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Hartline v. Astrue

March 31, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge


Plaintiff Deena Hartline brings this action seeking review of Defendant's final administrative decision denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income Benefits ("SSIB") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Pending before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal and Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance. After reviewing the Parties' briefs, the administrative record, and the relevant case law, the Court shall DENY [7] Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal and GRANT [10] Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance, for the reasons that follow.*fn1


A. Legal Framework and Procedural History

Plaintiff Deena Hartline petitioned the Social Security Administration for DIB and SSIB pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on July 21, 1998. See Pl.'s Mot. at 1. To qualify for SSIB and DIB, a claimant must demonstrate an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment," coupled with an inability to "engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)-(2); see id. § 1382c(a)(3). By satisfying both conditions, a claimant is "disabled" for purposes of the Social Security Act. To decide whether a claimant has proven she is disabled, the ALJ must use a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The steps require a determination of (1) current work activity; (2) severity of the impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment; (4) if the impairment prevents claimant from doing past work; (5) if the impairment prevents her from doing other work upon consideration of the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). Id.

Plaintiff is a 41-year-old female resident of Washington, D.C. See Pl.'s Mot. at 2. A high school graduate who attended college for one year, Plaintiff worked as a dancer, waitress and office secretary for a cab company before her impairments allegedly rendered her unable to work from May 22, 1997, until January 2002. Id.; Administrative Record ("A.R.") at 84, 351, 366-70. In her application for DIB and SSIB, Plaintiff alleged that her disabilities included low back pain, leg pain, depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. See Pl.'s Mot. at 2; A.R. at 17.

Plaintiff's claims were initially denied. A.R. at 49, 53; see id. at 33 ("[y]our overall medical condition does cause some restrictions. However, there are still some types of work you can perform"); id. at 35 ("[w]e realize that your condition prevents you from doing the type of work that you have done in the past, but it does not prevent you from doing less demanding work"). Following this denial, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Id. at 56. That hearing occurred on August 8, 2000. Id. at 347. In a decision dated November 22, 2000, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's requested benefits. Id. at 39-48. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council. Id. at 71. On March 26, 2004, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ with instructions to reevaluate Plaintiff's claim in light of additional medical evidence and issue a new decision. Id. at 77 ("This evidence relates to the severity of the claimant's affective disorder and lymphodema in her legs and may suggest severity greater than the Administrative Law Judge found. This evidence should be addressed and evaluated."). Accordingly, a second hearing before the ALJ was held on October 13, 2004. Id. at 364. Plaintiff was represented by counsel, and Kathleen S. Sampeck, a vocational expert ("VE"), testified. Id. at 364.

On February 28, 2005, the ALJ issued a decision that again denied Plaintiff's claim for benefits. A.R. at 16-24. At Step One, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff had been engaged in significant gainful activity since 2002.*fn2 Id. at 17; see id. at 369;Pl.'s Mot. at 2 n.1. At Step Two, he determined that the medical evidence established that Plaintiff suffered from "a 'severe' physical impairment as a result of "lymphedema and degenerative joint disease" and a "'severe' mental impairment at all times relevant to this decision." A.R. at 18. At Step Three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments were not "manifested at a degree of severity which satisfie[d]" any of the Listings of Impairments at Appendix 1, Subpart P, No. 4 (20 C.F.R § 404.1520(d)). A.R. at 18. With regard to Plaintiff's physical condition, the ALJ found no evidence that showed "she is unable to effectively ambulate or perform fine and gross movements effectively as defined by Listings 1.02A/B" nor evidence of "documented nerve root compression, spinal arachnoiditis, or lumbar spinal stenosis to the degree required by Listing 1.04." Id. In evaluating Plaintiff's mental impairment, the ALJ found that "none of the functional limitation categories are manifested at a degree which satisfie[d]" Listings 12.04 or 12.08. Id. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairment resulted in no more than moderate limitation on her "activities of daily living," "social functioning," "concentration, persistence and pace," and that no evidence showed a "deterioration or decompensation in work or work-like settings." Id. at 19.

At Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's past relevant work "would be precluded given her current level of restriction." Id. at 21. At Step Five, the ALJ determined, "based upon the claimant's residual functional capacity, that "she is capable of performing a significant range of light work . . . ." Id. at 22. See generally 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567, 416.967. Finding the VE's testimony credible as to the availability of jobs that fit within the above limitations in the economy, the ALJ concluded that "[the claimant] is capable of making a successful adjustment to work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. A finding of 'not disabled' is therefore reached within the framework of Medical-Vocational Rule 202.20." 23. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council. Id. at 12. On December 8, 2005, the Appeals Council upheld the decision of the ALJ, finding no basis for granting the request for review. Id. at 7. Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff has brought this action seeking judicial review.*fn3 Pl.'s Mot. at 1.

B. Evidence Contained in the Administrative Record

The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's condition based on evidence including various medical records (both physical and mental health records) and the testimony of Plaintiff and the VE during the administrative hearing in this case. The Court recounts below the most relevant portions of the administrative record.

1. Physical Health Records

On July 23, 1997, Plaintiff began a series of hospital visits for her lower back pain. See A.R. at 145; 188. Plaintiff indicated during these visits that her back pain, which had been a recurring problem for the past several years, was triggered when she engaged in household chores such as washing the dishes and mopping the floor. Id. at 188. While the examinations revealed "tenderness on either side of the spine," the records indicated that Plaintiff was "[a]ble to bend forward & straighten." Id. On July 15, 1997, Plaintiff began a series of visits in connection with swelling and lesions on her legs and feet. Id. at 173-86. Plaintiff was diagnosed with edema and cellulitis, and prescribed medication for these conditions.*fn4 Id. at 144; 173-186. Plaintiff continued receiving treatment and medication for these conditions through July 21, 2000. Id. at 301-34.

A number of physicians examined Plaintiff and evaluated her medical history in connection with ongoing treatment and her disability claims. On August 4, 1998, Dr. Henry R. Herbert, M.D., an occupational medicine specialist, examined Plaintiff. Id. at 143-45. Dr. Herbert noted that Plaintiff retained "complete range of motion of her lower extremities" and that the "[r]ange of motion of the back is compromised in that she can only bring her hands to the level of her knees." Id. at 144. Dr. Herbert indicated that Plaintiff "is not able to perform a job which would require extended periods of standing or walking, [though] she appears to be able to perform sedentary work with no lifting, pushing, pulling or carrying more than 10 lb." Id. at 143.

On November 6, 1998, R.S. Kadian, M.D., a state agency physician, evaluated Plaintiff's medical history to determine her physical residual function capacity ("RFC"). With regard to specific exertional limitations, Dr. Kadian determined that Plaintiff could occasionally lift 10 pounds, frequently lift less than 10 pounds, stand or walk for at least 2 hours in an 8-hour workday, sit for a total of about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday and engage in an unlimited amount of pushing and pulling. A.R. at 220. In his report, Dr. Kadian reduced Plaintiff's RFC to "sedentary" because of the pain in her legs and back and her inability to stand and walk for prolonged periods of time. A.R. at 225. Dr. Kadian indicated that "[n]o further reduction in RFC or finding of total disability is supported by objective medical findings." Id.

On July 7, 1999, Dr. Dev Chhabra, M.D., a state agency medical consultant, examined the Plaintiff and ordered an x-ray of her spine. Id. at 217-18. Dr. Chhabra reported that the x-ray showed "mild DJD [degenerative joint disease] . . . and mild scoliosis." Id. at 217. Dr. Chhabra concluded that "the patient can sit, stand and walk with [a] normal gait, and has a history of bipolar disorder. The symptoms are under control with medication." Id. at 218.

On May 9, 2000, Dr. Martin H. Stein, M.D., who was treating Plaintiff for her affective disorder, referred her to Kaiser Medical because of "at least 50-100 scratch induced scars on each leg . . . .and cellulitis on her left shin." Id. at 291. Dr. Stein also indicated that he was "treating her aggressively for her obsessive picking which may be the origin of her infection." Id. at 292. Plaintiff subsequently received antibiotics for the lesions on her legs, and, on May 12, 2000, and again on May 15, 2000, her doctor noted that Plaintiff's condition was improving. See id. at 308-9. On June 6, 2000, after a visit with Plaintiff, Dr. Stein reported that "[h]er legs are no longer erythematous. She remains in treatment with Kaiser . . . . She reports her picking on her skin has decreased." Id. at 293.

2. Mental Health Records

The records indicate that several mental health specialists have evaluated Plaintiff during the period of alleged disability. See id. at 139-72; 198-215; 227-58; 269-95. Plaintiff visited Dr. Mark Publicker, M.D., a psychiatrist, at least once every six months from March 11, 1996, to February 11, 1999, and kept in "weekly telephone contact" with him during this time. Id. at 232; see id. at 139-72. According to the records, one purpose of these visits was to evaluate how Plaintiff was responding to prescribed medications for anxiety and bipolar disorder. See id. at 139-72. On October 22, 1998, Dr. Publicker reported that Plaintiff was "stable on klonapin for panic," "calm, . . . organized, unpressured, [with] no thought process disturbance." ...

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