Sidwell v. Social Security Administration
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION: The Magistrate Judge RECOMMENDS that pltf's 6 Motion for Judgment on the Record be DENIED and this action be DISMISSED. Signed by Magistrate Judge Joe Brown on 11/15/12. (DOCKET TEXT SUMMARY ONLY-ATTORNEYS MUST OPEN THE PDF AND READ THE ORDER.)(rd)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
MIDDLE DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
NORMA JEAN SIDWELL,
Commissioner of Social Security,
Civil Action No. 2:12-0005
The Honorable John T. Nixon, Senior Judge
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
This is a civil action filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of the
final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Disability Insurance
Benefits (“DIB”), as provided under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), as amended.
Currently pending before the Magistrate Judge are Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment on the Record
and Defendant’s Response. (Docket Entries 6, 7, 10). The Magistrate Judge has also reviewed the
administrative record (“Tr.”). (Docket Entry 4). For the reasons set forth below, the Magistrate
Judge RECOMMENDS the Plaintiff’s Motion be DENIED and this action be DISMISSED.
Plaintiff filed her application for SSI and DIB on December 16, 2008, with an alleged onset
date of July 15, 2008 due to arthritis, back and shoulder problems, lupus, asthma, stomach
problems, high blood pressure, and depression. (Tr. 115-27). She was insured through December
31, 2008. (Tr. 43). Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 58-69, 76-79).
At Plaintiff’s request, a hearing was held before ALJ Frank Letchworth on June 18, 2010.
(Tr. 9-35). The ALJ issued his partially favorable decision on August 11, 2010. (Tr. 40-57).
In his decision partially denying Plaintiff’s claims, the ALJ made the following findings of
fact and conclusions of law:
The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security
Administration through December 31, 2008.
The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset
date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
Since the alleged onset date of disability, July 15, 2008, the claimant has had the
following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, residuals from right
shoulder injury and surgery, systemic lupus erythematosus, GERD, chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease and obesity. Beginning on the established onset
date of disability, June 4, 2009, the claimant has had the following severe
impairments: degenerative disc disease, residuals from right shoulder injury and
surgery, systemic lupus erythematosus, GERD, chronic obstructive pulmonary
disease, obesity and diabetes mellitus. (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
Prior to June 4, 2009, the date the claimant became disabled, the claimant did 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, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that prior to
June 4, 2009, the date the claimant became disabled, the claimant had the residual
functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except that she required the option to alternate between sitting and
standing at thirty minute intervals, she could perform no more than occasional
pushing, pulling or reaching overhead with her right upper extremity, no more than
occasional climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds, no more than frequent operation
of foot controls, climbing of stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching or
crawling and she could have no concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants.
Since July 15, 2008, the claimant has been unable to perform any past relevant
work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
Prior to the established disability onset date, the claimant was a younger individual
age 18-49 (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
The claimant has a marginal education and is able to communicate in English (20
CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
Prior to June 4, 2009, transferability of job skills is not material to the
determination 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).
Prior to June 4, 2009, considering the claimant’s age, education, work experience,
and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant
numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed (20 CFR
404.1569, 404.1569a, 416.969, and 416.969a).
Beginning on June 4, 2009, the severity of the claimant’s impairments has met the
criteria of section 1.04A of 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR
404.1520(d), 404.1525, 416.920(d) and 416.925).
The claimant was not disabled prior to June 4, 2009, (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and
416.920(g)) but became disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled
through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(d) and 416.920(d)).
The claimant was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security
Act at any time through December 31, 2008, the date last insured (20 CFR
404.315(a) and 404.320(b)).
The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on November 16, 2011. (Tr. 57). This action was timely filed on January 20, 2012. (Docket Entry 1).
II. REVIEW OF THE RECORD
Plaintiff began seeing Dr. Pushpendra Jain on June 7, 2006. (Tr. 332-77). She complained
of shoulder pain, abdominal pain, and hypertension. (Tr. 374-77). Plaintiff had an MRI of the right
shoulder on June 20, 2006. (Tr. 328). The MRI showed acromioclavicular joint arthropathy with
hypertrophy producing moderate impingement of the supraspinatus muscle and tendon. Id.
Plaintiff saw Dr. Donald Arms at McMinnville Orthopedic Clinic beginning on July 10,
2006. (Tr. 220-26). She complained of right shoulder pain of a moderate discomfort that interfered
with activities of daily living and sleep. She had tried an injection and pain medications. Dr. Arms
recommended a distal clavicle excision, arthroscopic decompression. Plaintiff saw Dr. Arms for a
post-surgery follow-up on July 18, 2006. There was no evidence of complications, and physical
therapy was recommended. On September 20, 2006, Dr. Arms noted she was improving but
slowly, and essentially all motion had been regained except for some tightness in internal rotation.
He recommended continued rehabilitation.
On September 26, 2006, Dr. Jain diagnosed Plaintiff with lupus and reflux. (Tr. 360-61).
On November 4, 2008, Dr. Jain noted Plaintiff has COPD and back pain of one month’s duration.
(Tr. 343-44). On January 6, 2009, Dr. Jain noted Plaintiff had persistent back pain for one month,
with sharp pain in the shoulder blades and upper and lower back. There was no radiation, and the
pain was precipitated by exertion. Plaintiff also had flank pain and leg weakness. Her pain was a 6
on a 10-point scale. (Tr. 334-35). Dr. Jain ordered a lumbar CT on the same date, which showed
spinal stenosis T12-L1 and osteoarthritis and facet hypertrophy at the multiple levels. (Tr. 346).
Plaintiff saw Dr. Samantha McLerran on February 5, 2009. (Tr. 286-95). She noted
Plaintiff was followed for COPD, GERD, hypertension, and SLE. Pains were shooting into the
tops of both Plaintiff’s feet from midcalf down. Dr. McLerran described Plaintiff as having a
“great deal of problems with her back.” Id.
Plaintiff completed a pain questionnaire and function report dated February 9, 2009. (Tr.
151-63). Her pain began in early 2008, beginning in her upper and lower back. She cannot bend
over, reach out, or squat down, and she cannot sit or stand for long periods of time without being
in pain. The pain radiates down her legs and arms. Pain is brought on by walking, sitting, sweeping
the floor, lying down, washing dishes, and driving. Medications relieve pain somewhat for an hour
or so, and side effects include sleepiness and dizziness. She rests lying down to relieve pain. The
pain began to affect her activities in July 2008 and limits all activities.
On a typical day, Plaintiff wakes around 6, gets her son up for school, cleans house for
about an hour off and on, prepares breakfast, washes dishes, naps, reads and watches television,
prepares supper, washes dishes, and goes to bed. (Tr. 156-63). She also does laundry. She sits on a
stool to bathe and has difficulty bending over to put on shoes and tie them. She shops for groceries
twice per month. She cannot lift anything heavy, cannot squat, cannot kneel, and cannot sit or
stand for long periods. Bending or reaching causes pain.
On April 5, 2009, Dr. Jerry Lee Surber performed a consultative exam on Plaintiff. (Tr.
311-15). He noted Plaintiff had palpable tenderness in the right greater than the left neck at C5
through C7 paravertebral musculature, with no muscle spasm present and voluntary flexion at 50
degrees, extension at 60 degrees, right and left lateral flexions at 45 degrees, and right and left
rotations at 80 degrees. Plaintiff had shortness of breath due to COPD. She also had narcotic
dependency. Her complaints of pain resulted in decreased voluntary mobility in the right
shoulders, and she was shaky when standing on the right or left leg and had a waddling side-toside type gait. An MRI showed her rotator cuff was intact with impingement of her supraspinatus
muscle and tendon. A CT scan showed T12-L1 spinal stenosis.1 Dr. Surber believed she could lift
and/or carry 10 to 25 pounds occasionally, stand or walk up to two to four hours in an eight-hour
workday, and sit up to six to eight hours in an eight-hour workday.
Dr. Joe Allison, a non-examining consultant, reviewed Plaintiff’s records in a report dated
May 15, 2009. (Tr. 317-25). He concluded she could frequently lift up to 10 pounds and
occasionally lift 20 pounds and could stand for six hours and sit for six hours in an eight-hour
workday. She was limited in pushing and pulling in the right arm. She could occasionally balance
and had limited reaching in all directions. She should avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, gases,
dusts, odors, and poor ventilation.
Plaintiff visited Dr. McLerran on June 1, 2009, complaining of a lumbar region pain flare
up. (Tr. 387-90). While working at a factory, she bent over to pick up an item and experienced
Dr. Surber referred to the CT scan as showing C12-L1 spinal stenosis, which appears to
be a typographical error. He refers to the January 6, 2009 CT scan, which showed spinal
stenosis at T12-L1. (Tr. 314, 346).
severe pain. The pain radiated into her left leg and was alleviated by pain medication.
On June 4, 2009, Plaintiff had an MRI of the lumbar spine. (Tr. 329-30). The MRI showed
multilevel degenerative disc disease extending from T12 through S1.
Plaintiff’s pain questionnaire and function report from June 16, 2009 were similar to her
February 9, 2009 reports. (Tr. 189-201). She reported more intense and more frequent pain. On
June 1, 2009, she could barely get out of bed due to pain and was sent for an MRI. She could
barely lift a gallon of milk with her right arm. Concentration was difficult due to fatigue.
Dr. Jain provided a sworn statement dated May 24, 2010. (Tr. 437-47). He noted Plaintiff
had back surgery in 2009 involving C4, C5, and C6 with screws and one grafting and fusion at C4,
C5, and C6, which was performed by Dr. Schlosser. She still has pain and discomfort, as well as
numbing of the thumb and first finger, leading to an inability to perform fine and gross
movements. Her lumbar spinal stenosis was diagnosed by MRI in June 2009. He noted that the
MRI without contrast might not show compromise of the nerve roots. He believed she could lift up
to 10 pounds frequently, could sit for 30 minutes without moving or standing, and could walk 20
to 30 minutes without a break. She was limited to minimal crouching and no stooping. She might
need a cane to ambulate occasionally.
At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that she last worked in 2005 for one night. (Tr. 14). She
dropped out of school in seventh grade to help her mother care for Plaintiff’s disabled siblings. (Tr.
Plaintiff described her worst medical problems as her back and neck. (Tr. 20). She had
surgery on her shoulder in the 1990s and back surgery recently. (Tr. 20). Her arm worsened
sometime in 2009, and she cannot lift a half gallon of milk with her right arm. (Tr. 22-23). She has
pain and tingling from the waist down, worse on the right side. (Tr. 24). She cannot bend over. (Tr.
30). On the day of her hearing, she was having a bad pain day and had been up all night. (Tr. 30).
Plaintiff drives occasionally, as much as 13 miles. (Tr. 16). She sweeps, mops, and washes
dishes, with breaks. (Tr. 25). She is able to cook simple meals and buy groceries with her teenaged
son’s help. (Tr. 26). She spends most of her day on the couch. (Tr. 27).
Vocational Expert (“VE”) Anne Thomas testified regarding potential jobs a hypothetical
individual could perform given a specific residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The ALJ first
presented a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff’s education and work experience who could
perform at the light exertional level with a sit/stand option; 30 minute intervals of sitting and
standing; frequent pushing or pulling in the dominant right extremity; occasional climbing of
ladders, ropes or scaffolds; frequent postural activities; frequent reaching overhead with the
dominant right upper extremity; and who must avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants.
The VE believed that hypothetical individual could not perform Plaintiff’s past relevant work but
could perform the jobs of hand packer (2,700 in Tennessee/100,000 nationwide), production
laborer (6,000 in Tennessee/180,000 nationwide), and production machine operator (3,000 in
The ALJ then asked the VE if the additional limitations of occasional pushing and pulling
with the dominant right upper extremity, occasional reaching overhead with the dominant right
upper extremity, and frequent operation of foot controls would change her answer. The VE said it
would not change her response. However, if every limitation mentioned in Plaintiff’s testimony
were required, Plaintiff would not be able to perform any jobs.
III. PLAINTIFF’S STATEMENT OF ERROR AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in determining the onset date of her disability. She
claims she was disabled in July 2008, not in June 2009, as the ALJ determined. This would entitle
her to DIB benefits, as she was insured through December 2008.
Standard of Review
This Court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited to the record made in the
administrative hearing process. Jones v. Secretary, 945 F.2d 1365, 1369 (6th Cir. 1991). The
purpose of this review is to determine (1) whether substantial evidence exits in the record to
support the Commissioner’s decision, and (2) whether any legal errors were committed in the
process of reaching that decision. Landsaw v. Secretary, 803 F.2d 211, 213 (6th Cir. 1986).
“Substantial evidence” means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind would accept
as adequate to support the conclusion.” Her v. Commissioner, 203 F.3d 388, 389 (6th Cir. 1999)
(citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). It has been further quantified as “more
than a mere scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance.” Bell v. Commissioner, 105 F.3d
244, 245 (6th Cir. 1996). Even if the evidence could also support a difference conclusion, the
decision of the ALJ must stand if substantial evidence supports the conclusion reached. Her, 203
F.3d at 389 (citing Key v. Callahan, 109 F.3d 270, 273 (6th Cir. 1997)). However, if the record
was not considered as a whole, the Commissioner’s conclusion is undermined. Hurst v. Secretary,
753 F.2d 517, 519 (6th Cir. 1985).
Proceedings at the Administrative Level
The Claimant has the ultimate burden to establish an entitlement to benefits by proving his
or her “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically
determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has
lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A). At the administrative level of review, the claimant’s case is considered under a fivestep sequential evaluation process as follows:
If the claimant is working and the work constitutes substantial gainful activity,
benefits are automatically denied.
If the claimant is not found to have an impairment which significantly limits his or
her ability to work (a “severe” impairment), then he or she is not disabled.
If the claimant is not working and has a severe impairment, it must be determined
whether he or she suffers from one of the “listed” impairments2 or its equivalent; if a
listing is met or equaled, benefits are owing without further inquiry.
If the claimant does not suffer from any listing-level impairments, it must be
determined whether the claimant can return to the job he or she previously held in
light of his or her residual functional capacity (e.g., what the claimant can still do
despite his or her limitations); by showing a medical condition that prevents him or
her from returning to such past relevant work, the claimant establishes a prima facie
case of disability.
Once the claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability, it becomes the
Commissioner’s burden to establish the claimant’s ability to work by providing the
existence of a significant number of jobs in the national economy which the claimant
could perform, given his or her age, experience, education, and residual functional
Moon v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1175, 1181 (6th Cir. 1990).
The Commissioner’s burden at the fifth step of the evaluation process can be carried by
relying on the medical-vocational guidelines, otherwise known as “the grids,” but only if the
claimant is not significantly limited by a nonexertional impairment, and then only when the
claimant's characteristics identically match the characteristics of the applicable grid rule. See Wright
The Listing of Impairments is found at 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, Appendix 1.
v. Massanari, 321 F.3d 611, 615-16 (6th Cir. 2003). Otherwise, the grids cannot be used to direct a
conclusion, but only as a guide to the disability determination. Id.; see also Moon, 923 F.2d at
1181. In such cases where the grids do not direct a conclusion as to the claimant's disability, the
Commissioner must rebut the claimant's prima facie case by coming forward with proof of the
claimant's individual vocational qualifications to perform specific jobs, which is typically obtained
through VE testimony. See Wright, 321 F.3d at *616 (quoting Soc. Sec. Rul. 83-12, 1983 WL
31253, *4 (S.S.A.)); see also Varley v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 820 F.2d 777, 779 (6th Cir.
The ALJ Properly Determined the Onset Date for Plaintiff’s Disability
The Magistrate Judge believes the ALJ had sufficient evidence for determining Plaintiff’s
disability onset date as June 4, 2009. Plaintiff first complained to Dr. Jain about back pain in
November 2008. (Tr. 343-44). A lumbar CT on January 6, 2009 showed spinal stenosis at T12-L1
and osteoarthritis and facet hypertrophy at the multiple levels. (Tr. 346). In her February 2, 2009
Function Report, Plaintiff noted that the pain interferes with and limits activities, but she was able
to clean house for about an hour, cook two meals, complete household chores, and shop for
groceries twice per month. (Tr. 151-63). In February 2009, Dr. McLerran noted Plaintiff had pains
shooting into the tops of both of her feet and a “great deal of problems with her back.” (Tr. 286-95).
Dr. Surber’s consultative exam in April 2009 reflected Plaintiff’s back pain, but straight-leg raises
were negative. (Tr. 313). Significantly, Dr. Surber believed Plaintiff capable of light work, with the
ability to stand or walk up to two to four hours and the ability to sit up to six to eight hours. (Tr.
Plaintiff’s condition clearly deteriorated in June 2009. On June 1, 2009, Plaintiff sought
treatment from Dr. McLerran, noting the pain flared up when she tried to get out of bed. (Tr. 38790). The pain radiated down her left leg. Id. An MRI of the lumbar spine on June 4, 2009 revealed
multilevel degenerative disc disease extending from T12 through S1. (Tr. 329-30). This apparently
led to back surgery later in 2009. (Tr. 437-47).
Plaintiff cites SSR 83-20 for the proposition that the ALJ should have given more weight to
her alleged onset date. However, SSR 83-20 provides that “the date alleged by the individual should
be used if it is consistent with all the evidence available.” Here, the ALJ determined that the
medical evidence contradicted Plaintiff’s alleged onset date of July 15, 2008. As noted above, the
ALJ had substantial evidence for this determination. There was a deterioration of Plaintiff’s back
condition that led to her meeting Listing 1.04A, as she demonstrated evidence of nerve root
The ALJ also properly discounted Plaintiff’s credibility. An ALJ’s finding on the credibility
of a claimant is to be accorded great weight and deference, particularly since the ALJ is charged
with the duty of observing the witness’s demeanor and credibility. Walters v. Commissioner of
Social Security, 127 F.3d 525 (6th Cir. 1997) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423 and 20 C.F.R. 404.1529(a)).
Like any other factual finding, an ALJ’s adverse credibility finding must be supported by
substantial evidence. Doud v. Commissioner, 314 F. Supp. 2d 671, 678-79 (E.D. Mich. 2003). The
ALJ cited Dr. Surber’s examination in April 2009, noting Dr. Surber found minimal reduction in
Plaintiff’s lumbar range of motion and no palpable tenderness or spasm in the area. (Tr. 311-15).
In short, the medical evidence fails to establish Plaintiff’s claim that she became disabled
prior to December 31, 2008. The ALJ had substantial evidence for determining that Plaintiff’s
condition worsened in 2009 and did not meet the listing until that time. While Plaintiff attempted to
offer some evidence of her condition in 2008 through Dr. Jain’s sworn statement, Dr. Jain provided
no description of the progression of Plaintiff’s back pain. (Tr. 437-47). It is the Plaintiff’s burden to
prove her disability onset date, and the Magistrate Judge believes Plaintiff has failed to do so here.
See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
For the reasons set forth above, the Magistrate Judge RECOMMENDS that Plaintiff’s
Motion be DENIED and this action be DISMISSED.
Any party has fourteen (14) days from receipt of this Report and Recommendation in which
to file any written objection to it with the District Court. Any party opposing said objections shall
have fourteen (14) days from receipt of any objections filed in which to file any responses to said
objections. Failure to file specific objections within fourteen (14) days of receipt of this Report and
Recommendation can constitute a waiver of further appeal of this Recommendation. Thomas v. Arn,
474 U.S. 140 (1985); Cowherd v. Million, 380 F.3d 909, 912 (6th Cir. 2004) (en banc).
ENTERED this 15th day of November, 2012.
JOE B. BROWN
United States Magistrate Judge