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SINDA v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY

June 8, 2004.

MARIE E. SINDA, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: GARY SHARPE, Magistrate Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

I. Introduction

  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.

  II. Procedural History

  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 Commissioner responded.

  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.

  IV. Facts

  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).

  A. Medical Evidence

  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." (Tr. 352).

  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. 148).

  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 ...


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