintiff worked for Wal-Mart as a cashier for a period during 1994.

(R. 37-38, 40). From 1989 until 1993, Plaintiff worked on the assembly crew at Struthers-Dunn setting the timing in relays. This was desk assembly work, but it also required Plaintiff to walk around the plant and pick items off the floor. (R. 40, 43-44). In 1990, Plaintiff worked briefly supervising a janitorial service for Martin Car Lot. (R. 41). Plaintiff testified that her job at Struthers-Dunn was the least physically demanding job she ever held, and that she could not perform that job in her current condition due to back pain. (R. 58-59).

Plaintiff testified that her back "bothers" her "24/7." (R. 49). She also testified that she experiences constant neck pain, which runs down the middle of her back and across her lower back. (R. 49). Plaintiff also experiences pain in her buttocks and down to her feet. (R. 49). The pain increases if she stands too long and can become so painful that it "will drop you to the floor." (R. 49). If Plaintiff sits too long, she experiences pain in her back, shoulders, and neck.

(R. 50). She testified that she must alternate between standing and sitting every ten to fifteen minutes because of the pain. (R. 49-50, 53-54).

Sometime before her injury at Sony, Plaintiff had surgery on both of her hands for bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. (R. 50). Plaintiff believes that her right hand improved a little after the surgery but that her left hand did not improve at all. (R. 51). She claims that she "can't lift anything." (R. 51). If she lifts something "as little as a package of ground beef," she experiences pain in her fingers and "all the way up [her] harm." (R. 51). The pain radiates up to her chest. (R. 51). Plaintiff testified that when she returned to work after surgery on her left hand, she cried because of the pain. According to Plaintiff, she was preparing for a second surgery on her left hand when she was injured at Sony. (R. 52-53).

Plaintiff sleeps only four to five hours per night because of pain. (R. 53). Sometimes she just lies in bed unable to sleep because of pain. (R. 53). Plaintiff testified that she is largely unable to care for her personal needs. She can drive only short distances because of her back pain and bladder condition. (R. 56). She has to take showers because she cannot climb in and out of a bathtub. (R. 57). She can no longer take care of her hair, and she is unable to do extensive shopping for groceries. (R. 55). She is 5'4" tall and weighs approximately 230 pounds. (R. 60-61). Her "normal" weight before her injury at Sony was around 187 pounds. (R. 61).

C.Medical Evidence

In 2003, over two years before the onset of Plaintiff's alleged disability, Dr. Elliot Ames performed right carpal tunnel release surgery on Plaintiff. (R. 336). According to Dr. Ames, the surgery produced good results. (R. 319, 329-32). Dr. Ames performed tunnel decompression on Plaintiff's left hand in August 2004, and, according to Dr. Ames, Plaintiff recovered well. (R. 314, 316, 317). On November 17, 2004, although Plaintiff reported some numbness in a cold environment at work, Dr. Ames's clinical evaluation of Plaintiff's left hand showed no scar tenderness and Plaintiff had full range of motion. (R. 313). Dr. Ames discharged Plaintiff . (R. 313).

Plaintiff continued to work until November 2005, when she visited the Emergency Department of Kennedy Memorial Hospital following her injury at Sony. (R. 279-312). X-rays and a venous Doppler test of Plaintiff's pelvis and right femur were "unremarkable" and revealed "no evidence of fracture, dislocation or bony destructive process." (R. 310-11). On December 7, 2005, Dr. Michael H. Bojarski, of American WorkCare, examined Plaintiff regarding her injury. (R. 302-09). During the examination, Plaintiff walked and changed positions with a "mild degree of difficulty," but her "lumbar flexion" was within "functional limits." (R. 302). Dr. Bojarski noted "mild generalized muscle spasm" and "some discomfort in right groin region." (R. 302). Ultimately, however, Dr. Bojarski concluded that "the examination is suggestive of a right groin strain and sprain with the possibility of right-sided lumbar radicular pain." (R. 303). Dr. Bojarski found that Plaintiff "may continue working in a light duty, sit down job." (R. 303). He recommended that Plaintiff receive physical therapy and he prescribed medication. (R. 303).

Dr. Bojarski reexamined Plaintiff on December 9, 2005. (R. 298). Plaintiff reported "no change in her symptoms," and Dr. Bojarski found that the physical examination "remain[ed] unchanged." (R. 299). Dr. Bojarski also found that Plaintiff remained available for a "light duty, sit down job." (R. 303). Dr. Bojarski examined Plaintiff on December 21, 2005 (R. 294-96), December 27, 2005 (R. 289-93), January 9, 2006 (R. 284-88), January 10, 2006 (R. 276-78), January 17, 2006 (R. 272-75), and January 31, 2006 (R. 268-70). After each visit, he reported that Plaintiff was able to perform a light-duty job.

On March 14, 2006, Dr. Bojarski met with Plaintiff to discuss the results of an MRI of her lumbar spine. (R. 258). The MRI showed "a mild right sided herniation at the level of L4-5 encroaching the right neuroforamin and a large left-sided disc herniation . . . at L5-S1 with impingement of the S-1 nerve root." (R. 259). Dr. Bojarski discussed treatment options with Plaintiff. Plaintiff preferred 'to resume physical therapy and continue medications" rather than pursue "epidural/neuroforaminal steroid injections." (R. 259). Dr. Bojarski again found that Plaintiff was able to do a light-duty, sit down job. (R. 259). Dr. Bojarski examined Plaintiff five times during April and May 2006. After all five examinations, Dr. Bojarski found that Plaintiff could perform a light-duty, sit down job. (R. 214, 224, 227, 241, 247). On May 4, 2006, Dr. Bojarski reviewed an electromyogram and nerve conduction study of Plaintiff's right leg. (R. 213). Those tests showed "an acute L4-L5 and L5 radiculopathy." (R. 213). In November 2006, Dr. Bojarski responded to a request for information by stating that Plaintiff had achieved "maximum medical improvement." (R. 211).

In June 2006, Dr. Adam Sackstein of the Pain Management Center examined Plaintiff. Plaintiff complained of lower back pain and neck pain radiating to her fingers. (R. 427). Plaintiff told Dr. Sackstein that she was independent in her daily living. (R. 428). Dr. Sackstein recommended and administered epidural steroid injections in June, July, and August 2006. (R. 420-26). Plaintiff reported temporary relief from the steroids. (R. 420). In October 2006, Plaintiff received lumbar facet injections. (R. 417-18). She reported some relief in November 2006. (R. 416). Dr. Sackstein administered another facet injection, and Plaintiff reported ten percent relief. (R. 414).

In October 2006, Dr. Joan F. O'Shea, a neurologist, examined Plaintiff. (R. 432-35). Plaintiff complained of back and neck pain. (R. 433). Dr. O'Shea noted that Plaintiff was obese.

(R. 433). Dr. O'Shea also noted that Plaintiff was hyperreflexic, and that there was no swelling in Plaintiff's arms or legs. (R. 434). Plaintiff's range of motion in her wrists, hips, and knees was normal, but she had decreased cervical range of motion. (R. 434). Flexion/extension of Plaintiff's lumbosacral spine was normal. (R. 434). Dr. O'Shea performed the "straight leg raising test," which was positive, but Plaintiff's musculoskeletal examination was otherwise normal. (R. 434). Dr. O'Shea reviewed prior doctors' reports of Plaintiff's MRIs but did not review the actual films. (R. 434). Dr. O'Shea's conclusion was that Plaintiff had degenerative disc disease at L4-L5 and L5-S1 "by report." She noted that Plaintiff's back pain was "constant." (R. 434). Dr. O'Shea concluded that Plaintiff could work "light duty with no lifting greater than 25 pounds." (R. 435). Dr. O'Shea reexamined Plaintiff in January 2007 and concluded that Plaintiff "is able to work light duty with frequent sitting and standing positions, every 30 minutes." (R. 431).

In a one-page letter dated November 9, 2006, Dr. Robert Taffet, of D.R.S. Diagnostic Rehabilitation Specialist, states that Plaintiff was under his care and that she was "disabled." (R. 457). The letter does not describe Plaintiff's disability or physical condition. (R. 457).

In April 2007, Dr. Deogracias Bustos, a state agency nonexamining consultant reviewed Plaintiff's medical history and completed a "residual functional capacity assessment." (R. 436-43). Dr. Bustos noted that Plaintiff's primary diagnosis was degenerative disc disease and her secondary diagnosis was obesity. (R. 436). Dr. Bustos concluded that Plaintiff could lift or carry up to twenty pounds occasionally and up to ten pounds frequently. (R. 437). He also found that Plaintiff could sit for about six hours in an eight-hour day. (R. 437). He concluded that although Plaintiff needed to alternate between sitting and standing, she could do so during regular breaks. (R. 437). He also found that Plaintiff could occasionally climb stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl and that she had no manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental limitations. (R. 438-40). Dr. Bustos noted that Plaintiff was diabetic and hypertensive, but he found that there was no evidence of end-organ damage. (R. 438). Dr. Bustos disagreed with Dr. O'Shea's conclusion that Plaintiff needed to alternate between sitting and standing every thirty minutes. (R. 442). Dr. Bustos determined that Dr. O'Shea's conclusion was not supported by "objective findings." (R. 442).

On March 23, 2007, Dr. Ted Gallagher performed an EMG of Plaintiff's wrists. (R. 460). The EMG showed residual left median neuropathy at the level of the wrist and borderline residual right median neuropathy also at the level of the wrist. (R. 460-61). Dr. Gallagher found no evidence of ulnar neuropathy in either wrist, in her left forearm, or in her left elbow. (R. 461). Dr. Gallagher found that "[i]n general this is an overweight female with no acute distress."

(R. 461). He also found that Plaintiff's "chief complaint is difficult to establish however [sic] she does have residual median neuropathy at the left wrist,[and] [t]his degree of residual median neuropathy after CTR is ...


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