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Pratts v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

July 14, 2015

JENNIE PRATTS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

Howard D. Olinsky, Esq., Olinsky Law Group, Syracuse, New York, for the Plaintiff.

Lauren Myers, Esq., Special Assistant U.S. Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, for the Western District of New York, c/o Social Security Administration Office of General Counsel New York, New York, Kathryn L. Smith, A.U.S.A., Office of the United States Attorney, for the Western District of New York, Rochester, New York, for the Defendant.

DECISION AND ORDER

CHARLES J. SIRAGUSA, District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

This is an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g) to review the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "Defendant"), which denied the application of Jennie Pratts ("Plaintiff") for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") benefits. Presently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. (Docket Nos. [#8] & [#10]). Plaintiff's application is denied and Defendant's application is granted.

VOCATIONAL HISTORY

At the time of the hearing Plaintiff, who was 55 years of age, had graduated from high school, completed two years of college (149) and worked at various jobs, including that of Account Manager with the Red Cross, Assistant Manager with CVS Pharmacy, Outside Sales Consultant for Sally Beauty Supply, Secretary at the University of Rochester, Customer Relations Manager at an auto dealership, and Claims Representative for Safeco Insurance. The ALJ found, and Plaintiff does not dispute, that Plaintiff acquired certain transferable skills from those jobs. (31, 34). Plaintiff's last employment ended on February 12, 2011, when she was terminated from her job with the Red Cross for reasons unrelated to her impairments. (15-18).

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On September 26, 2011 Plaintiff applied for SSDI benefits (121), claiming to be disabled due to "problems in both knees and legs, " "arthritis of knees, " "arthritis of legs" and "arthritis of shoulders." (148). At that time, Plaintiff described her condition as follows:

Due to my arthritis in my knees and legs, it is very difficult and painful for me to walk, climb up and go down stairs. They get swollen every day and feel as though my knees will break and give way at times. I cannot stand in one position for any length of time or sit down too long without my knees, and legs and feet feeling tired, stiff, achy and sometimes numb. When I get up from sitting, I first have to wait a few seconds and position myself first before walking. I also have slight arthritis on my shoulders and cannot lean/sleep on them because of the painful/rotator's cuff.

(156). Later, Plaintiff expanded her claim to include carpal tunnel syndrome and low back pain. Plaintiff claimed that she became unable to work on February 14, 2011. (148).

On October 26, 2011, Plaintiff completed a questionnaire for the Commissioner, describing her activities of daily living. Plaintiff indicated that she spent her days caring for her infant granddaughter, including feeding the baby and changing diapers, shopping, watching television, reading, doing "light" household chores, talking on the telephone, emailing and visiting with friends in her home. (162, 165, 167). Plaintiff indicated that she had "no problem" caring for herself, except that she had difficulty blow drying, straightening and curling her hair "in a timely fashion." (162). Plaintiff indicated that she cooked "quick" family meals on certain days, and that her husband helped with cooking on other days. (163). Plaintiff reported that she could do "some cleaning, some laundry, " and ironing occasionally, but needed help with "lifting, carrying, bending down, pushing, pulling, going up and down stairs." (164). Plaintiff indicated that she was in "constant pain, " for which she took ibuprofen every four hours. (170). Plaintiff further indicated that she had asthma attacks due to "allergies, " mostly in the Spring. (172).

On November 14, 2011, the Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application, finding, in pertinent part, that Plaintiff's medical conditions did not prevent her from performing her prior work as a "customer sales representative." (67). Plaintiff appealed that determination and requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").

On April 16, 2013, Plaintiff appeared at her hearing before an ALJ, accompanied by her husband. (9-43). After the ALJ advised Plaintiff of her right to retain an attorney and postpone the hearing, Plaintiff elected to proceed unrepresented. Regarding her activities of daily living, Plaintiff testified that she has a license and is able to drive. Plaintiff also stated that in order to lose weight prior to knee surgery in June 2012, she was able to use an elliptical exercise machine and participate in the Zumba exercise program, though in a "low impact" manner. (24). Plaintiff indicated, however, that she eventually quit Zumba because of knee pain. (24). Plaintiff further acknowledged that after she stopped working, she provided daytime childcare for her granddaughter, "four or five hours a day, " for many months while her daughter worked. (14). On this point, Plaintiff testified that she provided such child care from January 2012 to April 2012 (14-15), but she previously told others, including the Commissioner, that she was providing such care as early as October 2011. (162). The only other person to testify at the hearing was the Vocational Expert ("VE").

At the close of the hearing, the ALJ kept the record open to allow Plaintiff to submit additional exhibits, which she did. (48). The Court will briefly summarize Plaintiff's medical records below.

On October 27, 2008, Plaintiff informed Aitezaz Ahmed, M.D. ("Ahmed") that she had experienced pain in her knees "for the past two years, " and "occasional" pain in her shoulders and feet, but no joint swelling or prolonged joint stiffness in the mornings. (214). Upon examination, Ahmed reported normal neurologic responses, tenderness in the right hand, left wrist and both feet, and crepitus, tenderness and varus deformity in both knees. (216). Ahmed observed no rashes. (216). Ahmed reported that Plaintiff had a positive ANA Test and "arthralgias, " but doubted that she had lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. (217). Ahmed noted that osteoarthritis was contributing to Plaintiff's pain, and recommended that she pursue physical therapy. (217). Ahmed further advised Plaintiff to have additional lab testing and x-rays. (217, 219).

On June 12, 2009, Plaintiff visited her primary care physician, Stefenie King, M.D. ("King"). (239-241). King reported that Plaintiff was complaining of allergy symptoms, but was "otherwise doing well." (239). King observed "no bone/joint pain or swelling, " but noted that Plaintiff took ibuprofen, "3 tabs daily for joint pain." (240).

On June 18, 2009, Ahmed saw Plaintiff for a follow-up appointment, and noted that she had not followed his recommendation to have additional blood tests, x-rays or physical therapy. (219). Plaintiff reported that she still had pain in her "knees and feet" that was worse with activity, and for which ibuprofen provided "partial relief." (219). Upon examination, Ahmed observed tenderness in the right hand and both feet, and tenderness, crepitus and varus deformity of both knees. (219). Ahmed gave Plaintiff injections of Depo Medrol and lidocaine in her knees. (218).

On June 16, 2010, King noted that Plaintiff was complaining of a sinusitis and nasal allergy symptoms. (234). King observed "no bone/joint pain or swelling. No weakness." (235).

On September 29, 2010, King reported that Plaintiff was complaining of pain in her knees, and that an orthopedic specialist, Robert Little, M.D. ("Little"), had given Plaintiff cortisone shots in the knees, which "didn't help much." (230). King stated, though, that Plaintiff was able to exercise using her pool and elliptical machine, which did "not bother her knees." (230). Plaintiff reportedly told King that her allergies and eczema were bothering her. (230). Under the section of her office notes entitled "Musculoskeletal, " King indicated, apparently based on Plaintiff's statements: "Positive for back pain, bone and joint symptoms and myalgias." (231). However, King stated that her own physical examination revealed "normal musculature. No skeletal tenderness or joint deformity." (232).

On November 2, 2011, Karl Eurenius, M.D. ("Eurenius"), a non-treating, consultative specialist in internal medicine retained by the Commissioner, examined Plaintiff. (251-257). Eurenius noted that Plaintiff was complaining of arthritis in her knees, toes and shoulders, as well as allergies and eczema. (251). Plaintiff reportedly told Eurenius that she had been experiencing knee pain for ten years, "particularly with walking, standing on her toes, and going up or down stairs." (251). Plaintiff stated that she felt shoulder pain when she tried to sleep on her right side or perform "heavy lifting" with her right arm. (251). Plaintiff indicated that she used "lotions" to treat her eczema. (251). Eurenius reported Plaintiff's activities of daily living as follows:

She cooks twice a week, but her husband helps her. She does light cleaning. She does laundry once a week, but no heavy lifting. She does shopping once a week, but no heavy lifting, and she does light child care two to three times a week. She watches TV, listens to the radio, reads and shops.

(252). Eurenius performed a physical examination and stated that due to knee pain, Plaintiff had difficulty standing on her toes and squatting, but that otherwise her "general appearance, gait and station" were essentially normal. (252). Eurenius further stated that Plaintiff had evidence of "healed" eczema rashes on her hands and lower legs. (252-253). As for his musculoskeletal examination, Eurenius stated that Plaintiff had some pain and tenderness in her lower back with certain movements, and some pain in her right shoulder "with full elevation, " but had full hand grip strength and intact hand and finger dexterity. (253-254). With regard to Plaintiff's knees, Eurenius stated: "Both knees appear chronically swollen without signs of acute inflammation. There is mild tenderness on either side of the patella in each knee. There are no other signs of contractures, ankylosis, or thickening." (254). Eurenius' medical source statement was as follows:

In my opinion she is limited in recurring lifting or carrying with her right shoulder and with her right arm due to arthritis of the right shoulder with pain. She is also limited in walking more than 100 yards, climbing or descending more than four ...

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