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Rodriquez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

August 2, 2017

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



         Michelle 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.


         At the time of her hearing before the ALJ, Michelle Rodriquez was 47 years old. [DE 9 at 61.][2] 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.]

         Rodriquez 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. at 86.]

         Rodriquez's 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.]

         Rodriquez 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.]

         At the 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.]

         While 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.]

         In 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. [Id.]

         Rodriquez 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. [Id.]

         In 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 37.]


         Rodriquez 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.

         To 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 ...

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