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Watkins v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

August 29, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, [1] Commissioner Social Security Administration DEFENDANT



         Currently before the Court is the Report and Recommendation ("R&R") (Doc. 16) of the Honorable Erin L. Wiedemann, Chief United States Magistrate Judge for the Western District of Arkansas, filed in this case on July 2, 2019. The Magistrate Judge recommended affirming the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision to deny Plaintiff Damon L. Watkins's claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act. Mr. Watkins filed objections to the R&R (Doc. 17), and the Court has now reviewed the entire case de novo, paying particular attention to those findings or recommendations to which objections were made. See 28 U.S.C. 636(b)(1)(C). For the reasons stated herein, Mr. Watkins's objections are overruled, and the R&R is adopted in its entirety.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Mr. Watkins filed his application for disability benefits on June 1, 2016, alleging an inability to work since November 14, 2014 (when he was age 51), due to a total left knee replacement, osteoarthritis and a "dead bone" in his right ankle, degenerative disc disease in his lower back, and carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists. According to Mr. Watklns's testimony at the administrative hearing on March 6, 2017, he worked as an industrial aircraft welder from 1997 to 2010, and then he was in prison from 2010 until his release on November 14, 2014-the same date he claims his disabilities began. (Doc. 10 at 35-36). He acknowledges that during his time in prison, he did not receive any medical care. He also does not dispute the ALJ's finding that he did not engage in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date of November 14, 2014, to September 30, 2015, the last date that he was eligible to receive disability insurance benefits due to his lack of work history.[2] Finally, he does not dispute that he received no medical care from his onset date until the expiration of his insured status.

         The ALJ was obligated to review the record, including any medical evidence Mr. Watkins submitted, to determine whether he suffered from a disability prior to the expiration of his insured status. The Social Security Act defines a disability as "the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). Proving that Mr. Watkins was disabled during his window of eligibility was the main difficulty in his case, since objective proof in the form of medical records did not exist.

         The Eighth Circuit has acknowledged that "[e]vidence of a disability subsequent to the expiration of one's insured status can be relevant," but only to the extent that such evidence might "help to elucidate a medical condition during the time for which benefits might be rewarded." Pyland v. Apfel, 149 F.3d 873, 877 (8th Cir. 1998). In other words, any medical evidence that a claimant acquired after the expiration of his insured status would only be relevant to his disability claim if it helped explain a medical condition he had before his insured status expired. For example, if a claimant suffered a heart attack after the expiration of his insured status, all the hospital records and doctors' reports concerning the heart attack would be relevant to his claim for disability benefits only if the other medical records established that he had been suffering from a disabling heart condition during the relevant time period. See, e.g., Milton v. Schweiker, 669 F.2d 554, 555 n.1 (8th Cir. 1982) (per curiam).

         Turning to Mr. Watkins's particular case, he admits he did not see a doctor during his period of eligibility and for many years prior to that. In fact, the first medical record in his file that describes any of his claimed disabling conditions is dated November 5, 2015- which is approximately one month after his eligibility for benefits expired. Nonetheless, Mr. Watkins argued to the ALJ that he was disabled during his period of eligibility due to: (1) reconstructive surgery of his left knee, (2) osteoarthritis and associated limitations related to his right ankle, (3) degenerative disc disease, and (4) carpal tunnel syndrome in his wrists. The Court will review the facts surrounding each of these conditions in turn.

         Beginning with Mr. Watkins's left knee, there is indirect medical evidence in the file that he had knee surgery in 1995 "for meniscal cartilage damage" and a repeat procedure in 2003 "for mechanical locking and more cartilage loss." (Doc. 10 at 257). The details surrounding these surgeries are few, and what is reported about them comes from Dr. Charles K. Hanby's notes recorded during a visit with Mr. Watkins on February 26, 2016. The administrative record contains no primary documents concerning knee surgeries in 1995 and 2003, and there are no relevant medical records in the file before November 5, 2015.[3] Accordingly, there is no medical evidence to support Mr. Watkins's complaints regarding his knee during the period of time he was eligible for benefits (November 2014 to September 2015), and for at least the decade prior to that period of eligibility.

         The first knee-related medical record that appears in the file is from Mr. Watkins's visit with Dr. Hanby on February 26, 2016, nearly five months after Mr. Watkins's window of eligibility expired. During that visit, Mr. Watkins complained about his knee having "gotten a lot worse" over "the last couple of years." (Doc. 10 at 257). He also reported that he "limps more," the knee "has gotten stiffer," the knee "gets swollen" and "hurts" "after his exercises," and that these problems have caused "difficulty continuing to work." Id. He admitted he did not use a cane but felt it was "just harder to do things." Id. Dr. Hanby diagnosed severe left knee degenerative joint disease and discussed possible treatment options with Mr. Watkins, including using a cane to walk, injections, and total knee arthroplasty. Mr. Watkins was not interested in injection therapy, so the doctor discussed with him the possibility of surgery. The doctor noted that he considered surgery a "reasonable" option for Mr. Watkins, "[i]f he gets to that point. . . ." Id. Mr. Watkins elected to have total knee arthroplasty surgery on May 3, 2016. Id. at 248.

         During the administrative hearing, Mr. Watkins testified about the nature of his knee condition during the relevant eligibility period. This is the only evidence of knee-related disability for that period of time. Mr. Watkins testified that he experienced knee pain around the time he was released from prison in November of 2014. This knee pain worsened while he was working for Airport Lube from December of 2014 through August of 2015. He found he had trouble performing his work as a mechanic because he could not squat down due to knee pain. Id. at 38. He further testified that his knee condition had been severe "for a long time," "[a]t least a year." Id. at 41. A "typical day" for Mr. Watkins, "right around September 2015"-the month his eligibility for benefits expired- involved "a lot of pain" and "not normal pain." Id. at 42-43. The testimony did not go into any further detail about his condition at the time he was eligible for benefits.

         Turning to Mr. Watkins right ankle complaints, he did not seek treatment for pain associated with this condition until August 24, 2016, nearly a year after his eligibility period expired. At that time, Dr. Jason H. Pleimann ordered an MRI in response to Mr. Watkins's complaints of hindfoot pain and swelling, which were described as "worse on some days than others." Id. at 295. Dr. Pleimann diagnosed Mr. Watkins in August of 2016 with "degenerative changes through the hindfoot joints" and "right hindfoot arthritis" and advised Mr. Watkins that his treatment options included a brace and possibly an injection. Id. Although the arthritis diagnosis in 2016 stemmed from a degenerative condition that presumably began months or even years before, there is no objective evidence in the record to establish the condition of Mr. Watkins's right ankle during the period of eligibility. Further, his testimony about that period of time was not particularly descriptive. When he was asked to testify about how he felt prior to September 30, 2015, he mentioned "[t]he hurting in my foot and my knee and my back," which had gone on "for some time." Id. at 40. He further described the pain in his ankle "around September 2015" as "really unbearable" and "not normal pain." Id. at 42-43. No. further details were offered.

         As to Mr. Watkins's complaint of back pain caused by degenerative disc disease, this condition first appears in the medical records on November 5, 2015. He saw Dr. Vanessa Hardin Branch that day and reported experiencing lower back pain. Id. at 286. She ordered Mr. Watkins to undergo an MRI of his lumbar spine, which was completed on November 17, 2015. Id. at 287-88. Dr. Branch diagnosed him with multilevel lumbar spondylosis, mild lateral recess narrowing and moderate foraminal narrowing, loss of disc height and T2 hyperintensity, and no canal or foraminal stenosis. Id. at 288. No. further information appears in the record about Mr. Watkins's back pain or any debilitating effects caused by such pain, including any restrictions on his mobility. As for the time period prior to the expiration of his insured status, he offers no testimony that would assist in describing the condition of his back at that time.

         Lastly, with respect to Mr. Watkins's complaint of carpal tunnel syndrome in his wrists, there is no medical evidence documenting such a diagnosis, whether before, during, or after the period of eligibility for benefits. Similarly, he did not mention carpal tunnel syndrome during his testimony before the ALJ, though he did mention that he would sometimes wake up to find his hands numb, or else feel his hands go numb during the day. Id. at 33.

         Shifting now to the ALJ's opinion, he found that none of Mr. Watkins's claimed impairments met or equaled the severity of any impairments listed in the Listing of Impairments found in Appendix I, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. Indeed, the ALJ noted a complete lack of any objective evidence to support Mr. Watkins's claimed conditions during the relevant time period, and the only subjective evidence he offered was in the form of testimony presented at the hearing. That testimony generally noted his knee pain, ankle pain, and back pain during the eligibility period, without going into any detail regarding the nature and extent of the pain at that time and the impact the pain had on his ability to perform any substantial gainful activity. Nevertheless, "in consideration of the chronic, progressive nature of [Mr. Watkins's] impairments, and in an effort to afford [him] the benefit of the doubt," the ALJ assumed for the sake of ...

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