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Robinson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Eastern Division

August 12, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration DEFENDANT


         Plaintiff Paulette Robinson (“Robinson”) began this case by filing a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 405(g). In the complaint, Robinson challenged the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), a decision based upon the findings of an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).

         Robinson maintains that the ALJ's findings are not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.[1] Robinson so maintains for the following reasons:

... (1) the ALJ erred by failing to fully and fairly develop the record; (2) the ALJ erred in evaluating the consistency of ... Robinson's allegations of severely limiting foot pain and impairments; (3) the ALJ erred in considering and weighing the medical evidence; (4) the ALJ erred in the Residual Functional Capacity assessment; and, as a result, (5) the ALJ failed to elicit vocational evidence showing ... Robinson could perform jobs available in the national economy.

See Docket Entry 10 at CM/ECF 2.

         Robinson summarized the testimonial, medical, and documentary evidence in the record, and the Commissioner did not challenge the summary or otherwise place it in dispute. The summary will not be reproduced, except to note several matters germane to the issues raised in the parties' briefs.

         Robinson was born on August 23, 1964, and was fifty years old at the time she became unable to work on July 24, 2015. She filed her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income payments on September 20, 2016, and alleged that she was unable to work as a result of, inter alia, osteoarthritis in her spine and knees and an impairment in her right foot.

         The record reflects that during the period between February 13, 2014, and August 21, 2017, Robinson sought care at the Wynne Medical Clinic and was seen there primarily by Dr. Mark Bradshaw, M.D. (“Bradshaw”) and Dr. James Cathey, M.D. (“Cathey”). See Transcript at 734-851, 870-888. Robinson was seen for a number of complaints, the most compelling of which appear to have been her low back pain and the pain in her lower extremities. She represents, and the Court accepts, that “[p]hysical examinations consistently showed lower leg and foot swelling, foot pain (primarily along the right distal first metatarsal), severe left knee pain, a limp, and low back pain radiating into the left lower extremity.” See Docket Entry 10 at CM/ECF 5 [citing Transcript at 746, 748, 756, 758, 787]. An MRI of her lumbar spine performed on December 22, 2015, produced unremarkable results. See Transcript at 662-663. She was prescribed medication for her pain, medication that included tramadol and hydrocodone. On at least one occasion, Bradshaw gave Robinson an injection in her left knee joint to help relieve her pain. See Transcript at 751.

         During the period Robinson was being seen at the Wynne Medical Clinic, she also sought emergency room care for her complaints of pain in her back and lower extremities. See Transcript at 406-410 (05/27/2015 presentation for complaints of severe pain in right foot); 375-379, 402 (07/18/2015 presentation for complaints of mild to moderate pain in her right big toe); 355-365, 556 (08/15/2015 presentation for complaints that included mild back pain); 588-591 (09/04/2016 presentation for complaints of moderate lumbar pain); 864-868 (02/18/2017 presentation for complaints of mild low back pain).[2] She was typically prescribed medication for her pain and instructed to follow up with her primary care physicians.

         Robinson also sought care for depression and anxiety during the period between February 13, 2014, and August 21, 2017. For instance, Robinson was seen by Bradshaw on May 8, 2015, and his progress note reflects the following:

[Robinson] to be evaluated for depressive disorder not elsewhere classified. Visit today is because of worsening symptoms. The diagnosis of depression was made 10 plus years ago. This episode of depression has been present for the past year. Currently not on any antidepressants. Current affective symptoms include insomnia, crying spells and sadness. The symptoms as constant and overwhelming. Presently, ... ROBINSON admits to fleeting thoughts of suicide (she denies a suicide plan and is able to contract with me). Psychiatric history is significant for prior depressive episodes (one time previously) and prior suicide attempt (2004, OD attempt). She is moving to a new apartment and is told she must have a doctors note to keep her dog in new apartment. She is more depressed due to fear of losing her dog.

See Transcript at 754 [emphasis in original]. Bradshaw prescribed Zoloft and wrote Robinson a note so that she could reside with her dog.

         On November 21, 2015, Robinson sought emergency room care for anxiety. See Transcript at 665-669. She reported that she was under a great deal of stress as her mother had recently been diagnosed with cancer. “Anxiety as acute reaction to exceptional stress” was diagnosed. See Transcript at 668. It appears that she was prescribed hydroxyzine pamoate and encouraged to seek additional care.[3]

         Robinson saw Bradshaw on December 5, 2015, for complaints of anxiety. See Transcript at 785-786. He noted her recent emergency room presentation and observed that her anxiety had grown worse with her mother's passing. He diagnosed acute grief reaction and appears to have continued her on hydroxyzine pamoate.

         Robinson saw Cathey approximately fourteen months later for complaints of anxiety. See Transcript at 874-877 (02/28/2017). Her symptoms included chest pain, hyperventilation, palpitations, and shortness of breath and were triggered by stress. He diagnosed a generalized anxiety disorder and prescribed lorazepam.

         On July 5, 2016, Robinson saw Dr. Charles R. Arkin, M.D., (“Arkin”), a rheumatologist, at Cathey's behest. See Transcript at 560-566, 819. An x-ray revealed mild osteoarthritis changes in Robinson's lower back, and a physical examination revealed “mild tenderness of the SI joint, discomfort with lumbar spine extension, knee joint crepitus with mobility, right ankle swelling with range of motion discomfort, pes planus bilaterally, and metatarsophalangeal tender to palpation.” See Docket Entry 10 at CM/ECF 6 [citing Transcript at 563]. Arkin also noted pain in Robinson's weight-bearing joints. He assessed pain in multiple joints and ordered additional testing.

         Beginning in what appears to have been sometime in 2015 and continuing through at least November of 2016, Robinson was seen for her foot impairment by Dr. Michael Haughey, D.P.M., (“Haughey”). Robinson summarized Haughey's treatment as follows:

... Robinson's right foot condition required several surgeries. (Tr. 709-711, 721-724) First, she had a Chevron osteotomy first right metatarsal. (Tr. 721-724) After experiencing severe pain when ambulating from the hardware placed during the chevron surgery, she underwent hardware removal surgery. (Tr. 709-711)
Four months after the second surgery, on July 21, 2016, Dr. Haughey gave Ms. Robinson a pain injection to treat toe cramping and pain. (Tr. 715) Dr. Haughey gave Ms. Robinson another pain injection on November 2, 2016. (Tr. 716) At that time, Dr. Haughey assessed Ms. Robinson with achilles tendinitis. (Tr. 716).
On November 16, 2016, Dr. Haughey noted the previous injection did not help. Ms. Robinson was still having pain, especially in the left foot and ankle, increased with ambulation. (Tr. 718) After the previous failed surgeries, Ms. Robinson wanted to pursue conservative treatment. So, Dr. Haughey prescribed Ms. Robinson with a custom “Arizona brace” for her left foot. (Tr. 718)

See Docket Entry 10 at CM/ECF 7.

         On December 28, 2016, a podiatrist completed a medical source statement-physical (“Statement”) on behalf of Robinson. See Transcript at 852-854. The podiatrist identified Robinson's impairments as severe osteoarthritic and inflammatory changes of her left foot and ankle. The podiatrist opined that during a typical eight hour workday, Robinson could lift and carry less than ten pounds, could stand and walk for less than two hours, and could sit for about four hours. The podiatrist also opined that Robinson is unable to reach in any direction, has difficulty with handling and gross manipulation, and should avoid exposure to virtually all environmental stimulants. The podiatrist based the opinions on surgical inspections and radiographic examinations.

         An assessment of Robinson's physical residual functional capacity was made by state agency physician Dr. William Harrison, MD, (“Harrison”) on December 9, 2016, and state agency physician Dr. Clarence Ballard, M.D., (“Ballard”) on February 8, 2017. See Transcript at 70-74, 100-101. Harrison and Ballard agreed that during a typical eight hour workday, Robinson could occasionally lift and carry twenty pounds; frequently lift and carry ten pounds; and stand, walk, and sit for six hours.

         An assessment of Robinson's mental residual functional capacity was made by two state agency professionals, Dr. Abesie Kelly, Ph.D., (“Kelly”) and Dr. Kevin Santulli, Ph.D. (“Santulli”). See Transcript at 68-70, 97-99. Kelly and Santulli agreed that Robinson's mental impairments do not impose more than mild limitations in adaptive functioning and are not severe.

         The record contains a summary of Robinson's reportable earnings for the years 1985 through 2016. See Transcript at 222. The summary reflects that she worked steadily, at least between 2005 and 2011.

         Robinson completed a function report in connection with her applications. See Transcript at 261-268. In the report, she represented that she cannot stand, walk, or sit for too long because of the pain in her back and knees. She can attend to her personal care, although it typically takes her longer to do so because of her pain. She can prepare simple meals and perform household and yard work, although those activities also take longer to perform because of her pain. Robinson has hobbies that include watching television and sewing. She spends time with others and participates in church activities at least twice a week. She does not use an assistive device to walk or stand.

         Robinson also completed a pain report. See Transcript at 271, 273. In the report, she represented that she has pain in her back, hips, legs, and feet caused by walking, bending, squatting, sitting too long, and rising. She estimated that she can stand, walk, and sit for about ninety minutes before she begins to experience pain.

         Robinson testified during the administrative hearing. See Transcript at 39-55. She was fifty-three years old at the time. She works one to two hours a day, six days a week at Life Gym doing general cleaning. She previously worked as a cook at a restaurant and for a trucking company as an over-the-road truck driver. She is unable to work because of pain in her back, knees, and ankles. Robinson takes prescription medication for pain, medication that “sometimes” helps relieve the pain. See Transcript at 45. When she is at home, she watches television and does some housework. She rehearses with a church choir on Wednesday evenings and performs with the choir on Sunday mornings. Robinson takes medication for her anxiety, and the medication “helps some.” See Transcript at 51. Her church activities also help relieve her anxiety. She wears an “Arizona” brace on her left foot during the day.

         The ALJ found at step two of the sequential evaluation process that Robinson's severe impairments include “other and unspecified arthropathies, disorders of the back, ..., and an anxiety disorder not otherwise specified.” See Transcript at 17. The ALJ assessed Robinson's residual functional capacity and found that she can perform light work with the following additional limitations:

... [Robinson] can perform semi-skilled (SVP3 or 4) work and can perform work where interpersonal contact is routine but superficial, the complexity of tasks is learned by experience, involves several variables, uses judgment within limits, and the supervision ...

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