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Emily M. Ortiz v. Michael J. Astrue

June 21, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Naomi Reice Buchwald United States District Judge

Plaintiff Emily Ortiz brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") to deny her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. The Commissioner has moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), and plaintiff has submitted a brief in opposition to this motion. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's motion is granted.



Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits on April 27, 2006, asserting that she was disabled due to vision problems, high cholesterol, and acid reflux. (Tr. 63.) Her application was administratively denied first on August 9, 2006, and again upon reconsideration on October 19, 2006. (Tr. 60-63, 67-69.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which was held on July 24, 2008, before ALJ Yvonne K. Stam. (Tr. 70-72, 31-51.) In a December 9, 2008 decision, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled and thus not eligible for SSI benefits. (Tr. 25-30.) Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision, and, on April 6, 2009, the Social Security Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, rendering the Commissioner's decision final. (Tr. 14-17.) After receiving an extension of time in which to file a civil suit, plaintiff commenced this action on May 4, 2011.

I.Non-Medical History

Plaintiff was born on November 15, 1970. (Tr. 97.) She attended school in New York City, enrolling in special education classes at the age of eleven and eventually completing the seventh grade. (Tr. 7, 9, 37-38.) At that time, however, she decided to stay at home with her family full-time. (Tr. 39.) She has worked briefly as a companion to the elderly and mentally handicapped, but she has not had gainful employment since 1998. (Tr. 35-37, 107.) She is currently unmarried and lives with two of her adult children in Fort Wayne, Indiana. (Tr. 98.)

II. Medical History

A. Medical History Before April 2006

Plaintiff made several visits to the Parkview Hospital and Health Clinic ("Parkview") in Indiana prior to her application for SSI benefits. On December 22, 2002, plaintiff arrived at Parkview's emergency room complaining of "10 out of 10 pain everywhere." (Tr. 222.) However, the examining physician, Dr. Thomas Dykstra, found her claims "hard to fathom," as she was unable to pinpoint the pain and remained comfortable and joking when examined. (Tr. 223.) He consequently referred her to outpatient care for ongoing general care. (Tr. 222-24.)

In July and December of 2003, plaintiff returned to the emergency room to complain of toothache and skin irritation. She was prescribed medication and dismissed in stable condition. (Tr. 218-22.)

On March 18, 2005, plaintiff again visited Parkview, now complaining of slurred speech, memory loss, and disorientation. (Tr. 150.) The clinic administered a brain MRI, which returned normal results. (Tr. 150.)

Plaintiff was next seen by Fort Wayne Eye Associates in September of 2005, where she was assessed with amblyopia, or "lazy eye." (Tr. 154.)

On March 29, 2006, plaintiff saw Dr. Michael Mohrman of Brooklyn Medical Associates to address her cholesterol levels, epigastric pain, and skin problems. (Tr. 156.) Dr. Mohrman noted that she had an unusual skin eruption on the face, mild acne of the back, and a history of epigastric pain relieved by medication. (Tr. 156.) He also ordered a lipid profile screening, which revealed borderline high cholesterol levels. (Tr. 157.)

B. Medical Evidence Between April 2006 and December 2008

1. Dr. Venkata Kancherla

In May of 2006, plaintiff saw Dr. Venkata Kancherla in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to complain of a rash, acne, swallowing problems, gastroesophagal reflux disease ("GERD"), and high cholesterol. (Tr. 170.) Dr. Kancherla prescribed medication for plaintiff's GERD and cholesterol, additionally diagnosing her with acne and dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing (Tr. 171, 169.)

2. Allen County Retinal Surgeons

Plaintiff visited Allen County Retinal Surgeons in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in May of both 2006 and 2007. On May 8, 2006, plaintiff visited Dr. Michael Farber, complaining of increased photopsias and new floaters impacting her vision. (Tr. 161-62.) Dr. Farber found atrophying of both retinas and pigmentary changes in the area around the optic nerve head associated with myopia. (Tr. 161.) In the left eye, which plaintiff asserted had always suffered from limited vision, Dr. Farber also found amblyopia and detachment of the vitreous from the retina. (Tr. 161.) He noted that "good eye protection for the right eye is essential" and recommended that plaintiff seek immediate medical attention should her conditions worsen. (Tr. 161.) When she visited Allen County Retinal Surgeons again on May 29, 2007, however, the examining physician found no new retinal breaks and prescribed only artificial tears. (Tr. 200.)

3. Dr. Earl Braunlin

Shortly after she applied for SSI benefits and at the request of the Commissioner, on July 24, 2006, plaintiff was examined by opthalmologist Dr. Earl Braunlin. (Tr. 184.) Dr. Braunlin determined that her vision was 20/30 in her right eye and 20/400 in her left eye, surmising that her vision had worsened due to the left eye's amblyopia. (Tr. 186.) He did not recommend corrective surgery and concluded that plaintiff would be able to work in a field that did not require her to have 20/20 vision in both eyes. (Tr. 186.)

4. State Agency Physicians

Plaintiff's condition was next assessed, on the basis of the medical evidence on record, by physicians working for the Disability Determination Bureau. On August 9, 2006, Dr. M. Ruiz determined that plaintiff's vision was limited but did not meet or equal the requirements of any impairment listed in the Social Security Act as entitling a claimant to SSI benefits. (Tr. 191.) Dr. D. Neal affirmed this assessment on October 12, 2006, noting that plaintiff's condition had not worsened since Dr. Ruiz's evaluation. (Tr. 192.)

5. Lutheran Hospital of Indiana

Plaintiff visited the emergency room at Lutheran Hospital of Indiana ("Lutheran") on April 17, 2007 to complain of chest pain. (Tr. 197.) The examining physician found her "very well[,] appearing in no acute distress," and at low risk for cardiac disease. (Tr. 197.) A chest xray showed no active disease, with clear lungs and pleural spaces. (Tr. 199.) Though plaintiff claimed a history of rheumatoid arthritis ("RA"), the physician also noted that she retained full range of motion and that her extremities worked fine. (Tr. 197.)

Plaintiff returned to Lutheran on May 23, 2007, to complain of ankle discoloration. (Tr. 195.) The attending physician found slight hyperpigmentation and callousing of the skin tissue but no infection or malignancy, and he recommended ...

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