United States District Court, District of Columbia
CLOTEAL E. BENNETT, Plaintiff
ANDREW SAUL, Defendant
Colleen Kollar-Kotelly United States District Judge.
Cloteal Bennett brings this action seeking review of the
final administrative decision by Defendant Andrew Saul, in
his official capacity as Commissioner of Social Security (the
“Commissioner”), denying Plaintiff's claim
for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”)
pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C.
§§401-433. 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
Plaintiff's  Motion for Judgment of Reversal and
shall GRANT Defendant's  Motion for Judgment of
Affirmance. For the reasons that follow, the
Commissioner's decision below is affirmed.
Legal Framework and Procedural History
petitioned the Social Security Administration for DIB
pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act on March 13,
2014. See Pl.'s Mot, ECF No. 19, 1. To qualify
for 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). 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(4), 416.920(4). The steps require a determination of
(1) current work activity; (2) severity of the impairment;
(3) whether the impairment meets or equals a listed
impairment; (4) if the impairment prevents claimant from
doing past work; and (5) if the impairment prevents claimant
from doing other work upon consideration of the
claimant's residual functional capacity
was born on February 14, 1968. AR 29. Prior to alleging
disability, Plaintiff worked as a Metro Special Police
Officer until 2007. Id. Plaintiff was injured on the
job in 2000 when she caught her leg under a chair and fell
against a wall. AR 393. In her application for DIB, Plaintiff
alleged that her disabilities, which stemmed from her 2000
injury, included lumbar strain and herniated disc, cervical
strain, right wrist pain and fracture, and obesity. AR
245-46, 302, 48-49.
claims were initially denied on August 1, 2014 and on
reconsideration on January 2, 2015. AR 95, 104. Following
these denials, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). That hearing
occurred on September 21, 2017, where Plaintiff and an
impartial vocational expert testified. AR
38-66. Plaintiff was represented by counsel. At
the hearing, Plaintiff amended the date for the alleged onset
of her disability to April 1, 2015. AR 47. In a decision
dated October 3, 2017, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's
requested benefits. AR 19-31. Plaintiff sought review of this
decision by the Appeals Council. However, the Appeals Council
denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's
decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. AR
issuing the controlling decision denying Plaintiff DIB, the
ALJ made the following determinations. At Step One, the ALJ
noted that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful
activity during the period from her amended onset date, April
1, 2015, through her date of last insured, March 31, 2016. AR
24. At Step Two, the ALJ determined that the medical evidence
established that Plaintiff suffered from “the following
severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar
spine (“DDD”) and degenerative joint disease of
the left knee (“DJD”).” Id. The
ALJ did not find Plaintiff's obesity to be a severe
impairment but considered obesity in the context of the
decision. AR 24-25. At Step Three, the ALJ determined that
Plaintiff “did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one
of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1.” AR 25. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's
physical impairments did not meet the requirements of the
impairments listed. Additionally, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff did not demonstrate the required degree of
difficulty in ambulating. Id.
most relevant to this Memorandum Opinion, at Step Four, the
ALJ found that Plaintiff “had the residual functional
capacity (hereafter “RFC”) to perform light work
as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except no climbing of
ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional climbing of stairs
or ramps; occasional stooping, crouching, crawling or
kneeling.” AR 26. Based on Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past
relevant work as a Special Police Officer. AR 29. At Step
Five, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work
experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was
also able to do other work. Crediting the vocational
expert's testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could
perform the requirements of representative occupations such
as machine tender, packer and packaging worker, and
grading/sorting worker, which are available in the national
economy for an individual similarly situated to Plaintiff. AR
on this five-step analysis, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff
“was not under a disability, as defined in the Social
Security Act, at any time from April 1, 205, the amended
onset date, through March 31, 2016, the date last insured (20
CFR 404.1520(f)).” AR 31. As was previously stated,
Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals
Council. AR 6-11. On April 30, 2018, the Appeals Council
upheld the decision of the ALJ, finding no basis for changing
the ALJ's decision. AR 6. Having exhausted her
administrative remedies, Plaintiff has brought this action
seeking reversal of her disability denial. See
generally Pl.'s Mot, ECF No. 19.
Evidence Contained in the Administrative Record
evaluated Plaintiff's condition based on evidence
including various medical records and the testimony of
Plaintiff and the vocational expert during the administrative
hearing in this case. The Court recounts below the most
relevant portions of the administrative record.
Physical Health Records
Drs. Phillips & Green, M.D. Partnership
was initially injured in 2000 when, working as a Special
Police Officer, Plaintiff caught her leg under a chair and
fell. From approximately 2008 through 2010, Plaintiff treated
with orthopedist Drs. Jeffery Phillips, M.D. and Simon Green,
2008, the doctors noted that Plaintiff had tenderness and
spasms in her lumbar region. Plaintiff also had restricted
range of motion in her lumbar area. However, Plaintiff was
found to be neurologically intact in her lower extremities.
Plaintiff was noted to walk slowly but was found to have an
antalgic gait or limp only occasionally. Plaintiff began
epidural steroids for her pain. AR 522-537.
December 2008, medical notes from Dr. Phillips indicate that
Plaintiff had a satisfactory gait but continued to have
tenderness and muscle spasms in the mid and low lumbar
region. Plaintiff's range of motion in her back was
restricted with pain and muscle spasms. The doctor
recommended that Plaintiff be considered for light duty type
work where she is “not on her feet all day; not doing
any significant standing, walking or climbing; patient could
sit and watch monitors and/or do desk work but cannot work
doing routine work as a special police officer.” AR
notes throughout 2009 continue to indicate that Plaintiff had
tenderness in her mid to low lumbar region with moderate
muscle spasms. Plaintiff's range of motion continued to
be restricted. But, Plaintiff was neurologically intact in
her lower extremities and was found to have a satisfactory
gait. During this time, Plaintiff was given epidural steroids
for her pain. AR 508-520.
from March 2010 indicate that, when standing, Plaintiff bore
weight equally on both feet but walked with a right antalgic
gait. She also had tenderness in the mid and low lumbar
region and continued to have muscle spasms. Plaintiff had
intact reflexes and motor power. The doctor indicated that
Plaintiff was discharged from active care as there was
nothing further that could be done. He stated that Plaintiff
could work in a “strictly sedentary position and should
not be working as an active special police office; this is on
a permanent basis.” AR 505-06.
September 2014, Plaintiff returned to the clinic of Drs.
Phillips and Green. Dr. Phillips determined that Plaintiff
bore weight equally on both feet and ambulated was a mild
right antalgic gait. She could stand on her heels and toes
without difficulty. She had tenderness from the mid to low
lumbar region. Straight leg raises caused Plaintiff back
pain, but her reflexes, sensation, and motor power were
intact. The doctor indicated that Plaintiff's examination
had not changed significantly since 2010 and that there was
nothing he could do for her except recommend pain management.
November 2016, Plaintiff again returned to the clinic
following a car accident, which is further discussed below.
AR 490-92. Plaintiff's chief complaints were neck pain,
mid and lower back pain, headaches, and difficulty sleeping.
AR 490. A physical examination revealed neck spasms,
tenderness, and limited range of motion. AR 491.
Additionally, Plaintiff stood erect bearing equal weight on
both lower extremities but walked with a slight limp.
Plaintiff was able to walk on her heels and toes. Plaintiff
had tenderness and spasms in her back. She had a limited
range of motion but negative straight leg tests, intact
muscle power, and no significant atrophy. Id. X-rays
showed no fractures or dislocations. Id. Plaintiff
was diagnosed with a neck and lower back strain. AR 492. The
doctor recommended physical therapy. Id. Plaintiff
was listed as not fit for working duty. Id.
returned approximately one month later for a re-evaluation.
AR 489. Plaintiff reported continued neck and low back pain.
She also indicated swelling in her right wrist due to the car
accident. On physical examination, Plaintiff's neck was
tender and had spasms and restricted range of motion.
Plaintiff's back was tender with mild spasms but had
improved since the prior visit. There was still mild
decreased motion, which had also improved since the prior
visit. Plaintiff was neurologically intact in her lower and
upper extremities. Plaintiff's wrist was tender and the
range of motion was restricted with some weakness. However,
there was no swelling. Id. The doctor recommended
continued to return for check-ups in early 2017. AR 583-86.
On her visit in January 2017, Plaintiff reported that she was
still having wrist and neck pain but that her back pain had
improved to the pre-accident state. AR 586. An examination
revealed tenderness and restricted motion in Plaintiff's
neck and wrist. Id. The doctor also ordered an MRI
of Plaintiff's wrist which revealed marrow edema and a
small volar ganglio but no fracture line. AR 584. In February
2017, the doctor indicated that Plaintiff was unable to work
pending Plaintiff's next evaluation. AR 583, 587.
Dr. Joshua Ammerman
2006 to 2010, Plaintiff treated with Dr. Joshua Ammerman,
M.D. for lower back pain and lower extremity radiculopathy
resulting from her 2000 workplace injury. Records from
October 2006 indicate that Plaintiff had tenderness and mild
restriction of motion in her lower lumbar. However, she had
an unremarkable gait and intact reflexes, could stand on her
heels and toes, and demonstrated equivocal straight leg
raising. AR 393. A lumbar MRI from December 2007 showed small
central disc herniation with no evidence of nerve root
impingement. AR 376. Based on the MRI, it was determined that
Plaintiff was not a candidate for surgery and instead used
pain management, such as epidural blocks and a TENS unit. AR
400, 373, 389, 383.
October 2008, the doctor noted that Plaintiff continued to
have back and bilateral leg pain and walked with a limp. The
doctor recommended continued pain management. AR 401. Notes
from early 2009 indicate that Plaintiff walked with a
pronounced limp and had significant restriction of the lumbar
range of motion. She was restricted to sedentary work. But,
Plaintiff still had full strength in her lower extremities.
AR 402. Later in 2009, notes indicated that Plaintiff was
doing reasonably well with pain management. The doctor
determined that Plaintiff had an improved limp but continued
to have restricted lumbar range of motion. AR 403. In August
2010, medical notes stated that Plaintiff continued to walk
with a mild limp and have a restricted lumbar range of
motion. She also had discomfort in her hips. She was
continuing with pain management and had used Lidoderm patches
with good results. AR 392. Plaintiff was instructed to return
on an as-needed basis.
returned for a follow-up 2012. Plaintiff indicated that she
had back and lower extremity pain and tingling. She reported
numbness in her toes. The doctor noted that motor testing was
full in the lower extremities, straight leg raising was
negative and there was moderate restriction of lumbar range
of motion. AR 391.
Dr. Rebecca Gliksman
2014, the Division of Disability Determination sent Plaintiff
for an examination in connection with her disability claim.
AR 404-08. Plaintiff had a consultative examine with Dr.
Rebecca Gliksman, M.D. Plaintiff presented with back pain
caused by her 2000 workplace injury. Plaintiff reported a
worsening of her pain over time. Plaintiff also reported
increased numbness when sitting for an extended period of
time. Plaintiff further stated that she had difficulty
walking, climbing stairs, and sitting. AR 404. In examining
Plaintiff, the doctor stated that Plaintiff appeared to be in
acute distress due to pain. Plaintiff initially walked with a
slight limp, but her gait normalized. She could squat to 1/3.
She did not require an assistive device for walking. AR 406.
Plaintiff was diagnosed with lumbar pain with radiation and
received a fair to guarded prognosis. AR 407. The doctor
found a moderate limitation in walking, climbing, lifting and
carrying due to lower back pain with limited range of motion
and decreased lower extremity strength. Id.