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Polk v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 16, 2018

KARLA S. POLK, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Karla S. Polk, who is proceeding pro se, appeals to the district court from a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).[1] (DE 1). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be AFFIRMED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Polk applied for DIB and SSI in January 2013, alleging that she became disabled on August 1, 2012. (DE 9 Administrative Record (“AR”) 248-57). The Commissioner denied her application initially and upon reconsideration, and Polk requested an administrative hearing. (AR 116-17, 138-39, 148-71). After Polk's timely request, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Maryann S. Bright conducted a hearing at which Polk, who was represented by counsel at the time, and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. (AR 31-70). On September 8, 2014, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Polk, concluding that she was not disabled because despite the limitations caused by her impairments, she could perform a significant number of jobs in the economy. (AR 11-24). The Appeals Council denied Polk's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-7); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Polk filed a complaint with this Court on May 11, 2016, seeking relief from the Commissioner's final decision. (DE 1). Polk filed her opening brief on September 16, 2016, and the Commissioner filed a response brief on October 27, 2016. (DE 13; DE 14). Polk did not file a reply brief, and her time to do so has now passed. N.D. Ind. L.R. 7-1(d)(2)(B).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. Background

         At the time the ALJ issued her decision, Polk was 40 years old, had a high school education and had completed some college courses, and possessed work experience as a customer service representative. (AR 38, 248, 307-08, 362). Polk alleged in her disability application that she became disabled due to depression, anxiety, vertigo, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), headaches, near fainting spells, low back pain, and pain or numbness in her legs. (AR 306).

         B. Polk's Hearing Testimony

         At the hearing, Polk testified as follows: Polk was going through a divorce; she lives in a house with her boyfriend and her three children, ages 18, 16, and eight. (AR 34-36). Polk's 16-year-old daughter is severely disabled due to cerebral palsy and requires 24-hour care; Polk is the sole caregiver for her daughter, consuming most of Polk's time. (AR 36-37, 48). Caring for her daughter, who weighs 60 pounds, requires lifting her to and from her chair, changing her diapers, feeding her every four hours, and administering her medicine twice a day. (AR 59-60). Polk receives Medicaid and child support, and her daughter receives SSI. (AR 36-37, 66). Polk drives a car short distances every day, such as to take her children to activities, and every few months she drives to Indianapolis for her daughter's doctor appointments. (AR 37, 49). Polk's boyfriend and niece perform most of the cooking and cleaning for the household; when Polk does do household tasks, such as washing dishes, she has to take intermittent breaks. (AR 60). Polk and her boyfriend do the shopping together. (AR 48-49, 65).

         When asked why she felt she could not work, Polk responded that she has anxiety attacks and gets “emotional, ” resulting in daily crying spells, which caused her to miss work when she was employed. (AR 41, 53-55). She admitted, however, that she also missed work to care for her disabled daughter. (AR 41). Polk was taking Paxil and Xanax, which were effective and did not cause side effects; she also was seeing a therapist weekly. (AR 42-43). She complained of problems with concentration, memory, and relating to others. (AR 47). Polk had frequent headaches when she was working, but now her headaches occur just a few times a month. (AR 60-61). When she gets a headache, she takes ibuprofen and lies down for up to two hours. (AR 61). Polk also has interrupted sleep at night due to sleep apnea, causing her to nap throughout the day. (AR 61-62).

         Additionally, Polk complained of back pain, estimating that she could sit for 45 minutes at a time, stand for 20 minutes at a time, and walk about two blocks. (AR 46, 57-58). Her doctor, however, had not prescribed any treatment for her back pain; Polk's back pain is reduced by taking ibuprofen and by changing positions or sitting in a recliner. (AR 44-46, 58).

         C. Summary of the Medical Evidence

         On March 5, 2013, Polk underwent a mental status examination by Wayne Von Bargen, Ph.D., at the request of the state agency. (AR 389-92). She was cooperative, logical, relevant, coherent, and alert, but her affect was anxious and she became tearful at times. (AR 389). She stated that being in a crowd does not bother her. (AR 389). When describing her daily activities, Polk told Dr. Von Bargen that she takes her children to school, naps for a few hours, watches television, cleans the house, goes shopping every day just to get out of the house, and takes her son to baseball games; her hobbies include playing on the computer and on her phone. (AR 389-90). Dr. Von Bargen's impression was anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified, and rule out panic disorder without agoraphobia; he assigned her a Global Assessment Functioning (“GAF”) score of 65.[2] (AR 390).

         Also on March 5, 2013, Polk was examined by Dr. B.T. Onamusi for a nine-year history of pain in her back, right wrist, knees, ankles, and hips. (AR 393-96). She described the pain as intermittent and moderate-to-severe, radiating to her legs; her pain worsened with prolonged standing or walking. (AR 393). However, she had not seen a doctor for these complaints and did not take any medications-over-the-counter or otherwise-for her back pain. (AR 393). She also complained of headaches, but she had not seen a doctor about this problem either. (AR 393). Upon examination, Polk walked with a normal gait and had no difficulty transferring to or from an examination table; she was unsteady walking on heels and toes, and she was unable to squat, knee, or tandem walk. (AR 394). Her grip strength was 45 pounds in her right hand and 80 pounds in her left hand. (AR 394). She became tearful during a range of motion examination of her spine, and Dr. Onamusi terminated the musculoskeletal portion of the examination at that point. (AR 395). Dr. Onamusi assessed: (1) chronic back pain with polyarthralgia, probably myofascial versus degenerative, but the musculoskeletal examination was limited due to Polk's tearfulness; (2) recurrent headaches with periods of incapacitation, about once a week, four hours each time; and (3) recurrent dizziness, infrequent, occurring about once a month to once every other month. (AR 395). Dr. Onamusi concluded that Polk was capable of engaging in light physical demand level activities as defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (AR 395).

         On March 6, 2013, Stacia Hill, Ph.D., a state agency psychologist, reviewed Polk's record and concluded that she had mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning, but no restrictions in activities of daily living or in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. (AR 103-04). Dr. Hill concluded that Polk's mental impairment was not severe. (AR 104). A second ...


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