United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division
DAMON L. WATKINS PLAINTIFF
ANDREW M. SAUL,  Commissioner Social Security Administration DEFENDANT
OPINION AND ORDER
TIMOTHY L. BROOKS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
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. Finally, he does not dispute that he
received no medical care from his onset date until the
expiration of his insured status.
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
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).
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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