The opinion of the court was delivered by: GARY SHARPE, Magistrate Judge
Marie Sinda alleges that degenerative disc disease and
depression have disabled her, and challenges the denial of
disability benefits by the Commissioner of Social Security.
Having reviewed the administrative record, the court concludes
that the Commissioner's decision was based on substantial
evidence, and affirms.
After Sinda filed for disability benefits in June
1997,*fn1 her application was denied, and a hearing was
conducted by Administrative Law Judge Daniel Heely (ALJ). In
February 1999, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits, which
became the Commissioner's final determination when the Appeals
Council denied review on March 3, 2000.
On April 11, 2000, Sinda brought this action pursuant to
42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking review of the Commissioner's final
determination. The Commissioner then filed an answer and a
certified administrative transcript, Sinda filed a brief, and the
III. Contentions Sinda contends that the Commissioner's decision is not
supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ disregarded the
opinions of Sinda's treating physician.*fn2 Sinda claims
that the ALJ: (1) based his decision upon an erroneous evaluation
of the medical evidence; (2) disregarded the opinions of her
treating physicians; and (3) reached conclusions that were not
based on the facts and were contrary to law.*fn3 The
Commissioner counters that substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's decision that Sinda was not disabled.
Sinda was thirty-six years old at the time of the ALJ's
decision. (Tr. 39). She has a high school education and has
completed a course in office shorthand (Tr. 42). From 1982 to
1984, she worked as an administrative assistant. (Tr. 141). From
1984 to May 1994, she worked in four different capacities for
Hartford Insurance. (Tr. 86-98, 141-42). She was a clerk from
1984 to 1987, a disability processor from 1987 to 1989, a secretary from 1989 to 1991, and a senior claims
specialist from 1991 to 1994. (Tr. 86). As a senior claims
specialist, Sinda was required to stand for three hours, walk and
sit for four hours each, and frequently lift and carry files and
office supplies weighing up to fifty pounds. (Tr. 96-98).
Sinda injured her back in October 1993, when she tried to reach
for ten empty folded boxes at work. (Tr. 336). She worked until
her disability onset date of May 9, 1994. (Tr. 101). In her SSA
disability report, she claimed that she was disabled due to
depression and pain, and stated that she had "difficulty in
stressful situations and functions." (Tr. 101). She indicated a
decreased ability to perform daily activities such as personal
hygiene, household chores, shopping and errands, taking care of
finances, and driving. (Tr. 122-23). She also reported that her
"physical condition" affected her recreational and social
activities. (Tr. 124). She further indicated that her condition
affected her ability to sit, stand, walk, kneel, squat, climb,
bend, lift, reach, use her hands, concentrate, remember,
understand, and sleep. (Tr. 124).
In a Social Services form, Sinda indicated that she needed
assistance with cooking, shopping, and other chores. (Tr. 126).
She had no recreational activities or hobbies, watched television and
read, but could not stay focused. (Tr. 126). She had occasional
visits from friends, and rarely drove alone, with the exception
of five-minute trips to her church. (Tr. 126). Later, Sinda
stated in an SSA reconsideration application that the pain down
her hand and legs was getting worse and affected her ability to
walk, hold things, and twist caps. (Tr. 129). She also claimed
she was unable to handle everyday living, and that her depression
was caused by her injury. (Tr. 129).
1. Robert Parke, M.D. (family physician)
In October 1993, Dr. Parke diagnosed Sinda with lumbosacral
strain (Tr. 336-37). Sinda reported back muscle pain radiating
down her left leg while trying to reach for ten folded boxes.
(Tr. 336-37). Dr. Parke prescribed pain medication, advised her
to rest for two days, and ordered lumbosacral spine X-rays. (Tr.
336-37). The X-rays revealed slight disc space narrowing at the
T11/12 and T10/11 levels consistent with degenerative disc
disease (DDD). (Tr. 367). They also showed mild degenerative
change at the L2/3 level with no significant disc space
narrowing. (Tr. 367). There was no evidence of mal-alignment,
fracture, vertebral displacement or dissolution, and the neural passages
were unobstructed. (Tr. 367). Dr. Parke indicated in a Workers'
Compensation (WC) form that Sinda was working and not disabled.
(Tr. 337). In November 1993, Sinda complained of low back pain
when getting up in the morning, but stated she did not want to
take time off work. (Tr. 339). In March 1994, she indicated that
her back pain was constant and radiated into her neck and right
shoulder. (Tr. 340).
In May 1994, X-rays of Sinda's cervical spine returned
negative. (Tr. 368). Dr. Parke noted that she might be depressed.
(Tr. 343). In November, Dr. Parke advised Sinda to seek a
psychiatric opinion on her disability and depression. (Tr. 347).
He also indicated that her back pain "may not be as much
mechanical as it is aggravated by her present depression and
stress." (Tr. 347). In December, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
scans of Sinda's cervical spine revealed minimal early DDD at the
C5/6 level. (Tr. 369). A lumbar spine MRI revealed DDD at the
L2/3, T10/11 and T11/12 levels, with no evidence of neural
impingement or spinal stenosis. (Tr. 369-70).
Dr. Parke continued to diagnose Sinda with cervical and lumbar
strain and depression throughout his treatment. (Tr. 342-51). In
August 1995, Sinda complained of left shoulder pain. (Tr. 351). On
examination, Dr. Parke noted good neck and arm range of motion.
(Tr. 351). He opined that Sinda was disabled from her prior job,
but should be able to do at least part-time work. (Tr. 351). In
September, Sinda complained of longer, recurring episodes of
"extreme" low-back and upper-neck pain with leg numbness, but
could not give any specific examples. (Tr. 352). Dr. Parke noted
no major change on examination. (Tr. 352). In November, Sinda
related that she could not lift things and felt pain when turning
her head. (Tr. 352). She stated she got more depressed as her
pain increased. (Tr. 352). On examination, her deep tendon
reflexes were normal, and her neck range of motion was "good."
In January 1996, Sinda related increasing back pain and leg
numbness after slipping on ice. (Tr. 353). Dr. Parke noted no
changes on examination. (Tr. 353). He also explained to Sinda the
need to verify whether depression was a consequence of her injury
that influenced her delayed recovery. (Tr. 353). In March, Sinda
complained of arm numbness and tingling in her hands in addition
to her back pain. (Tr. 354). Dr. Parke noted no changes on
examination of her back, and found her motor functions and
reflexes intact. (Tr. 354). He indicated that Sinda was not able to return to her old job. (Tr. 354). In June, Dr.
Parke opined in a WC report that Sinda was partially disabled due
to decreased use of her back and depression. (Tr. 356). In a
February 1997 WC report, he indicated that Sinda was totally
disabled. (Tr. 360). On October 29, 1997, Dr. Parke noted in a WC
visit addendum that there was "not much objective evidence" of
Sinda's pain and that she was "hyper sensitive to even light
touch." (Tr. 366). He opined that her chronic pain syndrome was
aggravated by chronic depression and fibromyalgia syndrome. (Tr.
366). In an undated medical assessment report, Dr. Parke noted
that Sinda's chronic depression was her primary problem, and that
it exacerbated her back pain. (Tr. 373). He estimated that she
could occasionally lift and carry up to five pounds, stand/walk
up to six hours, and sit less than six hours per day. (Tr.
373-74). He also noted that her ability to push/pull was limited.
(Tr. 374). He did not provide any clinical or laboratory findings
in support of his opinion. (Tr. 372-73).
2. Gene Stunkle, M.D. (orthopedic surgeon)
In June 1994, Dr. Stunkle saw Sinda for an independent medical
examination. (Tr. 147-48). Sinda claimed that she could not bend
over, lift more than twenty-five pounds, and sit, stand or drive
for more than 30 minutes. (Tr. 147). Dr. Stunkle noted that she did not wear a
lumbar brace and had no history of back problems. (Tr. 147). On
examination, she flexed her lumbar spine to seventy-five to
eighty degrees before feeling pain. (Tr. 148). She extended to
twenty degrees with "very little" discomfort, and flexed to
twenty degrees laterally with no discomfort. (Tr. 148). Deep
tendon reflexes were two-plus, straight leg raising was negative,
and she had no sensory deficits in her legs. (Tr. 148). She could
stand on her heels and toes and squat without difficulty, and her
gait was normal. (Tr. 148). Dr. Stunkle also reviewed Sinda's
cervical and lumbar X-rays and noted they were unremarkable. (Tr.
Dr. Stunkle diagnosed Sinda with remote sprain of the
lumbosacral spine. (Tr. 148). He stated that he found no
objective evidence of any significant back problem, and saw no
orthopedic reason ...