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Lopez v. Astrue

March 30, 2009



Plaintiff filed this action seeking review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her applications for Disability Income Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, respectively. Pending are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons discussed below, the court denies plaintiff's motion and grants defendant's cross-motion.


Plaintiff, born on April 1, 1970, applied for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on February 14, 2003, alleging disability since January 1, 2002. Administrative Record ("AR") 65-67. On July 23, 2003, the Commissioner denied plaintiff's applications on the basis that plaintiff lacked the requisite disability. AR 38-41.

Plaintiff requested reconsideration of the denials, but the Commissioner denied plaintiff's request on March 17, 2004. AR 32-36. On May 19, 2004, plaintiff formally requested a hearing. AR 30-31.

On May 9, 2006, a hearing was held before administrative law judge ("ALJ") William L. Stewart, Jr. AR 614-42. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing, along with vocational expert ("VE") C. Kay Wise. Id. The ALJ issued a decision on August 22, 2006, finding that plaintiff is not disabled.*fn1 AR 16-27. The ALJ made the following specific findings:

1. The claimant met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2003.

2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2002, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1520(b), 404.1571 et seq., 416.920(b) and 416.971 et seq.).


3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, myofascial pain syndrome, migraine headaches, morbid obesity, mild degenerative joint disease, depression, and opioid dependency (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).


4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1(20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).


5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant retains the residual functional capacity to lift 20 pounds occasionally and lift and carry 10 pounds frequently, has a limited capacity to stand and walk, however, she can stand and walk at least two hours of an eight-hour work day and sit at least six hours of an eight-hour work day, although she needs an opportunity to change positions. She cannot climb ladders or scaffolds, and can only occasionally climb stairs, negotiate ramps, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. Furthermore, she is capable of following simple instructions, but has moderate limitations understanding, remembering and carrying out detailed instructions.


6. The claimant is unable to perform any of her past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).


7. The claimant was born on April 1, 1970, and was 31 years old on the alleged disability onset date, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44 (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).

8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).

9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determinations of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is "not disabled", whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).

10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1560(c), 404.1566, 416.960(c), and 416.966).


11. The claimant has not been under a "disability," as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 1, 2002, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

AR 20-27.

Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. AR 13-15. On July 20, 2007, the Appeals Council denied review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 7-10.


In April 2002, plaintiff was diagnosed with acute cephalgia, a history of migraine headaches, a sinus infection, and acute chest pain. AR 212, 215. In June 2002, after plaintiff complained of pain in her neck and low back and numbness in her upper extremities, Dr. Glen O'Sullivan, M.D., Board Certified Orthopaedic Surgeon, ordered an MRI study of her neck and low back and diagnosed plaintiff with possible fibromyalgia. AR 135. He referred plaintiff to a pain and neurology specialist, Dr. Jeremy Goodwin, M.S., M.D. Id. In July 2002, Dr. Alan Cohn, D.O., diagnosed plaintiff with endometriosis, myofascial pain syndrome, insomnia, depression, and morbid obesity. AR 280-81.

In August 2002, Dr. Goodwin confirmed that plaintiff has fibromyalgia, as well as degenerative changes of the cervical and lumbar spine; migraine without aura; Restless Legs Syndrome; probable myofascial pain; remnants of post-traumatic stress disorder; and dysthmia or, possibly, depression likely to have resulted from the chronicity of her pain.*fn2 AR 238, 240-41.

Dr. Goodwin further found that plaintiff "suffers from symptoms of 'fibro fog' wherein her ability to concentrate and focus on projects and reading etc. is increasingly becoming impaired"; has "irritable bowel symptomatology (abdominal cramping and alternative diarrhea and constipation) as well as irritable bladder syndrome where she has to urinate quite frequently"; and "has headaches at least 4 days of the week." AR 238-39. He added that "[i]n terms of her activities of daily living, she neither lets her headaches nor her chronic pain get the better of her." AR 240.

That same month, plaintiff told Dr. Cohn that she was doing "significantly better" with her depression. AR 278. The next month (September 2002), plaintiff told Dr. Cohn that she was "doing better" and had not had a migraine, which was probably due to the vitamin supplements, and that her depression and sleeping patterns were better. AR 275. In October 2002, Dr. Goodwin stated that plaintiff was "doing wonderfully" and "only had two minor migraines in the past two months [which was] a huge improvement." AR 237. He added that "[o]verall, she is doing so much better." Id.

In December 2002, Dr. Goodwin indicated that plaintiff "only had one migraine over the past month and no other headaches at all." AR 235. He indicated that her endometriosis "is problematic every time she has a menstrual period" but that the medication she was on "has made a huge difference to her pain." Id. Dr. Goodwin stated that the medication "not only eliminates the endometriosis-related pain but it also eliminates her fibromyalgia pain to the point where it becomes the most functional and productive time[s] during the whole month!" Id. At that time, Dr. Goodwin also started her on OxyContin because she "is very energetic [and] participates in a lot of activities with her husband and her son," and Dr. Goodwin wanted "to encourage this as much as possible." AR 236.

In January 2003, Dr. Goodwin again evaluated plaintiff. AR 233. After acknowledging plaintiff's numerous medical conditions, he stated that ...

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