United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division
DENVER E. WOODS, JR., Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, sued as Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of SSA, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
COLLINS, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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”). (DE 1). For the following reasons, the
Commissioner's decision will be AFFIRMED.
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.
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
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).
Woods's Testimony at the Hearing
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).
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).
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).
Summary of the Relevant Medical Evidence
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).
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.
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).
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).
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.
September 8, 2014, Woods visited Dr. Eric Wallisa of
MedExpress Marion for complaints of chronic abdominal
pain. (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).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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
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).