Lawson v. Astrue

Decision Date02 March 2010
Docket NumberCase No. 1:09-cv-078.
PartiesKaren S. LAWSON, Plaintiff, v. Michael J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Ohio

Gary Marc Blumenthal, Dayton, OH, for Plaintiff.

John J. Stark, US Attorney Office, Columbus, OH, Henry S. Kramzyk, Social Security Administration Office of General Counsel, Yvette S. Sanders-Guyton, Social Security Administration, Chicago, IL, for Defendant.

ORDER

SANDRA S. BECKWITH, Senior District Judge.

Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security, has filed objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation concerning Plaintiff's claim for Social Security Disability benefits. The Magistrate Judge recommends that this Court reverse the final decision of the Commissioner denying Lawson's claim for disability benefits. (Doc. 19) His Report concludes that the ALJ did not evaluate Lawson's fibromyalgia impairment in accordance with Sixth Circuit precedent, and failed to properly consider her treating physicians' opinions about her functional limitations. The Commissioner objects, arguing the ALJ properly considered the treating physicians' opinions, and that his decision concerning her functional capabilities is supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 20)

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Lawson filed two prior applications for benefits, one in October 1995 and another in May 1999. Both of those applications were denied at the hearing level, and she did not pursue judicial review. Her current application dated September 25, 2001 alleges an onset disability date of December 7, 2000. (TR 806-807) She claimed she is disabled by a back injury, muscle weakness, rheumatoid arthritis and tissue disease, fatigue and depression. Her application was initially denied after a May 2003 ALJ hearing, at which both Lawson and Dr. Dan Elliott, a medical expert for the Commissioner, testified. (TR 1392-1426) The ALJ found that she had no exertional or strength limitations. (TR 744) The Appeals Council vacated this decision and remanded the case with instructions to further evaluate Lawson's mental impairments, as well as her treating physicians' opinions concerning the extent of her physical impairments. (TR 760-763)

After remand, the ALJ conducted an additional hearing on October 5, 2006, at which Lawson, a psychological expert, and a vocational expert all testified. (TR 1441-1480) The ALJ subsequently issued a decision in which he found that Lawson suffers from several severe impairments: (1) lumbar spine arthritis and/or fibromyalgia; (2) left elbow ulnar nerve compression residuals; (3) dysthymia with recurrent major depression; (4) generalized anxiety disorder; and (5) borderline intellectual functioning. The ALJ found that none of these impairments meet or equal the Listings. Based upon his assessment of the record evidence, the ALJ found that Lawson lacked the residual functional capacity to: (1) lift more than ten pounds frequently or twenty pounds occasionally; (2) do any job requiring prolonged resting of her left elbow on a hard surface; (3) climb ladders or scaffolds; (4) work at unprotected heights or around moving machinery; (5) follow complex instructions; (6) do any job involving over-the-shoulder job supervision or requiring claimant to work as part of a team with others; (7) have greater than occasional contact with the public; or (8) do other than low stress work activity (i.e., no job involving above average pressure for production, work that is other than routine in nature, or work that is hazardous). These limitations are generally compatible with a limited range of light work. (TR 35-36) Although Lawson lacks past relevant work experience or skills, the ALJ concluded that she was able to perform a significant number of available jobs prior to August 23, 2006, her 55th birthday. After that date, the ALJ found Lawson to be disabled under the Medical-Vocational Guideline Rules, given her age, the RFC assessment, her limited education, and her lack of work skills.1 (TR 42-43)

Lawson unsuccessfully sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council, and then timely filed a complaint in this Court. She claims two errors in the Commissioner's decision: (1) the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment improperly rejected the opinions of her treating physicians concerning the limitations caused by her fibromyalgia, opinions that the Commissioner's medical expert did not contradict; and (2) the ALJ misapplied Drummond v. Commissioner of Social Security, 126 F.3d 837 (6th Cir. 1997) by rejecting some of the physical limitations adopted in the prior December 2000 ALJ opinion.

The Magistrate Judge concluded that the ALJ failed to evaluate Lawson's fibromyalgia impairment as required by Sixth Circuit precedent. He also found that the ALJ improperly evaluated and weighed the opinions of Dr. Joseph Garland, Lawson's long-standing primary treating physician, concerning Lawson's physical limitations. In three separate assessments, Garland found that Lawson was limited to lifting and carrying no more than ten pounds, standing or walking for one hour per day, and sitting for three hours per day due to her mixed connective tissue disorder and/or fibromyalgia. Garland consistently opined that due to these limitations, Lawson was incapable of full or part time work. (TR 1035-36, 895-96, and 1264) Dr. Pedoto, who examined Lawson in June 2002 at Dr. Garland's request, found that Lawson was "most appropriate for a sedentary type position with occasional lifting in the range of 10 pounds." (TR 1103) His restrictions were consistent with Dr. Garland's.

The ALJ relied on the 2003 testimony of Dr. Dan Elliott, the testifying, non-examining medical expert. (TR 41) Dr. Elliott, a retired general surgeon, noted the absence of a recorded trigger point test to confirm Lawson's fibromyalgia diagnosis. (TR 1418) While he accepted the treating physicians' diagnosis of "some form of fibromyalgia," he noted a lack of clinically-documented joint changes. (TR 1410) He also admitted that positive joint findings (such as swelling) were not necessary to a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. (TR 1413) When asked about the restrictions recommended by Lawson's treating physicians, Elliott responded: "Truthfully, I can't really tell you what sort of restrictions that she should have. I haven't examined her.... I have no basis for disagreeing with Dr. Garland's functional assessments." (TR 1419) The ALJ concluded that Dr. Garland's functional capacity assessments "are grossly disproportionate to the available objective medical evidence, and they thus lack the necessary supportability to entitle them to even deferential or other preferential weight." (TR 40) He specifically cited the minimal x-ray findings, Lawson's "unremarkable" MRI, and her largely normal clinical examination results.

The Commissioner objects to the Magistrate Judge's Report, arguing that the Magistrate Judge improperly engaged in his own fact-finding, and independently weighed the record evidence. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ appropriately considered and then largely rejected Dr. Garland's opinions on Lawson's limitations because the record does not support her claims of disabling pain and lack of mobility. Therefore, the Commissioner argues that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.

DISCUSSION

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision by determining whether the record as a whole contains substantial evidence to support that decision. "Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla of evidence, such as evidence a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." LeMaster v. Secretary of Health and Human Serv., 802 F.2d 839, 840 (6th Cir.1986) (internal citation omitted). The evidence must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of the fact to be established. Rather, the evidence must be enough to withstand a motion for a directed verdict when the conclusion sought to be drawn from that evidence is one of fact for the jury. Id.

If the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the Court must affirm that decision even if it would have arrived at a different conclusion based on the same evidence. Elkins v. Secretary of Health and Human Serv., 658 F.2d 437, 438 (6th Cir.1981). The substantial-evidence standard "... presupposes that there is a zone of choice within which the decisionmakers can go either way, without interference by the courts. An administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision." Mullen v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 535, 545 (6th Cir.1986) (quoting Baker v. Heckler, 730 F.2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir.1984)). Moreover, the ALJ need not accept a medical opinion that a claimant is "disabled" (and therefore unemployable) as that determination rests with the Commissioner under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(e)(1).

The district court reviews de novo the Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation regarding Social Security benefits claims. Ivy v. Secretary of Health & Human Serv., 976 F.2d 288, 289-90 (6th Cir.1992).

This Court has reviewed the extensive record in this case. That record confirms that Dr. Garland has treated Lawson since at least 1992. By the mid 1990's, Garland and Dr. Griffin, a rheumatologist at the Miami Valley Hospital to whom Garland referred Lawson, had both consistently noted that Lawson was suffering from an unspecified connective tissue disease. For instance, in October 1995 she complained of stiffness and soreness in most joints, and lab tests revealed an elevated ANA and rheumatoid factor. Both of these are markers of inflammation and are consistent with fibromyalgia. Garland's and Griffin's treatment notes document over time Lawson's consistent complaints of muscle weakness, difficulty with sitting and standing or remaining in one position for any period of time, tingling or...

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