United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
MICHELLE R. RODRIQUEZ Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
P. SIMON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
R. Rodriquez appeals the Social Security Administration's
decision to deny her application for Social Security
disability benefits. An administrative law judge found that
Rodriquez was not disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act. Rodriquez raises a number of challenges to this
determination, but I conclude that the ALJ's decision was
supported by substantial evidence. I will, therefore, affirm
the decision of the ALJ.
time of her hearing before the ALJ, Michelle Rodriquez was 47
years old. [DE 9 at 61.] She was educated through the 11th
grade, never received work training, and did not have a
driver's license. [Id. at 62, 78.] Rodriquez
worked in the past as a production assembler, retail cashier,
window assembler, and waitress. [Id. at 364.] She
owned and operated her own day care center for ten years,
id. at 63, but quit in 2010 due to the strain on her
back caused by lifting the children, id. at 64.
Rodriquez has not worked since closing her day care center.
[Id. at 63.] She claims that she is disabled and
unable to work because of her back pain, migraines, and
bipolar disorder. [Id. at 74.]
has a history of back pain beginning in 2004. [DE 9 at 737.]
She received nerve blocks, various injections, and medication
management in attempts to alleviate her back pain.
[Id. at 612, 629, 635, 1442.] None of the treatments
helped lessen her pain. [Id. at 1442-45.] MRIs taken
in 2005 showed that Rodriquez suffered from degenerative disc
disease. [Id. at 454.] Rodriquez underwent three
back surgeries between 2006 and 2007: two on her lower back
and one on her cervical spine. [Id. at 96.] These
procedures resulted in a diagnosis of “failed back
surgery syndrome.” [Id. at 900.] Recently, the
radiculopathy in her extremities necessitated a leg surgery
to relieve stress caused by her antalgic gait. [Id.
record of migraine headaches begins in 2003. [DE 9 at 645.]
According to Rodriquez, her headaches are constant and get
worse with her back pain or stress. [Id. at 333.]
She says she experiences migraine headaches two to three
times a any further month. [Id.] Rodriquez went to
the emergency room for severe migraines every year from 2003
to 2012. [DE 17 at 4.] Her migraine pain caused her to seek
emergency treatment every three to four months. [DE 9 at 69.]
However, treatment notes from Fall 2012 indicate that
Rodriquez was doing well managing her migraines with
medication. [Id. at 1657.]
also reported problems with “bipolar and a little bit
of depression.” [Id. at 1374.] She was
diagnosed with bipolar disorder nearly fifteen years ago.
[Id.] While describing her symptoms to consultative
examiner Alan Wax, Ph.D., she said that “[o]ne minute
I'm okay and the next minute I'm sad.”
[Id.] Dr. Wax reported that Rodriquez's
“mood and affect were flat, but, as noted, the claimant
was heavily medicated.” [Id. at 1375.]
Rodriquez later testified that her bipolar disorder impairs
her work ability because “some things come back to me
and I can't concentrate.” [Id. at 74.]
hearing, Rodriquez appeared with crutches prescribed after a
recent foot surgery. [DE 9 at 79.] She testified that she
experiences constant back pain that radiates down both legs.
[Id. at 65-66.] She claims that her pain medication
is only somewhat effective in dulling her pain. [Id.
at 66.] Even after taking medication, Rodriquez rated her
pain to be a 7 out of 10 at the hearing. [Id.]
Rodriquez also testified that she experiences migraines at
least twice a month that each last about four to five hours.
[Id. at 68.] She further claimed that her prescribed
migraine medication is effective but causes short term memory
loss. [Id. at 70.] Rodriquez also said that her
mental deficiencies are exacerbated by her bipolar disorder,
which causes shakiness and twitching that, in turn, prevents
her from working. [Id. at 71.] Rodriquez further
testified that she struggles with urination issues and
incontinence. [Id. at 84.]
describing an average day, Rodriquez said that most of her
day consists of watching television and occasionally visiting
with her boyfriend's brother across the street.
[Id. at 80.] She said she elevates her legs
throughout the day to alleviate pain. [Id. at 84.]
However, she claimed that she retains the ability to push and
pull, grip objects, and complete small household chores like
dishes. [Id. at 75, 78.] Rodriquez also said she is
still able to read books, play card games, and attend church.
[Id. at 76-77.]
terms of future treatment, Rodriquez said that her doctors
recommend another back surgery on both her upper and lower
back. [Id. at 89.] Although Medicaid would cover the
surgery, Rodriquez refuses to undergo the procedure with
anyone other than her treating physician, Dr. Gottlieb.
filed her application for supplemental security income on
June 18, 2012, and alleged a disability onset date of
December 1, 2011. [DE 9 at 28.] Her claim was denied
initially and upon reconsideration. [Id.] On January
21, 2013, an ALJ held a video hearing in Fort Wayne, Indiana
for which Rodriquez appeared in Elkhart, Indiana.
[Id.] The ALJ then issued an unfavorable decision
denying Rodriquez disability benefits on May 21, 2014.
reaching her decision, the ALJ used the five-step disability
evaluation process. At Step One, she found that Rodriquez was
not engaging in substantial gainful activity. [DE 9 at 30.]
At Step Two, the ALJ found that the claimant had the
following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease,
osteoarthritis, and migraines. [Id.] However, she
determined at Step Three that these impairments were not
“severe” according to 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart
P, Appendix 1. [Id. at 34.] The ALJ found that
Rodriquez had the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform light work with frequent
fingering, pushing, and pulling with her left upper extremity
and occasional climbing and balancing. [Id.] At Step
Four, the ALJ concluded that Claimant is able to perform her
past relevant work as a production assembler, ultimately
concluding that Rodriquez was not disabled. [Id. at
makes three arguments each of which she believes calls for a
remand. I will consider each argument below, but in doing so
I must keep in mind that review of the Commissioner's
decision is limited. If an ALJ's findings of fact are
supported by “substantial evidence, ” then I must
affirm the decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g);
Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir.
2008). Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478
F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). In making a
substantial evidence determination, I must review the record
as a whole, but I cannot re-weigh the evidence or substitute
my judgment for that of the ALJ. Id.
reach her decision, the ALJ gave “little weight”
to the opinion of Rodriquez's treating physician, Dr.
Jamie Gottlieb. The ALJ found that Rodriquez suffers from
spinal degeneration but otherwise has no significant symptoms
that would support Dr. Gottlieb's opinions, which the ALJ
characterized as “extreme.” [DE 9 at 37.] The ALJ
attributed the most weight to the medical opinion of the
state agency physicians who determined that Rodriquez could
perform light work with minimal postural and environmental
restrictions. [Id.] As such, the ALJ found that
Rodriquez “has no more than ...