Watts v. Kijakazi, Civil Action 3:20-cv-00624

Decision Date27 July 2021
Docket NumberCivil Action 3:20-cv-00624
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of West Virginia
PartiesJOYCE ANN WATTS, Plaintiff, v. KILOLO KIJAKAZI, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

PROPOSED FINDINGS & RECOMMENDATION

Dwane L. Tinsley United States Magistrate Judge

Plaintiff Joyce Ann Watts (Claimant) seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C §§ 1381-83f. (ECF No. 2.) By standing order entered on January 4, 2016, and filed in this case on September 23 2020, this matter was referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge to consider the pleadings and evidence and to submit proposed findings of fact and recommendations for disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). (ECF No. 4.) Presently pending before this Court are Claimant's Brief in Support of Judgment on the Pleadings (ECF No. 15) and the Commissioner's Brief in Support of Defendant's Decision (ECF No. 16).

Having fully considered the record and the arguments of the parties the undersigned respectfully RECOMMENDS that the presiding District Judge DENY Claimant's request to reverse the Commissioner's decision (ECF No. 15), GRANT the Commissioner's request to affirm her decision (ECF No. 16), AFFIRM the final decision of the Commissioner, and DISMISS this action from this Court's docket.

I. BACKGROUND
A. Information about Claimant and Procedural History of Claim

Claimant was 44 years old at the time of her alleged disability onset date and 47 years old on the date of the decision by the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (See Tr. at 294.)[2] She is a high school graduate. (Id. at 287.) Most recently, she worked as a nursing assistant, and she has also been employed as a home health aide, a deli assistant, and a cashier. (Id.) Claimant alleges that she became disabled on April 1, 2017, due to a Morton's neuroma and neuropathy in her right foot, “Allergic reaction to stitches, ” a hernia, high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety, and “Breathing Problems.” (Id. at 286, 294.)

Claimant filed her applications for benefits on December 7, 2017. (Id. at 15, 24269.) Her claims were initially denied on May 9, 2018, and again upon reconsideration on September 20, 2018. (Id. at 76-101, 151-66.) Thereafter, on October 4, 2018, Claimant filed a written request for hearing. (Id. at 167-71.) An administrative hearing was held before an ALJ on July 30, 2019, in Huntington, West Virginia, with the ALJ appearing from Baltimore, Maryland. (Id. at 31-73.) On October 30, 2019, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision. (Id. at 12-30.) Claimant then sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council on December 23, 2019. (Id. at 239-41.) The Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review on September 2, 2020, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on that date. (Id. at 1-6.)

Claimant timely brought the present action on September 22, 2020, seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (ECF No. 2.) The Commissioner filed an Answer (ECF No. 13) and a transcript of the administrative proceedings (ECF No. 14). Claimant subsequently filed her Brief in Support of Judgment on the Pleadings (ECF No. 15), and in response, the Commissioner filed her Brief in Support of Defendant's Decision (ECF No. 16). As such, this matter is fully briefed and ready for resolution.

B. Relevant Medical Evidence

The undersigned has considered all evidence of record, including the medical evidence, pertaining to Claimant's arguments and summarizes it here for the convenience of the United States District Judge.

1. Treatment for Severe Physical Impairments During Relevant Period

Several months before her alleged onset date, on November 9, 2016, Claimant presented to a podiatrist and complained of right foot pain. (Id. at 409.) She was diagnosed with a Morton's neuroma, and the podiatrist recommended injections. (Id. at 410.) After the injections did not resolve Claimant's pain, her podiatrist recommended a surgical excision of the Morton's neuroma. (Id. at 404-05.) The procedure was performed on January 26, 2017. (Id. at 394-95.) Her wound later became infected, and on March 28, 2017, it was surgically drained. (Id. at 378-79.) On April 4, 2017, three days after Claimant's alleged onset date, her podiatrist noted that the “incision is healing very nicely.” (Id. at 367.) He remarked that the incision “is completely closed” and that Claimant “is doing well” on April 19, 2017. (Id. at 365.)

On May 24, 2017, Claimant presented to her primary care physician and reported that she stopped using one of her diabetes medications due to its side effects, but her blood sugar was “overall okay.” (Id. at 431.) The physician noted that Claimant's medication regimen had resulted in “markedly improved control” of her diabetes. (Id. at 438.) She discussed medications for diabetic neuropathy with Claimant, but Claimant indicated that she [w]ants to wait for now.” (Id.) A physical examination was normal aside from swelling in Claimant's left lower extremity and hands. (Id. at 436.)

Several months later, on November 29, 2017, Claimant returned to her primary care physician and reported that she was “having a lot of pain [in her] hands, legs and knees.” (Id. at 417.) The physician noted that Claimant's joint symptoms were “likely [osteoarthritis].” (Id. at 426.) She also remarked that Claimant's diabetes was less well controlled since she had stopped using one of her medications but directed her to increase another medication. (Id. at 425.) Upon physical examination, the physician observed that Claimant's right foot was [n]otably tender to palpation” and [n]umb to light touch.” (Id. at 424.) Claimant addressed this with her podiatrist at her December 5, 2017 appointment, when she reported “some increased pain” in her right foot in the same area as her previous Morton's neuroma. (Id. at 359.) The podiatrist remarked, “It is difficult to determine how much this may be coming from neuropathy versus possibility of recurrent neuroma.” (Id.) He prescribed pain medication. (Id. at 359-60.)

Claimant next presented to her primary care physician on February 7, 2018, following a hysterectomy that [w]ent well.” (Id. at 798.) She reported that her vision had been “worse lately and she knows [it is] related to her poor sugar control.” (Id.) However, she declined a “dietitian referral” for her diabetes. (Id.) The physician noted that Claimant had “worsening control” of her diabetes and increased one of her medications. (Id.) When Claimant returned to her podiatrist several days later, on February 12, 2018, she continued to complain of pain and numbness in her right foot. (Id. at 714.) Upon physical examination, the podiatrist observed “pain to palpation of the third interspace” that “was increased on medial to lateral compression of the forefoot.” (Id.) He also noted “some generalized burning sensations to the first 3 toes in particular of the right foot.” (Id.) The podiatrist diagnosed Claimant with “Diabetic peripheral neuropathy, primarily involving the right foot with possible Morton neuroma of the third interspace” and prescribed “metatarsal pads” and a new medication. (Id.)

By her next appointment with her podiatrist on March 20, 2018, Claimant's right foot pain had not improved, so he gave her a pain injection. (Id. at 712.) At her May 1, 2018 appointment, Claimant reported “complete relief of all of her forefoot symptoms for about 4 to 6 hours after the injection and slowly her pain has returned.” (Id. at 710.) Upon physical examination, the podiatrist observed “pain only to palpation of the right third interspace.” (Id.) He diagnosed her with another Morton's neuroma and recommended that it be surgically removed, but he told her at her September 25, 2018 and February 19, 2019 appointments that he did not recommend surgery until Claimant's diabetes was under control. (Id. at 710, 815, 819.)

In the meantime, on March 8, 2018, Claimant presented to a urologic oncologist for treatment of her umbilical hernia, and he scheduled a hernia repair surgery for April 2, 2018. (Id. at 976.) However, when imaging revealed a cancerous renal mass, the oncologist scheduled Claimant for a right partial nephrectomy, which was performed on July 16, 2018. (Id. at 977-79; see id. at 933.) Claimant returned to her oncologist on September 6, 2018, and stated that [s]he would like to have her surgery for ventral hernia performed as soon as possible.” (Id. at 979.) The surgery was performed on November 5, 2018, and at a follow-up appointment on January 29, 2019, the oncologist noted that Claimant “is doing well and no signs of recurrence.” (Id. at 980; see id. at 995-97.) Imaging of Claimant's right kidney performed on January 29, 2019, was normal. (Id. at 981-82.)

On September 12, 2018, Claimant presented to the emergency department at a local hospital, complaining of left knee pain. (Id. at 2266.) A physical examination revealed no redness or swelling, “point tenderness at the left quadriceps tendon area, ” and “good pedal pulses ” and it was noted that Claimant denied numbness. (Id. at 2268 (emphasis deleted).) Imaging of the knee showed [m]ild arthritic changes.” (Id. at 2269.) Claimant was diagnosed with tendonitis in her left quadricep and mild arthritis in her left knee, but she left the hospital without further treatment. (Id. at 2270.) About a month later, on October 10, 2018, she presented to her primary care physician and reported that s...

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