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Baldwin v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 25, 2015

Elizabeth Jo Baldwin, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


BRUCE G. MacDonald, Magistrate Judge.

Currently pending before the Court is Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 16). Defendant filed her Brief ("Response") (Doc. 17), and Plaintiff filed her reply (Doc. 18). Plaintiff brings this cause of action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner for Social Security pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The United States Magistrate Judge has received the written consent of both parties, and presides over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Rule 73, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.


A. Procedural History

On May 25, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") alleging disability as of September 9, 2009 due to ankle pain (left ankle injury), migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, chronic pain syndrome, fatigue, and knee pain. See Administrative Record ("AR") at 19, 21, 59, 94-96, 103-05, 116, 124, 183, 213, 216, 239, 271. Plaintiff's date last insured was December 31, 2014. Id. at 21, 95, 104, 183, 213, 239. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied this application on September 23, 2011. Id. at 19, 94-102, 116-19. On October 26, 2011, Plaintiff filed a request for reconsideration, and on January 30, 2012, SSA denied Plaintiff's request. Id. at 19, 53-54, 103-15, 124-26. On February 24, 2012, Plaintiff filed her request for hearing. Id. at 19, 128. On September 11, 2012, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") George W. Reyes. AR at 19, 56-93. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on October, 2012. Id. at 16-28. On November 19, 2012, Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, and on December 23, 2013, review was denied. Id. at 1-3, 14-15. On February 14, 2014, Plaintiff filed this cause of action. Compl. (Doc. 1).

B. Factual History

Plaintiff was fifty-two (52) years old at the time of the administrative hearing and forty-nine (49) at the time of the alleged onset of her disability. AR at 26, 74, 95, 104, 183, 189, 213, 239, 271. Plaintiff obtained a high school equivalency degree, and has taken some college courses. Id. at 26, 74, 89, 94, 103, 217. Prior to her alleged disability, Plaintiff worked for Domino's Pizza and at call centers for TeleTech and Citibank, as well as for convenience stores as a cashier. Id. at 74-75, 101, 113, 196-210, 226-31, 259, 280.

On August 6, 2011, Plaintiff filled out an Exertional Daily Activities Questionnaire, indicating that she "get[s] up early and ha[s] household chores to do." Id. at 223. Plaintiff described the chores as "mak[ing] the bed and try[ing] to sweep and/or vacuum... feed[ing] [her] animals, wash[ing] dishes, do[ing] laundry, cook[ing] dinner, [and] water[ing] plants outdoors." Id. Plaintiff indicated that she walks on their acre property to do the watering and feeding, and also waters a garden. AR at 223. Plaintiff reported that she does this two (2) or more times per week, and if she doesn't feel up to it, her husband takes care of the chores after work. Id. Plaintiff reported "chronic migraines and a lot of muscle and joint pain with swelling which are very tiring" and cause her to "lay down at least one or more times per day." Id. She also reported having difficulty sleeping. Id .; see also AR at 242. Plaintiff indicated that she carries laundry and puts it away, but cannot lift things that are heavier than approximately fifteen (15) pounds, "as it creates new muscle pain and fatigue." AR at 224. Plaintiff indicated that she grocery shops once per month and cooks three (3) to four (4) times per week, and her family does the rest. Id. Plaintiff further indicated that she only does light dusting, work in the kitchen, and laundry. Id. She also reported that she used to be able to clean thoroughly, but can no longer do so. Id. Plaintiff stated that she has headaches and constant neck pain, as well as the Fibromyalgia[, ]" in addition to "stomach issues I have called irritable bowel syndrome." Id. at 225.

On September 9, 2011, Plaintiff filled out a Headache Questionnaire indicating that she has had severe headaches since 1998, and has them at least four (4) days per week. AR at 235-36. Plaintiff reported that the headaches last anywhere from one (1) day to a week or longer. Id. at 235. Plaintiff further reported that the headaches cause pain on either side of her face or head, and she needs to avoid light, gets sick to her stomach with vomiting, and has difficulty sleeping. Id. Plaintiff reported that there is no specific activity that triggers her headaches, and that she must lay down in a quiet, dark room. Id. Plaintiff further stated that her medications "simply take[] the edge off, nothing [she] [has] ever taken has completely relieved the pain." Id. at 236. Plaintiff further reported that she cannot drive, because the pain is too severe. AR at 236.

On October 3, 2011, Plaintiff reported that she could "only shower every two to three days a week as opposed to daily[, ]" her daughter combs her hair for her, she wears only loose clothing that do not have a lot of buttons or zippers, and eats "easy to get food such as yogurt and jello or prepared foods that can be heated in the microwave." Id. at 245.

1. Plaintiff's Testimony

At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff testified that she has not worked since September 9, 2009, but had looked for work in customer service since that time. AR at 59-60. Plaintiff further testified that she had been unsuccessful in securing work, and had received unemployment benefits through the State of Arizona. Id. at 59-61. Plaintiff also testified that she received unemployment until the second quarter of 2011, and had told the State of Arizona that she was able to work in order to receive those benefits. Id. at 61.

More specifically, Plaintiff testified that her chronic migraines, as well as pain in her legs, neck, shoulders, elbows, hips, and left ankle contributed to her inability to work. Id. at 61-62. Plaintiff further testified that since September 9, 2009, her health has gotten worse. Id. at 62. Plaintiff testified that her "pain has gotten worse, the swelling has become more pronounced, the stiffness." AR at 63. Plaintiff further testified that in September 2009, she was able to do minimal housework, but now cannot do any housework or does very, very little. Id. Plaintiff testified that the housework she can do includes putting clothes in the laundry basket, dishes in the sink, and possibly light dusting. Id. Plaintiff further testified that her husband and daughter, who lives with them, do most of the housework. Id. Plaintiff testified that it is possible her decrease in health is related to stress arising from finances and being in constant pain. Id.

Plaintiff testified that she sees her primary care physician approximately once per month or once every other month. AR at 64. Plaintiff denied ever abusing alcohol, and estimated the last time she had a drink was approximately five (5) years prior. Id. at 64-65. When the ALJ asked about her medical records indicating that she used alcohol "rarely, " Plaintiff testified that she did not recall making such a statement, but did not deny having made it either. Id. at 72-73. Plaintiff further testified that she had used marijuana and cocaine in the past, but that her last use occurred between twenty-three (23) and twenty-five (25) years before. Id. at 65. Plaintiff also testified that she did not abuse prescription drugs, but that she has a prescription for methadone for her pain. Id. at 66. Plaintiff admitted that in June 2010 she was admitted to Tucson Medical Center ("TMC") after taking one of her husband's vicodin for her pain, but she did not recall making the statements reflected in her medical record from that date. AR at 66-68, 72-73. Plaintiff further testified that she was admitted for an accidental overdose. Id. at 73-74.

Plaintiff testified that she can lift approximately eight (8) pounds with either arm without hurting herself, equating this to a gallon of milk. Id. at 68-69. Plaintiff further testified that she has been so limited for the past year and half with her right arm, but since July 2000 with her left arm. Id. at 69. Plaintiff testified that she rarely drives. Id. at 70. Plaintiff further testified that she drove approximately three (3) weeks prior from her home in Vail to her doctor's office, because her husband was unavailable to take her. AR at 70. Plaintiff also testified that her doctor wants her to walk as much as she can. Id. at 70-71. Plaintiff testified that she walks around the hiking trail on her acre property two or three times per week. Id. at 71. Plaintiff also testified that she walks for approximately twenty (20) minutes, sometimes stopping to rest and sometimes not. Id. Plaintiff further testified that she swims, which is strongly recommended by her doctor, twice per week. Id. Plaintiff estimated that she swims for approximately twenty (20) minutes at a time. AR at 71-72. Plaintiff testified that the exercise helps momentarily; however, nothing eliminates the pain completely. Id. at 72.

Plaintiff testified that she obtained her high school equivalency degree and had taken some college courses. Id. at 74, 89. Plaintiff further testified that she had worked at call centers from 1999 to 2009. Id. Plaintiff testified that for approximately one (1) year prior to that she was a manager in training for Domino's Pizza. Id. at 74. Plaintiff further testified that she left Domino's Pizza to work at TeleTech, because it offered better pay and benefits. Id. at 75. Plaintiff left TeleTech in 2004 to work at the Citibank call center, again for better pay and better benefits. AR at 75. Plaintiff testified that she was terminated from Citibank in 2009, because she could not minimize the time on each call below the company policy; however, Plaintiff further testified that she was also using her leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") for migraines. Id. at 75-76; see also AR at 222. Plaintiff believes that part of why she was terminated related to her absences due to migraines. Id. at 80; see also AR at 216, 236.

Plaintiff testified that she has been prescribed methadone for her pain, levothyroxine for her thyroid disorder, alprazolam for anxiety, carisoprodol for muscle pain, citalopram for depression gemfibrozil for cholesterol, and trazodone for sleep. Id. at 76-77. Plaintiff further testified that the medicines cause side effects such as sleepiness, dizziness, drowsiness, blurred vision, and dry mouth, as well as causing her memory to be "fuzzy." Id. at 77. Plaintiff testified that she naps once or twice per day, usually for about twenty (20) minutes, but sometimes up to an hour. AR at 77-78. On days when she cannot fall asleep, Plaintiff testified that she still lays down and closes her eyes to rest. Id. at 78.

Plaintiff further testified that she has migraines on almost a daily basis, and that her methadone prescription is for both her headache pain and her fibromyalgia pain. Id. at 78-79. Plaintiff testified that her migraines last anywhere from eight (8) hours to ten (10) days. Id. at 79. In order to treat them, she places a warm wrap around her neck and lays down in a dark room. AR at 79; see also AR at 236. While having a migraine, Plaintiff testified that she tries to move as little as possible. AR at 79-80. Plaintiff further testified that she has been suffering from migraines for approximately ten (10) to fifteen (15) years. Id. at 80. Plaintiff also testified that she was able to work, because she had an understanding manager and the FMLA to protect her job, which allowed her to "go home to a dark room and rest." Id at 80-81.

Plaintiff testified that she is not receiving any psychiatric treatment, but has been prescribed alprazolam and citalopram for her anxiety and depression. Id. at 81. Plaintiff further testified that the pain causes her depression, and that it causes her to not "feel like doing anything with anyone" and "just lay around[.]" Id. Plaintiff also ...

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