United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division
DELTA J. WATTS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
ENTRY ON JUDICIAL REVIEW
LARRY J. McKINNEY, District Judge.
Plaintiff Delta J. Watts ("Watts") requests judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"), which denied Watts' applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416, 423 & 1382c. Watts contended that she was totally disabled due to chronic back pain with radiculopathy and chronic depression. She asserts that the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision was erroneous in four respects: (1) the ALJ improperly assessed the medical evidence and substituted his own opinions regarding the extent of Watts' impairments; (2) the ALJ improperly failed to obtain a medical advisor to testify about whether Watts' combined impairments medically equaled any Listed impairment; (3) the ALJ erroneously determined that Watts was not credible; and (4) the ALJ failed to give proper consideration to all of her impairments when determining Watts' residual functional capacity ("RFC"). Filing No. 19. Watts seeks reversal of the Commissioner's decision and a remand for an award of benefits; or reversal for a new hearing. Id.
A. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On June 7, 2010, Watts filed her applications for SSI and DIB. R. at 171-74, 175-78. The Social Security Administration denied the applications both initially and after reconsideration. R. at 96-98, 99-101. Watts requested a hearing, which was held on January 19, 2012. R. at 27-67.
On June 14, 2012, the ALJ issued his decision in which he denied her applications. R. at 7-21. Watts requested a review by the Appeals Council, which denied Watts' request on June 7, 2013; therefore, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981 and 416.1481, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. R. at 1-4.
On August 2, 2013, Watts filed the instant suit.
B. AGE, EDUCATION, WORK HISTORY & WATTS' PERCEPTION OF HER IMPAIRMENTS
Watts was 36 years old on the alleged onset day of January 29, 2005, and 43 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision. R. at 19, 21, 197. She completed high school and obtained a certificate as a certified nurse's assistant ("CNA"). R. at 198-99. She had past relevant work as a CNA. R. at 19.
At the hearing, Watts testified that she previously worked as a CNA, but was no longer able to perform that work because of chronic back pain and depression. R. at 36. Watts explained that she had injured her back in 2005 and had received physical therapy, epidural injections and two surgeries to treat herniated spinal discs. R. at 38.
Despite having worked as a CNA again from late in 2005 until she was laid off in 2009, R. at 34, and as a housekeeper in 2010, R. at 36; Watts testified that at the time of the hearing she could only lift about 5 pounds and her ability to both walk and stand were limited by back and hip pain. R. at 37, 42-43. She claimed that she had pain while climbing stairs, sitting and bending over and had pain in her hands and knees as well. R. at 44-45. Watts asserted that she dropped things and fell down once or twice a week. R. at 46-47. She testified that she also needed help dressing, undressing and bathing. R. at 48. Her impairments also prevented her from bowling and dancing. Id. In July 2010, Watts stated that she had fallen going down some steps and fractured her ankle. R. at 53.
Watts also testified that the pain was raising her blood pressure, which sometimes got so high she would pass out. R. at 49-50. She took prescribed Percocet, morphine, Ibuprofen and muscle relaxer medications for pain and two medications for blood pressure; the pain medications made her sleepy. R. at 51.
In 2011, Watts received mental health treatment from Midtown Mental Health for depression. R. at 55. She was prescribed Trazdodone, Zoloft and Abilify. Id.
Watts testified that she had problems sleeping through the night. R. at 55. She also complained that she was chronically fatigued, isolated herself from other people or was irritable with them, had crying spells where she could not stop crying and had problems with concentration, focus and memory. Id. at 55-56.
C. RELEVANT MEDICAL EVIDENCE
1. Treatment Records
On March 21, 2005, Dr. Puschak, M.D., performed an orthopedic examination on Watts. R. at 242-43. She claimed she had injured her back in January while lifting a patient and had immediately noticed pain go down her right leg. Id. At the time of the examination, she complained of lower lumbar pain, pain into the right buttock and down the leg, which was worse when sitting. Id. Watts also complained of occasional left leg pain. Id. Upon examination, Dr. Puschak found that she had positive straight leg raise on the right side, but normal reflexes and full motor strength in the legs. Id. Dr. Puschak concluded that Watts should be evaluated for disc herniation or stenosis. Id.
On March 22, 2005, Watts received a lumbar spine MRI evaluation. R. at 245. It evidenced that she had a disc protrusion, or a herniated disc, at the L4-L5 level that caused narrowing of the right lateral recess and could cause nerve root irritation on the right side. Id.
On March 28, 2005, Watts presented for another orthopedic evaluation and complained of back and right leg pain. R. at 244. It was determined that she had rightsided radicular symptoms. Id. She was also having spasms in the low back and limited trunk range of motion. Id. The doctor noted the MRI results and that the L4-L5 disc protrusion that created compression of the traversing right L5 nerve root resulted in Watts having right L5 radiculopathy. Id.
On May 23, 2005, Watts was evaluated by Dr. Sasso, M.D., another orthopedist. R. at 264. She reported low back pain with radiation into the right leg and ...