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Brooks v. Colvin

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

November 5, 2014

LAWANDA BROOKS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

ANDREW P. RODOVICH, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the court on petition for judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner filed on January 9, 2013. For the following reasons, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.

Background

The plaintiff, Lawanda Brooks, filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on March 11, 2008, alleging a disability onset date of September 22, 2005. (Tr. 59). Brooks' application initially was denied on October 2, 2008, and again upon reconsideration on January 22, 2009. (Tr. 59). Brooks subsequently filed a timely request for a hearing on January 22, 2009. (Tr. 59). A hearing was held on March 17, 2010, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Dennis R. Kramer, wherein the ALJ found Brooks disabled from September 22, 2005, through June 30, 2006. (Tr. 59-68). On November 4, 2010, the Appeals Council found that the ALJ's decision constituted an error of law because he found that Brooks was disabled for a closed period of time lasting less than twelve months, and it remanded the case back to the ALJ. (Tr. 71-72). A second hearing was held on July 11, 2011, before ALJ Kramer. (Tr. 16). Brooks, Medical Expert Dr. Ashok G. Jilhewal, and Vocational Expert Thomas Grzesik, testified at the hearing. (Tr. 16).

On September 23, 2011, the ALJ found that Brooks was not disabled under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Disability Act and issued a decision denying benefits. (Tr. 16-29). At step one of the sequential analysis for determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ determined that Brooks "has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 22, 2005, the alleged onset date." (AR. 18). At step two, the ALJ determined that "[Brooks] has the following severe impairments: hypertension and anemia secondary to pregnancy complications; chronic headaches; arthritis, obesity; asthma and noncardiac atypical chest pain." (Tr. 19). At step three, the ALJ concluded that Brooks "does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of the one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1(20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1526, 416.9209(d), 416.925 and 416.926)." (Tr. 19).

The ALJ then found that "[Brooks] has the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a). [She] could lift/carry a maximum of 10 pounds; sit a total of eight hours in an eight-hour workday and stand/walk about two hours in an eight-hour workday." (Tr. 23). In addition, the ALJ determined that "she could frequently reach, handle, finger, feel, push/pull bilaterally and use her feet to operate foot controls frequently. She could climb stairs occasionally, balance and stoop; climb ramps frequently and never climb ladders or scaffolds, kneel, crouch and crawl." (Tr. 23). In making this finding, the ALJ summarized Brooks' testimony. Brooks stated that due to the arthritis in her hands, she dropped things about two times a day and experienced sharp pain and numbness in her fingertips and wrists after dropping an item. (Tr. 20, 24). Further, she stated that her hands swelled to such a degree that she could not pick up coins from a table and dress, zip, or button clothes without assistance. (Tr. 20, 24). She testified that she also experienced migraines every other day and that due to the severity of the migraines she had to lie down for about one to five hours, even with medication. (Tr. 20, 24). Brooks additionally reported that she experienced chest pain every three to four days for two to four hours at one time and needed to use her inhaler for her asthma every other day. (Tr. 20). Brooks stated that she was limited to carrying a half gallon of milk, walking one block, and standing 20 minutes before needing to sit and sitting for 20 minutes before needing to stand up. (Tr. 20).

The ALJ found that although Brooks' medically determinable impairments reasonably could be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, her statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms were not credible to the extent they were inconsistent with the Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") determination. (Tr. 24). The ALJ noted that all diagnostic testing for Brooks came back normal. (Tr. 21). The ALJ explained that much of the medical documentation in the record related to complications from Brooks' pregnancy in March 2006, however the record revealed that her blood pressure and hemoglobin levels were well within normal limits by 2008. (Tr. 21). Moreover, the ALJ explained that the change in Brooks' RFC from less than light work to less than sedentary as of September 28, 2006, was because of Brooks' increase in weight and its impact on her joints. (Tr. 24).

The ALJ then summarized Brooks' treatment history with Dr. Tarek Kudaimi and Dr. Kevin Joyce, Brooks' rheumatologists. (Tr. 25). In February 2007, Brooks had a consultation with Dr. Kudaimi for her ongoing hand pain. (Tr. 24). Dr. Kudaimi suggested that Brooks might have rheumatoid arthritis, although no evidence of deformities in her extremities was shown. (Tr. 24). Brooks was using corticosteriod injections at this time to relieve pain in her hands. (Tr. 24). In December 2007, Brooks stopped seeing Dr. Kudaimi, after relocating to Illinois, until 2010. (Tr. 24). In September 2009, Brooks saw a specialist, Dr. Joyce, for a further consult. (Tr. 24). All diagnostic testing, including blood work, x-rays, and bone density scans, were within normal limits, with the exclusion of some mild narrowing of her bilateral knees. (Tr. 24-25).

The ALJ next addressed the medical expert's assessment of Brooks and the results of the consultative physical examination, which both suggested that Brooks could perform a limited range of sedentary work. (Tr. 25). Dr. Jilhewar noted that Brooks' blood work was not indicative of rheumatoid arthritis and that the blood work did not reveal any signs of the CCP anti-body or anti-nuclear antibody. (Tr. 25). However, the ALJ gave Brooks the "benefit of the doubt" and found that it was entirely possible that Brooks had some sort of arthritis. (Tr. 25). In relation to Brooks' headaches, the ALJ relied on Dr. Jilhewar's assessment and found that although Brooks may have experienced headaches after 2006, they were not intractable. (Tr. 25). The ALJ discussed Brooks' complaints of atypical chest pain and concluded that based on the most recent ECHO test, Brooks' ejection fraction was now within a normal range at 65-70%. (Tr. 25). Moreover, in 2008 Brooks participated in a pulmonary function test which yielded relatively normal results and indicated no need for bronchodilator treatment. (Tr. 25).

On physical examination, Brooks was categorized as morbidly obese at 280 pounds with a blood pressure level of 120/70. (Tr. 25). Dr. Jilhewar noted that Brooks appeared to be comfortable and exhibited no signs of respiratory problems. (Tr. 25). Brooks' upper and lower extremities were not swollen or stiff, and she exhibited a full range of motion in all lower extremities. (Tr. 25). She had difficulty with stooping and squatting. (Tr. 25). Her fine finger manipulative ability was good. (Tr. 25). Given Brooks' increase in weight and its effect on her arthritic joints, the ALJ gave the medical expert's opinion substantial weight. (Tr. 25).

At step four, the ALJ determined that Brooks had no past relevant work based on the fact that she had not engaged in work at a "substantial gainful activity level." (Tr. 27). At step five, the ALJ determined that there were other jobs in the national economy that Brooks could perform, including representative occupations such as call-out operator (8, 000 jobs regionally), information clerk (7, 500 jobs regionally), and order clerk (1, 000 jobs regionally).

Brooks filed her petition for judicial review with this court on December 20, 2013, arguing that the Commissioner failed sufficiently to account for Brooks' headaches, erred in evaluating Brooks' credibility, and failed to give sufficient weight to the function report completed by Brooks' mother.

Discussion

The standard for judicial review of an ALJ's finding that a claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is limited to a determination of whether those findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g) ("The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security, as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive."); Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1120-21 (7th Cir. 2014); Bates v. Colvin, 736 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2013) ("We will uphold the Commissioner's final decision if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and supported her decision with substantial evidence"); Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 361-62 (7th Cir. 2013). Substantial evidence has been defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support such a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 852 (1972) ( quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NRLB, 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S.Ct. 206, 217, 83 L.Ed.2d 140 (1938)); see Bates, 736 F.3d at 1098; Pepper, 712 F.3d at 361-62; Jens v. Barnhart, 347 F.3d 209, 212 (7th Cir.2003); Sims v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 424, 428 (7th Cir. 2002). An ALJ's decision must be affirmed if the findings are supported by substantial evidence and if there ...


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