United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas
February 11, 2015
KATHERINE MAE SANDERS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.
JOE J. VOLPE, Magistrate Judge.
The following recommended disposition was prepared for U.S. District Judge Susan W. Wright. A party to this dispute may object to this recommendation in writing. An objection must be specific and state the factual and/or legal basis for the objection. An objection to a factual finding must identify the finding and the evidence supporting the objection. Objections must be filed with the clerk of the court no later than 14 days from the date of this recommendation. The objecting party must serve the opposing party with a copy of an objection. Failing to object within 14 days waives the right to appeal questions of fact. If no objections are filed, Judge Wright may adopt the recommended disposition without independently reviewing the record evidence. An objecting party who seeks to submit new, different, or additional evidence, or to obtain a hearing for that purpose, must address the following matters as part of written objections: (1) why the record before the magistrate judge was inadequate, (2) why the evidence was not presented to the magistrate judge, and (3) details and/or copies of any testimony and/or documents to be proffered at a hearing. Based on this submission, Judge Wright will determine the need for a hearing.
Katherine Mae Sanders seeks judicial review of the partial denial of her application for social security disability benefits. Ms. Sanders last worked in May 2008 as a store clerk. She bases disability on neck injury, depression, prior lung failure, prior liver failure, prior kidney failure, chronic headaches, right side paralysis, and shortness of breath. She maintains she has been disabled since May 2008.
The Commissioner's decision. After considering the application, the Commissioner determined Ms. Sanders was disabled beginning February 15, 2010, based on the residual effects of pneumonia and the H1N1 virus. Prior to that date, the ALJ determined Ms. Sanders could have done some light work, to include her past work as a laborer on a poultry processing line. Because a person who can do her past work is not disabled under social security law, the ALJ determined Ms. Sanders was not disabled before February 15, 2010. Thus, the ALJ awarded benefits beginning February 15, 2010. Because Ms. Sanders sought earlier benefits, she asked the Appeals Council to review her case.
After the Appeals Council denied review,  the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision for the purpose of judicial review. Ms. Sanders filed this case to challenge the denial of earlier benefits. In reviewing the decision, the court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the decision and whether the ALJ made a legal error.
Ms. Sanders's allegations. Ms. Sanders challenges the determination that she wasn't disabled before February 15, 2010. She says the medical evidence about the date of the onset of her disability is ambiguous and the ALJ should have asked a medical expert about the date. She insists she was disabled before February 15, 2010, due to depression, neck pain, and pancreatitis. For these reasons, she maintains substantial evidence does not support the unfavorable aspect of the ALJ's decision.
Applicable principles. For substantial evidence to support the decision, a reasonable mind must accept the evidence as adequate to show Ms. Sanders could have done some light work, to include her past work as a laborer on poultry processing line, before February 15, 2010. "Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds." The ALJ placed the following limitations on light work: (1) occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and climbing; (2) simple, routine, repetitive tasks; (3) simple work-related decisions; and (4) incidental contact with co-workers, supervisors, and the general public. The court must determine whether a reasonable mind would accept the evidence as adequate to show Ms. Sanders could have done worked within these parameters before February 15, 2010.
After carful consideration of the record, the Court concludes that a reasonable mind would accept the evidence as adequate because the medical evidence shows little physical or mental impairment before February 15, 2010. Therefore, the Court recommends that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.
Ms. Sanders insists depression, neck pain, and pancreatitis prevented her from working before February 15, 2010. But this allegation, alone, isn't not enough to prove disability. The determination about a claimant's ability to work must be supported by medical evidence. And while the Court is sympathetic to Ms. Sanders's claims, most of the medical evidence flowed from a March 2010 hospitalization.
On March 2, 2010, Ms. Sanders was hospitalized for acute respiratory distress syndrome and multiple organ failure flowing from pneumonia and the H1N1 virus; she required extensive mechanical ventilation. After she was stabilized, Ms. Sanders underwent rehabilitation. With treatment, rehabilitation, and time, Ms. Sanders improved. To the extent the ALJ erred about the date of the onset of disability, the error does not act in Ms. Sanders's favor, because there is no medical evidence showing Ms. Sanders was disabled as early as February 15, 2010. Identifying that date as onset requires presuming Ms. Sanders was disabled two weeks before her hospitalization. There was no need to consult a medical expert about the possibility of an earlier onset date because there is no medical evidence from November 2, 2009, to March 2, 2010.
Prior to the March 2, 2010, hospitalization, Ms. Sanders complained about neck pain and depression. Her primary care provider (PCP) prescribed pain relievers and anti-depressants, but recommended no speciality care. Importantly, the medical evidence reveals that Ms. Sanders's symptoms responded to treatment. "An impairment which can be controlled by treatment or medication is not considered disabling." The PCP's failure to recommend speciality care - orthopedic care for neck pain or mental health treatment for depression - also supports the ALJ's conclusion.
In May 2009, Ms. Sanders developed acute pancreatitis. Realizing acute pancreatitis can cause intense abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting, the medical records show that the condition resolved. There is no evidence pancreatitis prevented Ms. Sanders from working for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. Pancreatitis provides no basis for disability.
The evidence also supports the ALJ's conclusion that Ms. Sanders was capable of performing her past relevant work before February 15, 2010. Medical experts twice reviewed Ms. Sanders's treatment records: five-and-one-half months after the March 2, 2010, hospitalization and fourteen months after the hospitalization. Both times, medical experts agreed that Ms. Sanders could work within the ALJ's physical limitations. Thus, even though medical experts opined that Ms. Sanders has the physical ability to do light work, the ALJ gave Ms. Sanders the benefit of the doubt by finding she was disabled after the hospitalization.
To the extent Ms. Sanders relies on depression, the psychological examiner reported no significant limitations in adaptive ability or completing tasks in a timely fashion. During the evaluation, Ms. Sanders attributed depression to the 1998 death of her son,  but she worked for many years after her son's death. She attributed not working to physical impairment and reported getting along with co-workers, supervisors, and the public. A mental health expert opined that Ms. Sanders can do unskilled work involving tasks learned and performed by rote, few variables, little judgment, incidental interpersonal contact, and simple, direct, concrete supervision. That is the type of work the ALJ required.
In the past, Ms. Sanders worked as a laborer on a poultry processing line. The ALJ asked a vocational expert about work for a person with Ms. Sanders's limitations. The vocational expert testified that a person with those limitations can work as a laborer on a poultry processing line. The vocational evidence supports a conclusions that Ms. Sanders was capable of performing her past work.
Conclusion and Recommendation
Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision because a reasonable mind would accept the evidence as adequate to support the decision. The ALJ made no harmful legal error. For these reasons, the Court recommends DENYING Ms. Sanders's request for relief (docket entry # 2) and AFFIRMING the Commissioner's decision.