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Woods v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 29, 2017

DENVER E. WOODS, JR., Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of SSA, [1]Defendant.



         Plaintiff Denver E. Woods, Jr., appeals to the district court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying his application under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”).[2] (DE 1). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be AFFIRMED.


         Woods applied for DIB in October 2012, alleging disability as of June 1, 2012. (DE 12 Administrative Record (“AR”) 121-22). The Commissioner denied Woods's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 64-71). A hearing was held on April 24, 2014, before Administrative Law Judge Maryann S. Bright (“the ALJ”), at which Woods, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert, Marie Kieffer (the “VE”), testified. (AR 29- 60). On October 20, 2014, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Woods, concluding that he was not disabled because he could perform a significant number of unskilled, sedentary jobs in the economy despite the limitations caused by his impairments. (AR 15-23). The Appeals Council denied Woods's request for review (AR 1-11), at which point the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         Woods filed a complaint with this Court on March 30, 2016, seeking relief from the Commissioner's decision. (DE 1). Woods alleges two material flaws in the Commissioner's decision: (1) that the ALJ failed to adequately account for Woods's mental limitations in the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and in the hypothetical questions posed to the VE at step five; and (2) that the ALJ improperly discounted Woods's symptom testimony. (DE 20 at 4-9).


         At the time of the ALJ's decision, Woods was 53 years old (AR 23, 62); had a high school education (AR 180); and possessed past relevant work experience as a machine operator in a manufacturing setting (DE 181). Woods alleges disability due to a history of colorectal cancer surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy; a mood disorder due to medical conditions; and peripheral neuropathy. (DE 20 at 2).

         A. Woods's Testimony at the Hearing

         At the hearing, Woods testified as follows: Woods, who was six feet, one inch tall and weighed 235 pounds, testified that he is married with an adult child; Woods's wife is employed outside the home. (AR 32-33). Although Woods had obtained health insurance on or about February 2014, but he did not have health insurance in 2013. (AR 33). He is independent with his self care, but he does not do many household tasks. (AR 53). He drives a car once a week to run errands; his wife had driven him to the hearing. (AR 34). He stopped working because his employer closed the plant where he worked; he did not feel that he could start another job at the time due to his pain and other symptoms. (AR 35-36).

         Woods asserted that he could no longer work due to pain in his stomach from his history of colon cancer and his frequent bathroom needs; difficulty standing or sitting for extended periods; and medication side effects of fatigue, dizziness, and difficulty concentrating. (AR 39-40, 47, 49). He stated that he has had abdominal pain for 12 years and that he takes pain medication for the pain. (AR 42, 44). The pain, which is constant, feels like “fullness” in his stomach area. (AR 49). He conceded, however, that he had worked for 10 years after his cancer treatment, even when he was taking high doses of pain medication. (AR 40). He also complained that he could “hardly stand” due to knee pain, which started a year earlier and wakes him at night. (AR 40). Woods had told his doctor about his knee pain and she had recommended testing, but he declined to do so due to his financial limitations. (AR 41, 54-55). He estimated that he could walk one block before needing to rest. (AR 23).

         Woods testified that in a typical day, he has to use the bathroom “on and off all day long.” (AR 44). Up to three days a week, for six to eight-hour periods, he has to use the bathroom every 15 minutes. (AR 45, 52). He takes pain medication, Tramadol, because his bowel movements are painful, and the medication is helpful, though it makes him drowsy. (AR 44, 51-52). He has to lay around a lot because of the pain, and often he lies in a hot bath to ease the pain. (AR 44). He does not do many household tasks because it is hard for him to get away from the bathroom. (AR 46). He stated that he has little warning before needing to use the bathroom, and sometimes he remains there for hours at a time. (AR 49-50, 52). He also takes two naps each day, each lasting one to two hours. (AR 21). He has difficulty sleeping at night, so he sometimes lies in a recliner, which helps ease his pain. (AR 51). He also complained of feeling depressed and irritable all the time, but he had not discussed these symptoms with his doctor or received any treatment for depression. (AR 23-24, 54).

         B. Summary of the Relevant Medical Evidence

         In 2002, Woods was diagnosed with advanced stage III colorectal cancer. (AR 271). He underwent chemotherapy, radiation, and resection. (AR 271). He returned to full-time work that same year. (AR 35-36, 39). In 2004, Woods had scar tissue surgically removed from his colon. (AR 275). In 2009, a CT scan was negative for any recurrence of cancer, and a later colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy were negative. (AR 271).

         On January 9, 2013, Woods underwent a mental status examination by Ceola Berry, Ph.D., for purposes of his disability application. (AR 279-81). Woods presented with a dysthymic mood; his attention and concentration were adequate. (AR 279). He denied any suicidal or homicidal ideation. (AR 279). He was independent with his daily living skills, but he reported frequent muscle spasms of his colon and frequent bowel movements. (AR 279-80). The mental status examination did not reveal any significant problems with concentration, memory, mental calculations, abstracting ability, general knowledge, or judgment. (AR 280). Woods's energy level waned during the examination, but “he presented as a persister in a stressful environment.” (AR 280). Dr. Berry concluded that Woods's ability to work would be primarily affected by his perceived physical limitations and secondarily by his mood states. (AR 280). Dr. Berry diagnosed Woods with a mood disorder due to medical conditions and assigned him a Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score of 60.[4]

         Several days later, on January 15, 2013, Woods was examined by Dr. James Chan for purposes of his disability application. (AR 271-74). Woods complained of decreased energy, difficulty sleeping, and loss of appetite. (AR 271). Woods was diagnosed with depression by his general practitioner, but he was not taking any medications for it. (DE 274). He related a 10-year history of fatigue upon waking, which worsened throughout the day. (DE 271). The examination revealed no abnormalities in musculoskeletal or neurological systems, strength, sensation, fine fingering, or physical movement. (DE 273). Dr. Chan noted Woods's history of treatment for colon cancer and opined that Woods likely had some constipation due to post-surgical fibrosis with muscle spasms and fatigue causing hypogastric pain. (DE 274). He recommended that Woods add dulcolax/miralax to help regulate his bowel movements, flexeril to help with spasms, and fiber supplements; he also advised Woods to continue follow-up checks for colon cancer. (DE 274). Dr. Chan further noted that Woods had a six-month history of vertigo; Dr. Chan advised Woods to consider ceasing Lyrica temporarily due to possible neurological side effects, and to switch to Neurontin instead. (AR 274).

         That same day, January 15, 2013, Dr. R. Fife, a state agency physician, reviewed Woods's record. (AR 283-90). Dr. Fife concluded that Woods could lift 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; stand or walk six hours in an eight-hour workday; sit about six hours in an eight-hour workday; occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and must avoid wetness and hazards, such as slippery, uneven surfaces or heights. (AR 283-90). Dr. Fife's opinion was later affirmed by Dr. J.V. Corcoran, another state agency physician. (AR 305).

         The next day, January 16, 2013, Benetta E. Johnson, Ph.D., a state agency psychologist, reviewed Woods's record and completed a psychiatric review technique form. (AR 291-304). Dr. Johnson concluded that Woods had mild difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, but no restrictions in activities of daily living or maintaining social functioning. (AR 301). In her narrative, Dr. Johnson observed that Woods had an adequate attention span and that he could finish what he started, follow instructions, and get along with authority. (AR 303). Dr. Johnson opined that Woods's mental impairment did not appear to be severe. (AR 303). Dr. Johnson's opinion was later affirmed by Joelle J. Larsen, Ph.D., another state agency psychologist. (AR 306).

         On September 8, 2014, Woods visited Dr. Eric Wallisa of MedExpress Marion for complaints of chronic abdominal pain.[5] (AR 318-20). Tenderness and guarding were “noted diffusely” in the abdominal exam. (AR 319). However, Woods's abdomen was normal to percussion and not distended, normally active bowel sounds were present, and an obturator sign was negative. (AR 319). There was no rigidity or rebound tenderness noted diffusely, and no evidence of hernia, a mass, or enlargement of the liver or spleen. (AR 319). An abdominal X-ray revealed increased retained stool density throughout the colon, but no obstruction or impaction. (AR 320, 322). Dr. Wallisa assessed general abdominal pain, indicating that Woods's symptoms appeared to be “neuropathic pain related from chemotherapy and radiation treatments for colon cancer.” (AR 320). Dr. Wallisa prescribed Neurontin and instructed Woods to increase his fluids. (AR 320, 324).


         Section 405(g) of the Act grants this Court “the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner], with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court's task is limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, which means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). The decision will be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ applied an erroneous legal standard. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted).

         To determine if substantial evidence exists, the Court reviews the entire administrative record but does not reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Id. Rather, if the findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. Jens v. Barnhart, 347 F.3d 209, 212 (7th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). “In other words, so long as, in light of all the evidence, reasonable minds could differ concerning whether [the claimant] is disabled, we must affirm the ALJ's decision denying benefits.” Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 978 (7th Cir. 1996).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. ...

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