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Anita Ann Blackwell v. Michael Astrue

September 11, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sandra M. Snyder United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Anita Ann Blackwell seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II, and for supplemental security income pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq.) (the "Act"). The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' cross-briefs, which were submitted, without oral argument, to the Honorable Sandra M. Snyder, United States Magistrate Judge. Following a review of the complete record and applicable law, this Court finds the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") to be supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and based on proper legal standards. Accordingly, this Court denies Plaintiff's appeal.

I. Administrative Record

A. Procedural History

In a 2002 hearing decision, Administrative Law Judge Michael Haubner denied Plaintiff's application for disability benefits, finding that Plaintiff was able to perform her prior work as a day care provider or mail clerk.

On November 4, 2005, Plaintiff protectively filed an application under both Title II and Title XVI for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income (SSI), alleging a disability beginning August 14, 2004. The claims were denied initially on June 19, 2006, and upon reconsideration on February 8, 2007. Plaintiff requested a hearing on March 8, 2007.

Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing on July 15, 2008. In a decision dated September 2, 2008, Administrative Law Judge Michael J. Kopicki denied Plaintiff's application. On April 12, 2010, the Appeals Council declined Plaintiff's request for a review of the ALJ's decision. On May 20, 2010, Plaintiff filed her complaint in this Court.

B. Factual Record

Plaintiff (born December 21, 1965) completed two years of business college, studying to be an executive secretary. She never worked in that field. She worked longest as a school bus driver, but appears to have stopped driving after a work-related accident in 1998 that injured her knee and back. Plaintiff testified that she had allowed her driver's license to expire, believing that it was dangerous for her to drive since her knee sometimes "locked up."

From November 2007 through March 2008, Plaintiff did in-home service work, which consisted of cooking, housework, laundry, and personal care of an individual with mental and physical disabilities. The county provided the compensation. Although her employer provided concessions, such as frequent rest breaks, he eventually discharged Plaintiff because she was physically unable to perform the work completely and repeatedly dropped and broke things.

Plaintiff had previously received county compensation for performing the same work for her invalid mother, from the time her mother had a major stroke in 2002 until she died in 2004. Plaintiff required assistance in that job since she could neither lift her mother nor perform personal care, such as caring for dressings. Plaintiff blamed caring for her mother for her development of physical limitations.

In her hearing testimony, Plaintiff opined that she was most impaired by her back pain. Although she took Neurontin, Motrin, Soma, and Vicodin, these medications relieved her pain but did not eliminate it. She had difficulty keeping track of her many medications and taking them on schedule.

In a third-party adult functioning report, Plaintiff's friend James Bell reported that she was easily confused and her mind wandered. Plaintiff's nineteen-year-old daughter, LaQuinta Sellers, reported that Plaintiff did not know what day it is and had to be told when to take her medications. Plaintiff's pain, said Sellers, made her forgetful.

Plaintiff estimated she could occasionally lift ten pounds. She could walk about a half a mile or stand about one-half hour using a walker or cane. Without a cane or walker, she was likely to fall. When she sat, she needed to change position every fifteen minutes.

Plaintiff also complained of numbness in her feet. She elevated her feet for about one-half hour three or four times daily. She had lost muscle tone in her right arm as a result of her carpal tunnel syndrome. Plaintiff also had asthma and insulin-dependent diabetes. She was five foot, three inches, and weighed approximately 265 pounds.

Plaintiff reported that she was taking Aciphex (acid reflux disease), Actos (diabetes), Advair (asthma), Albuterol (asthma), Ambien (sleep), Benadryl (asthma), Glucophage (diabetes) Hydrochlorothiazide (water retention), Motrin (pain), Neurontin (pinched nerve), Paxil (depression), Soma (muscle relaxer), and Vicodin (pain). Benadryl, Neurontin, and Paxil made her drowsy.

Because standing was difficult and her hands hurt, Plaintiff cooked only two or three times a month. Instead, she warmed frozen meals in the microwave.

Plaintiff had little social life, preferring to be by herself. Bell described her as crying by herself in her room. Her hobbies included reading and watching television. She went out only if her daughter accompanied her. Most days she did not go outside at all. She estimated that she went outside two or three times monthly.

She shopped twice a month, for three hours at a time, for groceries and personal supplies. Bell commented that Plaintiff enjoyed choosing her own food. Plaintiff reported that she was able to pay bills, count change, handle a savings account, and use checks or money orders. Sellers disagreed, noting that Plaintiff was forgetful and confused.

Plaintiff depended on Sellers for assistance in personal care. Sellers combed and washed Plaintiff's hair and shaved Plaintiff. She woke Plaintiff in the morning, laid out her clothes, and managed her medications.

In April 2007, Plaintiff was living with a friend named Michelle, who accompanied her to an appointment with Dr. Mythili Sundaresan. By the time of the hearing, Plaintiff had moved into Sellers' one-bedroom apartment. Sellers was a supermarket cashier. Plaintiff supported herself on state disability insurance.

Radiology reports. In an MRI report dated February 26, 1999, radiologist Michael P. Curran, M.D., identified mild degenerative changes in the patellar tendon of Plaintiff's right knee. Curran also noted "low signal intensity stranding in the medial aspect of the intrapatellar fat pad . . . consistent with scarring from previous arthroscopy." AR 232. In a report dated April 8, 1999, Curran noted that an MRI of Plaintiff's lumbar spine revealed mild degenerative disc disease at L4-5 and L5 -S1.

On March 1, 2001, Cicely Roberts, M.D., evaluated Plaintiff's x-rays to assess her claims of bilateral knee pain. Roberts saw no fracture or joint effusion in Plaintiff's left knee, and commented that the soft tissue planes were intact. Her conclusion was "negative left knee." If Roberts also evaluated x-rays of Plaintiff's right knee, these are not included in the record.

Family Care Providers. Plaintiff provided progress notes from her primary care physicians, Family Care Providers Medical Group, from September 15, 2004, through October 24, 2007.*fn1 In addition to treating Plaintiff for acute maladies such as bronchitis and vaginitis, the records reflect continued monitoring of prescriptions ...

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