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Trumpler v. Astrue

July 15, 2009

ELLEN L. TRUMPLER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL ASTRUE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Andrew J. Wistrich United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

Plaintiff filed this action seeking reversal of the decision of the defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner"), denying plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits. The parties have filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS") setting forth their contentions with respect to each disputed issue.

Administrative Proceedings

Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on October 17, 2006, alleging that she had been disabled since October 26, 2005 due to traumatic brain injury, chronic left shoulder, low back pain, bursitis, headaches, sleep apnea, fatigue, joint problems, cardiac problems, arthritis and sciatica. [JS 2; Administrative Record ("AR") 19, 79]. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. [JS 2; AR 19, 56-61]. Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was conducted before Administrative Law Judge Dean K. Franks (the "ALJ") on November 6, 2007. [JS 2; AR 31-52]. Plaintiff, who was represented by an attorney, testified on her own behalf. [AR 33-50]. Testimony also was received from Dr. June Hagan, a vocational expert. [AR 50-51]. At the conclusion of the hearing, the ALJ left the record open for thirty days to permit plaintiff's attorney to provide additional treating source records. [AR 51].

On March 20, 2008, the ALJ issued a written decision denying plaintiff's application for benefits. [AR 16-19]. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity, asthma, and a left knee meniscal tear. [AR 21]. The ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairments, singly or in combination, did not meet or equal an impairment included in the Listing of Impairments (the "Listing"). [AR 24]. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. The ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a narrowed range of light work in areas where she is not exposed to concentrated dust, fumes and other environmental pollutants. Relying in part on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a word processor or clerk typist. [AR 24, 28 ]. The ALJ therefore concluded that plaintiff was not disabled at any time up to the date of his decision. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. [AR 8-11].

Background

Plaintiff was born in 1954, and she was 53 years old when the ALJ issued his decision. [AR 33, 75]. Plaintiff graduated from college with a major in psychology. [AR 34]. Between 1989 and 2005, plaintiff worked as a word processor (1989-1991, 1999-2001), typist (1992-1994), secretary (1995-1997, 1998-1999), and office assistant (2004-2005). [AR 21, 80].

Between February and June 2006, plaintiff was treated at Kaiser Permanente Hospital for back and leg pain. [AR 22, 178-198]. In February 2006, plaintiff presented with complaints of low back pain, off and on for about two years without any history of trauma or heavy lifting, and persistent right thigh pain after a recent fall. Plaintiff denied any radiating pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness. [AR 22, 186-188]. On examination, plaintiff exhibited mild lumbar spine tenderness and bilateral hamstring tightness, but no range of motion deficits, loss of motor strength, or positive straight leg raising signs. [AR 22, 184]. Lumbar spine x-rays showed only minimal degenerative changes. [AR 22, 184].

In April 2006, plaintiff consulted Dr. Paul Bellamy, a pulmonary specialist, for complaints of asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease ("GERD"), and allergic rhinitis. [AR 22, 194-197]. Dr. Bellamy diagnosed plaintiff with obesity, partially controlled allergic rhinitis and GERD, intermittent asthma in remission, and shortness of breath. [AR 22, 196]. However, Dr. Bellamy considered plaintiff's asthma to be a "lesser problem," and thought that her shortness of breath was more likely due to her obesity and lack of conditioning. [AR 22, 196-197]. Dr. Bellamy recommended "more aggressive aerobic exercise" for "cardivasuclar and pulmonary conditioning" as well as weight loss. He did not believe that pulmonary rehabilitation was indicated at that time. [AR 22, 197].

Plaintiff reported being hospitalized for chest pain and shortness of breath in June 2006, but she failed to provide hospital records. [AR 22]. From July 2006 through November 2006, plaintiff participated in respiratory therapy sessions designed to increased her endurance by use of a stationary bicycle, treadmill, and other exercise activities. [AR 22, 200-328].

Between February 2006 and October 2007, plaintiff was followed by Dr. Kevin Arian for chest pain, asthma, hypertension, and GERD. [AR 363-374].

On October 31, 2007, plaintiff was examined by Dr. Jerome Friedland for left knee pain. [AR 23, 376-380]. On the same date, Dr. Friedland completed a physical RFC questionnaire stating that plaintiff had a diagnosis of left knee meniscal tear with positive clinical findings in the left knee of limited range of motion, tenderness, muscle spasms, swelling, and abnormal gait. [AR 376-380]. Dr. Friedland opined that plaintiff could sit for seven hours and stand or walk for up to one hour, cannot lift or carry more than five pounds occasionally, has problems performing repetitive reaching, handling, and fingering, and cannot perform any postural movements involving bending her knee. [AR 23, 376-380].

Plaintiff underwent a psychiatric evaluation in January 2007 with Dr. Mehoob Ali Makhani, to whom she complained of experiencing depression as a result of her physical problems. [AR 23, 329-332]. Dr. Makhani conducted a mental status examination, which was within normal limits except for depressed mood and congruent affect. [AR 23, 329-331]. Plaintiff stated that she drove herself to the evaluation, lived with her father, performed household chores, handled the family finances, and went to church, on small outings, and to the store. [AR 23, 329-330]. Dr. Makhani diagnosed plaintiff with depressive disorder, not otherwise specified, rule out adjustment disorder, chronic with depressed mood. He noted that plaintiff exhibited no difficulty interacting with him or the clinic staff, could focus and maintain attention, demonstrated an adequate level of personal independence, had no difficulty maintaining composure and even temperament, and was intellectually and psychologically capable of performing activities of daily living. Dr. Ali Makhani concluded that plaintiff was able to appropriately relate to the public, co-workers, and supervisors, and handle the stresses and demands of gainful employment within her intellectual and physical limitations. [AR 23, 332].

During the hearing, plaintiff testified that she suffered from asthma, a sleep disorder, extreme pain in her left knee and pain in other joints, and that she had a history of depression and anxiety. [AR 40-42, 44, 46]. Plaintiff stated that she has pain in her hand, her thumb joints, wrists, and both knees and has had "hip bursitis, pain in both hips, pain in the shoulders, neck and back and feet." [AR 48]. She testified that she was taking Motrin 800 milligrams three times a day for pain; Singulair for asthma; Zyrtec, an antihistamine, alternating with Allegra D, another antihistamine; a Qvar steroid inhaler for asthma; Protonix for GERD; Albuterol as a "rescue inhaler"; and Ambien for sleep problems. [AR 40-43]. Plaintiff said that she had stopped taking her blood pressure medication. She said that she had briefly taken antidepressants about fifteen years earlier. [AR 40, 42]. When asked why she could not work, plaintiff replied, "It's a combination of the pain sometimes, fatigue, and some mental confusion all working together." [AR 42]. Plaintiff testified that the pain ...


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