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Wilhelm v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

March 4, 2015

Debra J. Wilhelm, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



Plaintiff Debra Wilhelm seeks judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. Because her disability coverage expired after December 31, 2010, Wilhelm had to prove that she was disabled before that date. The written decision of the administrative law judge is not flawless, but because Wilhelm is unable to specify how or why the decision would change on remand, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

A. Procedural History

Wilhelm applied for Disability Insurance Benefits in July 2011; she claimed her disability began in April 2006. (R. 74.) The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied benefits, and she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). (R. 74, 75, 90-91.) Wilhelm attended a hearing before ALJ Maryann Bright on August 10, 2012, represented by her attorney; Wilhelm, her husband, and vocational expert Robert Barkhaus, Ph.D., testified. (R. 26-73.)

ALJ Bright issued a decision unfavorable to Wilhelm on September 18, 2012. (R. 8-20.) The SSA Appeals Council denied review, and Wilhelm timely filed her request for judicial review. (DE 1.) This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42. U.S.C. ยง 405(g).

B. Facts

(1) Wilhelm's Background and Testimony

Wilhelm was 45 years old on December 31, 2010. (R. 74.) The ALJ told Wilhelm that she had to testify about her limitations as of December 31, 2010, and Wilhelm replied that she understood. (R. 30.) Wilhelm testified that she stopped working in 2006. (R. 37.) She said sweeping or doing the dishes at home is hard because her arthritis causes pain and discomfort. (R. 37.) She has pain in her lower back and hips, but has arthritis in her shoulders, fingertips, knees, and ankles. (R. 38.) To relieve the pain she says she takes "a lot" of over-the-counter pain relievers, stays off her feet, or just suffers through the pain to finish whatever she was doing. (R. 45-46.) When asked what else she does to relieve her pain and arthritis, Wilhelm stated she just takes medication and visits chiropractors. (R. 42.)

Wilhelm testified that she saw her family doctor, Dana Forrest, M.D., any time she felt was necessary for pain or anything else. (R. 39.) She said Dr. Forrest prescribed arthritis medication that she was unable to afford without insurance coverage. (R. 40.) She said that in 2010 she was taking medications for high blood pressure, arthritis, and anxiety. (R. 40.) But she later testified she had no health insurance in 2010, and had stopped taking her arthritis medication because they could not afford it, and there was no generic substitute. (R. 61-62.)

She testified that she can sit for up to thirty minutes and stand for up to thirty minutes at a time, and she said that her back is the biggest source of her pain, and that pain radiates into her hips and shoulders. (R. 46-48.) Reaching does not bother her back, but she could not kneel or crawl since before 2010. (R. 50-51.) She testified that she loves to work in her garden, but has to work from a lawn chair because she can no longer hoe, use a tiller, or kneel down. (R. 56.)

She testified that she suffers from anxiety and depression. (R. 38). When asked if her anxiety medications work, Wilhelm responded that they work if taken regularly. (R. 41, 53.) She said that she experiences no side effects from her medications. (R. 41.) She stated that she was suffering two or three anxiety attacks per day, but did not see any physician other than Dr. Forrest because the medications Dr. Forrest prescribed helped her anxiety. (R. 52-53.) She said she had no problems making decisions or relating to others. (R. 53.)

(2) Medical Evidence

(a) Knee & Back Pain

In May 2006, Wilhelm tore the meniscus in her left knee, and had it surgically repaired. (R. 367-68, 365.) In October 2008 and May 2009, Dr. Forrest prescribed Mobic to treat ear pain. (R. 296.) In September 2009, Wilhelm went to the emergency room with pain in the right side of the lower back; John Wagel, M.D., noted tenderness on the right, but no pain down the spine. (R. 411.) In November 2009, Dr. Forrest diagnosed likely advancing osteoarthritis in her left knee. (R. 317.) A month later, Keith Schreffler, M.D., prescribed Percocet for back pain. (R. 236, 321.)

Wilhelm went to chiropractor Thomas Stevens several times during December 2009 and once in August 2010. (R. 248-50.) He wrote that she had pain in her lower back, right hip and leg, and that her neck was stiff, but his treatment notes are essentially illegible. (R. 250.)

In April 2011, Dr. Forrest gave Wilhelm a steroid injection in each knee. (R. 325.) In January 2012, Jason Hanna, M.D., noted moderate degenerative changes in two parts of the right knee and significant changes in a third area. (R. 380-83, 426.) Orthopedic surgeon William Berghoff, M.D., diagnosed Wilhelm with severe degenerative arthritis in May 2012. (R. 471.) Dr. Berghoff surgically replaced her right knee in May and left knee in July 2012. (R. 471, 452.)

(b) Sinus Condition

In May 2007, Dr. Wagel diagnosed Wilhelm with sinusitis, and neck pain caused by sinusitis. (R. 206-08.) In December 2007, Wilhelm went to Dr. Forrest for a possible sinus infection. (R. 280-81.) In January 2008, Wilhelm complained of daily headaches and sinus pressure to Dr. Forrest, but Dr. Forrest wrote that the headaches were likely not sinus related and more consistent with daily tension headaches. (R. 283.) These headaches no longer troubled Wilhelm after she began taking medication to lower her blood pressure. (R. 285-86.)

Wilhelm complained of nasal congestion to Dr. Forrest in May and October 2008; January, March, May, and October 2009; and February and May 2010. (R. 290, 294, 296, 299, 302, 307, 314, 319, 321.) Wilhelm saw Dr. Forrest, and other doctors, after May 2010, but did not complain of nasal congestion or sinus pressure.

(c) Anxiety

Wilhelm first received a prescription to treat anxiety in September 2008. (R. 295.) In October 2008, she reported feeling much better on the medication, but occasionally felt anxious. (R. 296.) In November 2009, Wilhelm told Dr. Forrest that she was anxious after a family member survived a traumatic experience, but she did not want to go to counseling. (R. 317.) Wilhelm went to the emergency room following a panic attack in March 2009, April 2011, and February 2012. (R. 307.) In 2012, Dr. Forrest referred her to a neurologist, but Wilhelm did not appear ...

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