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Davis v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, New Albany Division

June 27, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          TANYA WALTON PRATT, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Elizabeth Davis (“Davis”) requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), denying her application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423(d) (the “Act”). For the following reasons, the Court AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         On October 16, 2012, Davis filed an application for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of September 13, 2012. (Filing No. 17-2 at 14.) Her application was initially denied on February 4, 2013, and again on reconsideration on February 28, 2013. Davis filed a written request for a hearing on March 12, 2013. On June 26, 2014, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge George A. Jacobs (the “ALJ”) in Louisville, Kentucky. Davis was present and represented by counsel. An impartial vocational expert, Sharon B. Lane (the “VE”), also appeared and testified at the hearing. On July 25, 2014, the ALJ denied Davis' application for DIB. Following this decision, Davis requested review by the Appeals Council on August 6, 2014. On December 16, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Davis' request for review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. On February 9, 2016, Davis filed this action for judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). (Filing No. 1.)

         B. Factual Background

         Davis was thirty-eight years old at the time of her alleged disability onset date, and she was forty years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. She has a ninth grade education and, prior to the onset of her alleged disability, she worked as a laborer for a printing company and as a patcher and detailer for a furniture manufacturer. (Filing No. 17-2 at 44; Filing No. 17-6 at 15.)

         Davis suffers from a long history of back pain. From 2005 to 2012, she underwent four back surgeries, including a diskectomy, a fusion, and a scar removal procedure. (Filing No. 17-7 at 84.) On September 23, 2011, following her involvement in a car accident, William L. Voskuhl, M.D. (“Dr. Voskuhl”), Davis' treating physician, performed a magnetic resonance imaging (“MRI”) scan of Davis' lumbar spine. The MRI showed Davis suffered from a moderate right-sided neural foraminal narrowing at ¶ 5-S1 due to facet hypertrophic changes, a left eccentric disk protrusion near the left S1 nerve, and a broad-based disk bulge without foraminal or spinal canal compromise at ¶ 4-L5. Id. at 107.

         On December 7, 2011, David P. Rouben, M.D. (“Dr. Rouben”), an orthopedic surgeon, evaluated Davis and observed that her prior fusion procedure was not successful and she suffered from a posteriorly displaced implant. Id. at 40. On February 6, 2012, Davis underwent surgery to remove the improperly placed implant and an L5-S1 surgical fusion. Id. at 67. Two months after the procedure, on April 11, 2012, Dr. Rouben noted that he was “totally impressed” by Davis' progress and accomplishments, and stated she was doing “profoundly well” and her x-rays looked “terrific.” Id. at 22. Dr. Rouben also opined that she had an expected degree of soreness on her left side and recommended Davis begin pool and water therapy to improve her progress. Id.

         On May 8, 2012, Dr. Rouben observed that Davis was doing well, her leg pain improved substantially, and she continued to progress in therapy. Id. at 21. Dr. Rouben noted that Davis walked erect without a limp, she had excellent strength in her lower extremities, her wound was healing well, and her x-rays did not indicate evidence of failure. Id. During the visit, Davis informed Dr. Rouben that she “feels much, much better, ” but still suffered some pain and feels that she is unable to return to work. Id.

         One month later, on June 13, 2012, Dr. Voskuhl conducted a follow up visit with Davis concerning her back pain and observed tenderness in Davis' back and a reduced range of motion at the waist. Id. at 93. From August 2012 to October 2012, Davis complained of lower back, hip, and leg pain. Id. at 89-92.

         On October 16, 2012, Davis applied for disability insurance benefits and Dr. Rouben wrote a letter to Davis' short-term disability insurance carrier explaining that Davis suffered from chronic permanent nerve damage to the left L5 and S1 neural elements. (Filing No. 17-7 at 14.) Dr. Rouben opined that Davis is unable to “perform meaningful and gainful employment, ” because she would not be capable of “standing for any period of time, bending for any period of time, walking for any period of time, or sitting for any period of time without having more time resting than functioning.” Id. at 15. Dr. Rouben also stated that he does not think Davis is “capable of doing much of anything” outside of the tasks necessary for daily living. Id. at 16.

         Thereafter, on January 4, 2013, consulting physician, Richard P. Gardner, M.D. (“Dr. Gardner”) examined Davis and observed that she suffered from chronic lower back pain with decreased range of motion in her lumbar spine, but Davis maintained full range of motion in her cervical spine, shoulders, and knees. Id. at 132-134. Dr. Gardner noted that Davis maintained the ability to transfer on and off of the examination table independently, had 5/5 grip strength bilaterally, and could complete such tasks as buttoning, zipping and picking up a coin. Id. Dr. Gardner also opined that Davis could ambulate without assistive devices, perform tandem walking in a fair manner, stand on her toes, and maintained normal balance. Id.

         On January 17, 2013, Michael Brill, M.D., (“Dr. Brill”), a state agency reviewing physician, examined Davis' records and determined that Davis was not disabled. (Filing No. 17-3 at 10.) Dr. Brill acknowledged that Davis suffered from chronic lower back pain, but noted Davis has full 5/5 strength and could ambulate in a stable manner without assistive devices. Id. at 9. Dr. Brill opined that Davis maintains the ability to perform some work, however, Davis is limited to occasionally lifting or carrying no more than twenty pounds; frequently carrying or lifting no more than ten pounds; standing, walking, and sitting with normal breaks for six hours in an eight-hour workday; and with no limitations on her ability to push or pull. Id. at 8. Fernando R. Montoya, M.D. affirmed Dr. Brill's conclusions. Id. at 20.

         On February 4, 2013, a Human Resources employee from Davis' previous employer completed a report regarding Davis' work performance. (Filing No. 17-6 at 43-62.) The report stated that Davis' health did not necessitate frequent breaks or rest periods, but Davis “sometimes needed to sit down and rest which she was allowed to do.” Id. at 45. The report also indicated that Davis had no difficulties understanding or carrying out short and simple instructions, working in coordination with or in the proximity of others without ...

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