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Sheets v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

September 15, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant,


ANDREW P. RODOVICH, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the court on the petition for judicial review filed by the plaintiff, Katherine Sheets, on November 26, 2012. For the following reasons, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.


The plaintiff, Katherine Sheets, filed an application for Social Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits on June 7, 2010, alleging that she became disabled on May 15, 2007. (Tr. 23) Her application initially was denied on August 5, 2010, and was denied upon reconsideration on October 29, 2010. (Tr. 23) Sheets requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), and a hearing was held on August 31, 2011, before ALJ Mario G. Silva. (Tr. 23) Sheets appeared and testified on her own behalf. (Tr. 37-79) Vocational Expert (VE) Thomas A. Gusloff also testified at the hearing. (Tr. 23) Sheets was represented by counsel, James Balanoff. (Tr. 23) On September 22, 2011, the ALJ rendered a decision denying benefits. (Tr. 32) On September 18, 2012, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 3-8) Sheets filed this action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner on November 26, 2012.

At step one of the five step sequential analysis for determining whether an individual is disabled, the ALJ found that Sheets had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 15, 2007, her alleged onset date. (Tr. 25) At step two, the ALJ determined that Sheets had the following severe impairments: depression, posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), polyarthritis, degenerative joint disease of the right shoulder, gastroesophageal reflux disease ("GERD"), and obesity. (Tr. 25) The ALJ next found that Sheets' impairments did not meet or equal one of the listings in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 26)

The ALJ then determined that Sheets could perform less than a full range of light work in that

claimant has the residual functional capacity to lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand or walk for about six hours of an eight-hour workday, and sit for at least six hours of an eight-hour workday. She can never crawl or climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds, or stairs; but she may occasionally climb ramps, balance, stoop, kneel, or crouch. With regard to the right dominant extremity, she must never engage in overhead lifting; and with regard to her hands bilaterally, she is limited to frequent, but not constant, gross manipulation or fingering. She is to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures, excessive vibration, chemicals, and hazards (e.g. dangerous moving machinery or unprotected heights); and she is to avoid even moderate exposure to environmental irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts, or gases. Further, the claimant is limited to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; work that does not require directing others or abstract though or planning; and work that involves on simple work-related decisions and routine workplace changes.

(Tr. 27-28) In determining the residual functional capacity ("RFC"), the ALJ followed a twostep process. (Tr. 28) First, the ALJ determined whether there was an underlying medically determinable physical or mental impairment. (Tr. 28) Second, the ALJ evaluated the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the claimant's symptoms to determine the extent to which they limited the claimant's functioning. (Tr. 28)

The ALJ explained that Sheets' medical impairments reasonably could be expected to produce some of her claimed symptoms. (Tr. 28) Sheets alleged disability resulting from osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease of the shoulder, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder. (Tr. 28) Sheets testified that "her body will not allow" her to work because of chronic pain. (Tr. 28) Further, Sheets stated that she did not use medication to treat her joint pain because it caused her unwanted side effects. (Tr. 28) Moreover, Sheets stated that depression plagued her for "her whole life" and that, on some days, she could not get out of bed. (Tr. 28) However, the ALJ found that Sheets' testimony concerning the intensity, persistence, and side of effects of her symptoms was not credible to the extent that it was inconsistent with the RFC. (Tr. 28)

In reaching his conclusion, the ALJ first examined the medical evidence related to Sheets' physical impairments. (Tr. 28) Sheets' history of chest and abdominal pain began in 2004 when she was diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus, and her complaints of heart pain continued through January 2007. (Tr. 28) In February 2009, Sheets complained of joint pain but admitted that medications helped her pain. (Tr. 28) In April 2010, John Diveris, M.D., diagnosed Sheets with osteoarthritis in her right shoulder after she complained of shoulder pain, muscle aches, joint pain, joint swelling, and joint stiffness. (Tr. 28) Sheets received corticosteroid injections, a prescription for Naprosyn, and physical therapy, and it was noted that Sheets had "responded very nicely to [her prescribed treatment] in May 2010." (Tr. 29) In July 2010, Shaveen Parvez, M.D., conducted a consultative physical examination on Sheets to examine Sheets' complaints of pain in both knees, her back, and her right shoulder. (Tr. 29) Dr. Parvez observed that, aside from Sheets' inability to squat, she seemed comfortable while seated and "does not seem to be majorly restricted." (Tr. 29) Sheets received additional corticosteroid injections in January 2011 and March 2011. (Tr. 29) However, in August 2011, Sheets complained of pain at St. Anthony Medical Center, at which point she was diagnosed with a rotator cuff tear with impingement and chondromalacia of the glenohumeral joint. (Tr. 29)

Next, the ALJ reviewed the opinion evidence regarding Sheets' physical impairments, which he noted was "scarce." (Tr. 29) First, the ALJ considered the RFC assessment conducted in August 2010 by state agency medical consultant, J. Sands, M.D. (Tr. 29) The ALJ weighed Dr. Sands' opinion to the extent that it was consistent with objective medical evidence. (Tr. 29) Specifically, the ALJ agreed with the limitation to work at the light exertional level and occasional postural restrictions, however, the ALJ found that additional environmental and postural limitations were needed. (Tr. 29)

Second, the ALJ assessed the opinion of Belinda Hubert, Ph.D. (Tr. 29) Medical records from August 2011 detailed that Dr. Hubert was treating Sheets for depression, PTSD, and chronic pain. (Tr. 29) In September 2011, Dr. Hubert performed an evaluation of Sheets' ability to do work-related activities. (Tr. 29) Dr. Hubert noted that Sheets, "suffers significant stressrelated deteriorations in ability to function, make decisions, [and] remember [due to] chronic pain, major depression, and panic disorder." (Tr. 29). The ALJ determined that there was "essentially no objective medical evidence in the record to support such extreme restrictions, " because Sheets visited a mental health specialist only once and took anti-depressants for a little over one year. (Tr. 29) Nonetheless, in formulating his decision, the ALJ gave significant consideration to Sheets' testimony regarding her claimed mental impairments and the side effects of her medication, and the ALJ limited Sheets to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. (Tr. 30)

After reviewing Sheets' physical impairments, the ALJ found that multiple factors weighed against the credibility of Sheets' statements regarding the severity of her impairments. (Tr. 30) First, no examining or treating physicians determined that Sheets was disabled or had limitations greater than those in the RFC. (Tr. 30) The treatment records revealed that the restrictions placed on Sheets by her treating doctor were inconsistent with Sheets' allegations of totally disabling pain. (Tr. 30) Second, Sheets responded well to her treatment, including her medications, physical therapy, and diet. (Tr. 30) She also testified that her medications kept her diabetes under control and that her shoulder surgery helped her maintain her ability to perform household chores. (Tr. 30) Third, Sheets waited to undergo a substantial procedure on her right arm for five years, despite alleging severe disabling pain. (Tr. 30) To explain her failure to seek treatment earlier, she testified that she was, "afraid of doctors... afraid of what they might say to me." (Tr. 30). Fourth, the record did not clearly establish that Sheets' alleged symptoms imposed significant limitations on her ability to work because Sheets testified that her job loss was caused by the economic downturn and not by her impairments. (Tr. 30) Further, the ALJ considered Sheets' testimony that six months after her alleged onset date, she only "probably" would have been unable to resume past work. (Tr. 30) In addition, the ALJ noted that if Sheets was willing, but unable to work, she likely would not have waited four years after being laid off to apply for disability benefits. (Tr. 30)

The ALJ also was influenced by Sheets' testimony that she continued to receive unemployment benefits six months after her alleged onset date. (Tr. 30) The collection of unemployment benefits affirms that a recipient was "ready, willing, and able to accept employment and perform the work." (Tr. 30) (emphasis in the original). The ALJ also considered the testimony of Denise Burkhalter, Sheets' stepmother, and found it to be consistent with Sheets' testimony. (Tr. 31) Due to the consistency, the ALJ discounted the credibility of Burkhalter's testimony for the same reasons he discounted Sheets'. (Tr. 31) Overall, in consideration of the previous factors, objective ...

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