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Jones v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 23, 2014

Melissa Ann Jones, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.


BRIDGET S. BADE, Magistrate Judge.

Melissa Ann Jones (Plaintiff) seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying her application for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act (the Act). The parties have consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and have filed briefs in accordance with Local Rule of Civil Procedure 16.1. For the following reasons, the Court affirms the Commissioner's disability determination.

I. Procedural Background

In October 2010, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 401-34. (Tr. 194.)[1] After the Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Plaintiff's initial application and her request for reconsideration, she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Tr. 69-106.) After conducting a hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 11-27.) This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-6); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.981 (explaining the effect of a disposition by the Appeals Council.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of this decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

II. Medical Record

The record before the Court establishes the following history of diagnosis and treatment related to Plaintiff's health. The record also includes opinions from State Agency Physicians who examined Plaintiff or reviewed the records related to her health, but who did not provide treatment.

A. Treatment Related to Plaintiff's Physical Health

Plaintiff injured her back while at work in 2006. (Tr. 39-40, 310.) After receiving other treatment, in February of 2008, Plaintiff began treatment for her back pain with Michael Winer, M.D. (Tr. 310.) He diagnosed lumbar disc herniation at lumbar level L2-3 and degenerative disc disease with annular tears at L4-5 and L5-S1. (Tr 312.) He recommended epidural injections, which Plaintiff completed with Michael Wolff, M.D., in early August 2008. (Tr. 311, 312, 314.) On April 2, 2008, Dr. Winer noted that Plaintiff was on "no work status." (Tr. 314.)

In January 2009, Dr. Winer recommended an additional epidural injection, which Dr. Wolff administered. (Tr. 318.) At a follow-up appointment on February 16, 2009, Dr. Winer noted that the injection gave Plaintiff "significant" relief. ( Id. ) During that appointment, Dr. Winer also noted that Plaintiff was performing "light duty" work as an administrative assistant for twenty hours per week. ( Id. ) Dr. Winer stated that Plaintiff should increase her hours as her stamina improved. ( Id. ) On April 2, 2009, Dr. Winer increased Plaintiff's "work hours to six hours per day." (Tr. 320.) He noted that her "work status [was] no lifting over 15 [pounds], six hours maximum per day." ( Id. ) On May 7, 2009, Dr.Winer increased the duration of Plaintiff's work status to six to eight hours per day. ( Id. )

On June 15, 2009, Physician Assistant (PA) Gretchen Post from Dr. Wolff's office completed a "Patient Work Status Form, " indicating that Plaintiff could lift, push, or pull up to ten pounds, and should avoid repetitive stooping, bending, twisting, turning, or awkward positioning. (Tr. 300.) She also noted that Plaintiff could work four to six hours per day per week. ( Id. )

Plaintiff continued complaining of pain, and Dr. Wolff performed a lumbar nerve ablation on January 15, 2010. (Tr 273.) PA Post noted that Plaintiff had some improvement after the nerve ablation and assessed a work status limiting Plaintiff to lifting, carrying, pushing, or pulling less than ten pounds, and no repetitive bending, twisting, turning, lifting, or awkward positioning. (Tr. 271.) She also stated that Plaintiff should "take 1-2 minute breaks every 30 minutes for position changes and/or stretching pm." ( Id. )

Plaintiff saw Dr. Winer again in June 2010. (Tr. 322.) He determined that Plaintiff should receive supportive care for her back including physical therapy, injections, and diagnostic work as needed. ( Id. ) He noted that Plaintiff's work status was "light duty" work on a part-time basis. ( Id. ) Plaintiff continued to report back pain in 2010 and sought treatment from Dr. Steven Sardo. (Tr. 388.) He noted that Plaintiff was an "excellent candidate for a repeat epidural as she [had] responded quite well in the past." (Tr. 390.) On referral from Dr. Sardo, in September and October 2010, Plaintiff had lumbar and sacral nerve blocks. (Tr. 392, 394.) Plaintiff had additional nerve blocks in February, April, and November 2011. (Tr. 612, 616, 708.) She had a nerve ablation in May 2011. (Tr. 614.)

In the meantime, on October 29, 2009, Plaintiff was examined by Dr. Paul Palmer in connection with her worker's compensation claim. (Tr. 689.) Dr. Palmer examined Plaintiff and reviewed her medical records. (Tr. 689-704.) He opined that Plaintiff could perform "light duty" work including lifting up to fifteen pounds maximum and lifting ten pounds repetitively. (Tr. 703.) He also found that Plaintiff should avoid repetitive lifting, bending or stooping, prolonged sitting or standing, and found that she frequently needed to change positions. ( Id. )

In March 2011, Plaintiff was examined by State Agency Physician Julie Ramos, M.D. (Tr. 592.) Dr. Ramos reviewed a 2010 CT scan of Plaintiff's brain, a 2011 x-ray report, a 2006 progress note from Dr. Winer, an April 2010 physical therapy note, a report from the Arizona Neurological Institute, and a 2010 cardiology consult. (Tr. 592.) On examination, Dr. Ramos noted that Plaintiff could tandem walk, toe walk, and squat. (Tr. 594.) Dr. Ramos reported that Plaintiff had a normal range of motions in all joints, full muscle strength in her upper and lower extremities, and normal muscle tone and bulk in all extremities. ( Id. ) Plaintiff was unable to heel walk and had a positive straight leg test in a seated and supine position on the left. ( Id. ) Dr. Ramos diagnosed "lower back pain due likely to paravertebral muscle spasm without neurologic or functional impairment, " and opined that Plaintiff would not have an impairment lasting twelve months. (Tr. 595.)

B. Treatment Related to Plaintiff's Mental Health

In September 2009, Plaintiff began treatment at Southwest Behavioral Health (Southwest) for depression. (Tr. 372.) Plaintiff received a psychiatric evaluation in November 2009, which indicatef that she had limited insight and judgment, and intact concentration and memory. (Tr. 345.) On April 9, 2011, a medical provider at Southwest diagnosed Plaintiff with bipolar disorder and panic disorder. (Tr. 648.) On December 12, 2011, Nurse Practitioner (NP) Sharon Paul completed a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment. (Tr. 655.) She opined that Plaintiff had no limitations in her abilities to understand and remember "short, simple" or detailed instructions, carry out "short, simple" instructions, and make judgments on simple work-related decisions. (Tr. 654.) She found that Plaintiff had slight limitations in her ability to respond to changes in a work setting. (Tr. 655.) She opined that Plaintiff had moderate limitations in her ability to interact with the public, co-workers, and supervisors, and marked limitations in her ability to respond to work pressures. ( Id. )

On April 3, 2011, State Agency Physician Jacqueline Worsley, M.D., conducted a psychological examination of Plaintiff in which she examined Plaintiff and reviewed the medical record. (Tr. 596.) Dr. Worsley diagnosed Plaintiff with mood and panic disorders. (Tr. 598.) She opined that Plaintiff "may have difficulties maintaining a regular work schedule, " that "her symptoms could interrupt her work performance, " that she "could be expected to have conflicts with supervisors and co-workers, " and "she may not always respond appropriately to workplace changes." (Tr. 599.)

III. Administrative Hearing Testimony

Plaintiff was in her thirties at the time of the administrative hearing and lived with her parents. (Tr. 37.) She had a high school education, had taken some college courses, and had her real estate certificate. (Tr. 37-38.) Plaintiff's past relevant work included customer service representative, sales clerk, office manager, and auditing clerk. (Tr. 58-59.) Plaintiff testified that she last worked as a receptionist for an insurance company and that job ended in October 2009 when the company closed. (Tr. 40-41.) She then received unemployment compensation and looked for work. (Tr. 40, 50.)

Plaintiff stated that in 2006 she injured her back and had a worker's compensation claim. (Tr. 39, 43.) She testified that she had constant low back pain that radiated into her legs. (Tr. 46-47.) She stated that she could not sit or stand longer then fifteen minutes without needing to change position, and that she could not walk more than ten minutes without needing to sit. (Tr. 49.) She also testified that she could lift up to ten pounds. ( Id. ) Plaintiff further testified that she had anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and mood disorder. (Tr. 51.) She reported that she took medication that interfered with her ...

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