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Johnson v. Colvin

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 13, 2016

KAREN DENISE JOHNSON Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, in her official capacity as Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          G. MICHAEL HARVEY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         In this action, Plaintiff Karen Johnson seeks reversal of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her benefits pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Before the Court are Plaintiff's motion for judgment of reversal and Defendant's motion for judgment of affirmance.[1] Plaintiff raises two issues. First, Plaintiff argues that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") failed to consider relevant medical evidence and failed to properly develop the administrative record. Second, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ's decision runs contrary to the general public interest. Neither claim has merit. Upon review of the entire record, [2] the Court will deny Plaintiff's motion and grant Defendant's motion.

         BACKGROUND

A. Legal Framework for Social Security Disability Claims

         To be eligible for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must be found to be "disabled" by the Social Security Administration ("SSA"). 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). In most cases, to determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act, an ALJ gathers evidence, holds a hearing, takes testimony, and performs a five-step legal evaluation of the claimant using that evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.

         In that evaluation, the ALJ must determine whether: (1) the claimant is "presently engaged in substantial gainful activity"; (2) the claimant has a "medically severe impairment or impairments"; (3) the claimant's impairment is equivalent to one of the impairments listed in the appendix of the relevant disability regulation; (4) the impairment prevents the claimant from performing his past relevant work; and (5) the claimant, in light of his age, education, work experience, and residual functioning capacity ("RFC"), can still perform another job that is available in the national economy. Id. A claimant's RFC is his ability to perform either past relevant work or any other work available in the national economy. See Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 1000 (D.C. Cir. 2004). According to Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-8p, "RFC is an administrative assessment of the extent to which an individual's medically determinable impairment(s), including any related symptoms, such as pain, may cause physical or mental limitations or restrictions that may affect his or her capacity to do work-related physical and mental activities" in a work setting for eight hours per day, five days a week, or an equivalent work schedule. Titles II & XVI: Assessing Residual Functional Capacity in Initial Claims, SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *2 (July 2, 1996).[3] In short, it represents the most a claimant is able to do notwithstanding his physical or mental limitations. See Butler, 353 F.3d at 1000.

         The claimant bears the burden of proof in the first four steps of the evaluation. Callahan v. Astrue, 786 F.Supp.2d 87, 89 (D.D.C. 2011). At step five, however, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to identify specific jobs available in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.In making this determination, an ALJ may call a vocational expert ("VE") to testify as to whether a claimant can perform other work that exists in the national economy. Id. at 90. A VE may draw her conclusions from a number of sources, including the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT"). Id. The DOT, last published by the U.S. Department of Labor in 1991, provides a brief description of occupations within the national economy and lists the capabilities that each occupation requires of a worker. See generally Introduction to Dictionary of Occupational Titles (4th ed. 1991), available at 1991 WL 645964. Along with VE testimony, the SSA generally relies on the DOT to determine if there are jobs in the national economy that a claimant can perform given his RFC. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.966-416.969.

         B. Relevant Facts

         1. Plaintiff Karen Johnson

         At the time of the alleged onset of her disability, Plaintiff was a 40-year-old woman residing in the District of Columbia. AR 20. Plaintiff has a high school education, she worked full-time as a cashier between October 1999 and August 2001, and she worked part-time as a general office clerk between August 2004 and December 2010. Id. at 223.

         2. Plaintiff's Application for Benefits

         On June 30, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Id. at 14, 30. Plaintiff initially alleged disability beginning June 1, 2003, due to a host of physical impairments, including obesity-related conditions, respiratory ailments, and severe headaches, but the onset date was later clarified to be June 30, 2011. Id. She also filed an application for disability benefits under Title II of the Act, alleging an onset date of December 17, 2010. Id. On November 2, 2011, the Commissioner initially denied Plaintiff's claim, determining that her current symptoms were not severe enough to keep her from working. Id. at 72.[4] Plaintiff requested reconsideration of that decision, but the Commissioner again denied her claim on July 17, 2012. Id. at 82, 100. On September 25, 2012, the Commissioner granted Plaintiff's request for a hearing. Id. at 103. Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing held before an ALJ on March 7, 2014. Id. at 28-64. On April 7, 2014, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim on the grounds that she could return to her past work as a general office clerk and that she was capable of performing a limited range of light work available in the national economy. Id. at 20-22.[5]

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision, and on September 12, 2015, the SSA Appeals Council denied her request for review. Id. at 1-3. The ALJ's decision thus became the Commissioner's final decision, see Ryan v. Bentsen, 12 F.3d 245, 247 (D.C. Cir. 1993), and Plaintiff thereafter commenced this action.

         3. The Administrative Record

         An administrative hearing was held in this case before the ALJ. AR 28-64. During this hearing, Plaintiff testified and was represented by counsel. Id. at 28. The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's symptoms based on evidence in the administrative record, including medical records and opinions, Plaintiff's statements, and testimony from a VE. The Court recounts the relevant portions of the administrative record below.

         a. Dr. Roger Weir - Treating Physician

         On April 14, 2011, Plaintiff saw Dr. Roger Weir, a neurologist, with complaints of pain in her head, back, joints, and hip. Id. at 415.[6] Plaintiff reported "massive headaches" that began in July 2010, asserting that her symptoms prevented her from moving her neck and left her sensitive to loud noises. Id. She rated her pain as a seven out of ten, but it caused no vomiting or nausea. Id. During another visit on June 3, 2011, Plaintiff explained that these headaches initially occurred in 1993, calming down that same year, but had recently returned. Id. at 420. She reported that they began in the morning and could last up to five hours or until Plaintiff either lays down for three hours or spends time in a dark room. Id. Dr. Weir prescribed amitriptyline[7] to treat Plaintiff's headaches. Id. On July 15, 2011, Dr. Weir noted that Plaintiff's headaches had become "a little less severe" and occurred "less often" after a month of treatment. Id. at 421. However, Plaintiff also reported dizziness while on the prescribed medication. Id.

         Dr. Weir referred Plaintiff for an audiology evaluation, which occurred on December 30, 2011. Id. at 432. Plaintiff reported that her dizziness episodes sometimes coincide with migraines and that the episodes usually begin in the morning and last for forty-five minutes. Id. Based on medical test results, the evaluating physician ruled out migraines as the source of Plaintiff's dizziness but recommended that Plaintiff return to complete the evaluation. Id. Sometime later, Plaintiff was prescribed cyclobenzaprine, [8] which reportedly helped her pain but made her drowsy. Id. at 534. In response, Dr. Weir changed this prescription to methocarbamol[9] on September 13, 2012. Id. On July 8, 2013, Plaintiff reported daily headaches that occurred each morning. Id. at 536. She continued taking methocarbamol daily to manage them, and Dr. Weir ordered no additional treatment. Id. Plaintiff continued to report severe headaches to other treating physicians as recently as August 27, 2013, but no treatments were recommended because these headaches were "being managed by Dr. Weir." Id. at 483-84.

         b. Dr. Francisco Hoyos - Sleep Specialist

         Plaintiff, complaining of sleeping difficulty, underwent a sleep study on March 20, 2012. Id. at 446. Dr. Francisco Hoyos evaluated that sleep study. Id. Dr. Hoyos noted Plaintiff's periodic leg movement, calculating a "periodic limb movement index" of 29.5 per hour of sleep. Id. On September 9, 2012, he recommended daily walks to treat this condition. Id. at 517. He further confirmed Plaintiff's diagnosis of sleep apnea and opined that a CPAP machine would effectively treat the condition. Id. He noted that Plaintiff's sleep efficiency was 48.81% without a CPAP machine, which was below the normal range. Id. at 445. Dr. Hoyos recommended that Plaintiff use the machine nightly and further recommended that Plaintiff seek weight loss, avoid alcohol at bedtime, and avoid driving or operating heavy machinery "until complete resolution of daytime sleepiness." Id. at 446.

         c. Drs. James Grim & Ann Williams - State Agency Consultants

         On November 1, 2011, Dr. James Grim evaluated Plaintiff's initial disability claim and determined that she could occasionally lift twenty pounds, frequently carry ten pounds, stand or walk for four hours, and sit for six hours, though Plaintiff could never climb ladders or crawl. Id. at 70. He also noted limited feeling in both of Plaintiff's hands due to carpal tunnel syndrome. Id. at 71. Dr. Grim found that Plaintiff was able to work because her reported limitations conflicted with her medical treatments and reported activities, including grocery shopping and attending a sports camp with her grandnephew. Id. Dr. Grim did not recommend a specific level of work that Plaintiff could maintain, but he denied her disability claim. See id. at 72.

         On July 10, 2012, Dr. Ann Williams evaluated Plaintiff's claim during its reconsideration. Id. at 74. Plaintiff reported inability to sleep and that her headaches had worsened. Id. Dr. Williams noted that Plaintiff's regular activities included meal preparation, laundry, gardening, grocery shopping, attending movies, and tutoring her grandnephew. Id. at 78. Further, she noted that Plaintiff can walk up to half a mile. Id. Like Dr. Grim, Dr. Williams determined that Plaintiff could occasionally lift twenty pounds, frequently carry ten pounds, stand or walk for four hours, and sit for six hours, but could never climb ladders or crawl. Id. at 79-80. Dr. Williams opined that Plaintiff could perform "sedentary work." Id. at 82.

         d. Dr. Elliot Aleskow - SSA Consultative Physician

         On December 20, 2013, Plaintiff saw Dr. Elliot Aleskow for a consultative examination. Id. at 495. Plaintiff reported constant arthritic pain that prevents her from walking more than several blocks, sitting more than ten minutes, standing more than fifteen minutes, and lifting or carrying more than ten pounds. Id. at 496. In evaluating Plaintiff's RFC, Dr. Aleskow noted that she had no limitation in her range of motion, including her spine and all four extremities. Id. at 497. Dr. Aleskow also noted that Plaintiff could walk on her heels and toes, could squat and rise from a squatting position, had normal grip strength, and could perform fine motor skills without difficulty. Id. However, Dr. Aleskow included in his medical source statement that Plaintiff could only sit, stand, or walk for short periods of time. Id. at 502. Specifically, Dr. Aleskow opined that, without interruption, Plaintiff could sit up to ten minutes, stand up to fifteen minutes, and walk up to thirty minutes. Id. In a normal eight-hour workday, Plaintiff could sit for two hours, stand for one hour, and walk for one hour. Id. Plaintiff also reported "severe headaches on a daily basis" since 2009, but she never received a diagnosis and she stated that methocarbamol helps manage the pain. Id. at 496. Dr. Aleskow could not determine "the etiology of [Plaintiff's] headaches associated with [her] dizziness, " and made no other determination regarding them. Id. at 498.

         e. Dr. Elizabeth Wangard - SSA Consultative Psychologist

         On December 21, 2013, Plaintiff saw Dr. Elizabeth Wangard for a psychological consultative examination. Id. at 537. Plaintiff reported that she takes several daily medications and that she has difficulty achieving a full night's sleep. Id. at 538. She also reported that her medication causes drowsiness and that her fatigue causes difficulties in recalling factual details of conversations. Id. Dr. Wangard noted Plaintiff's irritable attitude throughout the consultation, which "may have had a negative impact upon her performance" during the evaluations. Id. at 540. Plaintiff discontinued the examination before its completion, complaining of a toothache. Id.

         Dr. Wangard's limited evaluation revealed that Plaintiff demonstrated no immediate verbal memory impairments, and Plaintiff's perceived irritability may have affected the results of her immediate visual spatial memory examination. Id. at 541. Dr. Wangard found that Plaintiff possessed mild limitations to understand and remember simple and complex instructions, to make judgments about simple and complex work-related decisions, and to execute complex instructions. Id. at 544. Plaintiff also had moderate limitations regarding her ability to interact with the public, supervisors, and co-workers due to irritability, resistance, and fatigue. Id. at 545.

         f. Plaintiff's Testimony

         During the administrative hearing, Plaintiff testified that she constantly experiences debilitating headaches and dizziness throughout the day which, she claimed, require two to three hours of daily silence in a dark room. Id. at 43-44. She also reported that prolonged sitting makes her legs stiffen, which necessitates elevation of her feet to chest level for four hours each day. Id. at 45-48. Plaintiff further stated that she only sleeps one to three hours per night due to her sleep apnea, thus requiring daily naps during the day. Id. at 48-49. According to Plaintiff, her regular physical activities include helping her mother with daily chores, helping her grandnephew with homework, and occasionally shopping at the grocery store. Id. at 50-51. Plaintiff alleged that her shopping trips were short due to her inability to lift more than ten pounds or walk more than one mile without resting. See id. at 47, 51. Plaintiff's mother corroborated most of Plaintiff's assertions in a separate functions report, but added that Plaintiff's shopping trips can last up to one-and-a-half hours and that Plaintiff also attends a weekly sports camp to cheer for her grandnephew. Id. at 247-48.

         g. The VE's Testimony

         At the administrative hearing, the ALJ obtained testimony from a VE, who classified Plaintiff's prior work as a cashier and a general office clerk as light work. Id. at 33. The ALJ then asked the VE to identify any jobs in the national economy that would be available to a hypothetical person with physical and mental limitations and a vocational history similar to Plaintiff's. See id. ...


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