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Collins v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

August 7, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


FRANK P. GERACI, Jr., District Judge.


Deborah Collins ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Dkt. #1. The Court has jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), and 42 U.S.C. § 1631(c)(3).

Currently before the Court are the parties' competing Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons set forth below, this Court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence within the record and is in accordance with applicable legal standards. Accordingly, this Court grants the Commissioner's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.


Plaintiff filed applications for both DIB and SSI on September 30, 2010. Tr. 158. Plaintiff's applications were both denied on January 19, 2011. Tr. 103-109. Plaintiff then filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Tr. 113. ALJ Connor O'Brien held a hearing on April 4, 2012 where Plaintiff testified and was represented by counsel. Tr. 27-88. Vocational Expert ("VE") Dr. Peter Manzi also testified at the hearing and stated that Plaintiff could perform jobs within the national economy, specifically as a laundry sorter, collator operator, and photocopier. Tr. 27. An unfavorable decision was rendered and Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision. Tr. 10-21. The Appeals Council concluded on May 8, 2013, that there was no basis for review. Tr. 1-5. Therefore, the ALJ's decision was upheld and considered the final decision of the Commissioner. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed an action in the Federal District Court for the Western District of New York appealing the Administration's decision. Plaintiff and Defendant now move for Judgment on the Pleadings.


Plaintiff was born on June 11, 1973 and was 38 years old on the date of the hearing. Tr. 33, 90. She did not complete high school but obtained her GED. Tr. 33. Plaintiff has worked in numerous capacities including occupations as a cashier, food delivery driver, and certified nurse's assistant. Tr. 36-40.

When applying for disability, Plaintiff initially alleged that her disability began on August 1, 2009. Tr. 158. At the hearing, she amended the onset date to October 21, 2010[1]. Tr. 32, 261, 262. Plaintiff stated her disability was a result of lower back pain, anxiety, panic attacks, headaches, and depression. Tr. 46-47.

At the hearing, Plaintiff testified she can do laundry with assistance from her son, put dishes on the top rack of the dishwasher, and go grocery shopping as long as she has someone to assist her with heavy items. Tr. 56-57. Plaintiff stated she is able to carry a gallon of milk but she considered that "pushing it" close to her limits. Tr. 57. She proclaimed that she can dress herself but struggled at times and had a hard time putting on her pants, socks and shoes. Id. Plaintiff testified she could cook dinner but only while standing for on more than 25 minutes and typically made simple meals like macaroni and cheese. Tr. 58. Her son helped with other household chores including vacuuming and carrying laundry. Tr. 56. Plaintiff stated she owns a cell phone, can text, and also has a computer at home that she uses until her hands get too stiff. Tr. 63. She and her son enjoyed watching TV, movies, and she also played video games with him regularly. Tr. 67. Plaintiff testified that people bother her, which sometimes led to random panic attacks. Tr. 66, 70. She contended that she didn't want to see or deal with people because of things they do. Tr. 66. Plaintiff attended anger management classes every two weeks. She wasn't mobile like she wished to be, as a result of her impairments. Tr. 75. She asserted that she was told not to lift more than ten pounds however, ended up lifting over ten pounds while working at Dunkin Donuts from October 15, 2009 to October 21, 2010. Tr. 36, 261. As a result, Plaintiff testified that her condition got much worse during that time. Tr. 47. Plaintiff was told by Dr. Lasser that her back was healing nicely subsequent to her surgery on January 5, 2012. However, she still experienced pain running through the back of her leg and down to her toes. Tr. 71. She stated that her pain sometimes increased severely and in order for the pain to subside, she took medications and would need to lie down for at least an hour and sometimes up to several hours to alleviate her symptoms. Id.

Medical Treatment

On November 2, 2006, Dr. Joseph Hinterberger wrote a letter to the Vocational and Educations Services for Individuals with Disabilities ("VESID"), and stated that Plaintiff suffered from muscle tension headaches, depression, anxiety, and chronic intermittent back pain. Tr. 385. Additionally, the doctor stated that the Plaintiff's back pain was intermittent but was not disabling and she did not have any physical limitations at the time. Id. He also recommended she avoid heavy lifting and repetitive bending. Id.

Plaintiff saw Dr. Hinterberger again on March 19, 2008 and reported irritability, insomnia, and fatigue. Tr. 406. She had a significant change in emotions and was having trouble falling and staying asleep. Id. Her body language was closed during the visit, her eye contact was fair and she also complained that she was losing her temper more frequently without any provocation. Id. Plaintiff returned to Hinterberger on June 3, 2008 and was largely unchanged in symptoms, but seemed stable. Tr. 407. Plaintiff was evaluated again on July 31, 2008, and stated she was experiencing chronic back pain. Tr. 407, 409. Four months later, on November 11, 2008, Plaintiff appeared emotionally stable, and stated no new concerns regarding physical pain. Tr. 410.

Plaintiff continued follow up appointments and treatment with Dr. Hinterberger and on February 5, 2009, she complained of depression and insomnia, but seemed in no acute distress during the visit. Tr. 415. Five days later, on February 10, 2009, Plaintiff was evaluated by Social Worker Amanda Hackett at Kelly Behavioral Health. Tr. 375. She told Ms. Hackett she was still experiencing anxiety, depression, bad temper, reoccurring insomnia, and a loss of appetite. Id. During the visit, Plaintiff was cooperative however, complained that her mood was depressed. Tr. 376. Her impulse control and frustration tolerance were poor but she was alert, fully oriented, and her memory and attention were good. Tr. 377. Ms. Hackett diagnosed Plaintiff with dysthymia by history, ruled out mood disorder, stated Plaintiff had a borderline personality disorder, and assigned her a global assessment of functioning ("GAF") score of 60[2]. Id.

On February 26, 2009, Plaintiff saw Dr. Hinterberger and stated she had fallen off of her porch and was experiencing neck stiffness and back pain. Tr. 416. Upon examination, Plaintiff could get out of her chair and onto the examination table without distress. Id. She showed discomfort when rotating her neck but had full range of motion, and also a marked spasm of the bilateral trapezial ridges with significant discomfort on palpation. Id. The doctor recommended Plaintiff receive massage/chiropractic therapy and if her condition deteriorated, to return to the office for more formal physical therapy. Id.

Plaintiff returned to Dr. Hinterberger on June 19, 2009, and complained of worsening back pain and headaches over the last month. Tr. 421. The doctor recommended she get an x-ray of her neck and a physical therapy evaluation. Id. Plaintiff then saw Hinterberger again on August 12, 2009 and told the doctor that physical therapy was helping but she still was experiencing chronic low back pain. Tr. 425. She also complained of worsening mid-back pain when she tried to lift overhead repetitively or lift over 20 pounds. Id. Overall, Dr. Hinterberger wrote that Plaintiff had experienced improvement with physical therapy and her prognosis was guardedly optimistic. Tr. 386. The doctor told her to avoid activities where there was repetitive lifting, pushing, pulling, squatting, or any heavy lifting. Id.

After relocating to a new area, Plaintiff saw Dr. Rachel Conley for an initial evaluation on May 17, 2010. Tr. 304. The doctor suspected acute disc herniation and an MRI later revealed mild degenerative changes. Tr. 328. Plaintiff returned to Dr. Conley again on June 9, 2010 and stated her lower back pain was somewhat better. Tr. 305. During the exam, Plaintiff's extremities were found to be normal. Id. Plaintiff saw Dr. Conley on July 8, 2010 and complained of an increase in anxiety, irritability, and difficulty focusing at work. Tr. 307. Plaintiff also stated she had lost her temper with a coworker and was concerned that she was going to be fired. Id. Dr. Conley prescribed Plaintiff Lexapro to help with her anxiety and depression. Id.

Plaintiff saw Dr. Steven Lasser, orthopedic surgeon, on July 13, 2010, for a reevaluation of her lower back. Tr. 298. At the time, she was working at Dunkin Donuts and "managing her symptoms with appropriate precautions." Id. The doctor conducted a nerve examination and revealed intact reflexes and strength. Id. The exam also revealed tenderness and reduced range of motion of the lower back but was otherwise normal. Id.

In accordance with Dr. Lasser's request, Plaintiff began seeing pain specialist Dr. Donovan Holder on August 11, 2010. Tr. 300-301, 334-335. At the time, she experienced heavy pain, aching and numbing sensations in her lower legs, back, and feet. Id. Plaintiff was dealing with constant pain which required that she lie down in order to get any relief and rated her pain at an 8 or 9 on a scale of 1 to 10. Tr. 300, 334. Her lumbar flexion was grossly normal, and extension was also grossly normal. Tr. 301, 335. Dr. Holder diagnosed her with degenerative disc disease with low back pain syndrome. Id. Plaintiff was then treated with epidural steroid injections beginning on August 17, 2010 to help with the pain however, the injections were ultimately ineffective. Id. Thereafter, on December 14, 2010, Dr. Lasser recommended a diskectomy with fusion and noted Plaintiff could not work until further notice. Tr. 381, 439.

On January 5, 2011, Plaintiff saw Dr. Sandra Boehlert, to whom she had been referred by the division of disability determination. Tr. 341-344. The examination was normal and the doctor concluded that Plaintiff had a history of lower back pain and possible mild thoracic scoliosis. Tr. 343. She observed that Plaintiff was in no acute distress during the visit, could walk on her heels and toes, and squat without difficulty. Tr. 342. Plaintiff also exhibited a normal stance, normal gait, did not need help changing for the examination or getting on or off the exam table, and was able to rise from her chair without difficulty. Id. The doctor diagnosed Plaintiff with mild limitations for heavy lifting and twisting or heavy pushing and pulling. Tr. 343.

Dr. Christine Ransom, Ph.D., also on January 5, 2011, performed a consultative psychiatric evaluation on the Plaintiff to assist in treating her anxiety and depression. Tr. 336-339. Plaintiff complained that medications did help her psychiatric condition but she was still experiencing lack of sleep, occasional crying, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Tr. 336. She was having trouble following through with goal-oriented activity, as well. Id. Despite her symptoms, Plaintiff was still able to interact with her friends and family. Id. Dr. Ransom stated that Plaintiff's attention and concentration were moderately impaired by emotional disturbance and her immediate memory was also impaired. Tr. 338. Additionally, Plaintiff could have difficulty performing some complex tasks, interacting with others, and dealing with stress due to her bipolar disorder. Tr. 338.

On January 13, 2011, Plaintiff saw State Medical Consultant Debonis for a physical residual functional capacity assessment. Tr. 91. The examiner determined that Plaintiff could perform light work with occasional stooping and crouching. Tr. 92. Specifically, the examiner wrote that Plaintiff could occasionally lift and/or carry (including upward pulling) a maximum of 20 pounds, frequently lift 10 pounds, sit with normal breaks for a total of six hours of an eight hour ...

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