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Allen v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

September 11, 2017

LISA ALLEN, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         The parties have consented to proceed before the magistrate judge. Doc. 18. Now before the Court are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. Doc. 17; Doc. 22. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED, and the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner denying her claim for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff filed for benefits in June 2013, claiming that she became disabled in April 2013. Doc. 14-3 at 19; Doc. 14-6 at 4-6. Plaintiff's application was denied at all administrative levels, and she now appeals to this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Doc. 14-3 at 2-4; Doc. 14-3 at 16-33; Doc. 14-5 at 4-8; Doc. 14-5 at 10-12.

         B. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was 51 years old when she filed her application for disability benefits. Doc. 14-6 at 4. She has a high school equivalency diploma and past relevant work experience as a store stocker. Doc. 14-3 at 80; Doc. 14-7 at 14; Doc. 14-8 at 10.

         Plaintiff's relevant medical history indicates that she sought treatment from an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Gregg T. Podleski, D.O., from July 2012 to March 2013. Doc. 14-8 at 3-11. He noted that Plaintiff had prior right knee arthroscopic surgery and was suffering from severe osteoarthritis in the knee. Doc. 14-8 at 7. By September 2012, however, Dr. Podleski opined that Plaintiff's knee was “close to 100%, ” and she could return to work on full duty the upcoming week. Doc. 14-8 at 6.

         During a May 2013 trip to the emergency room for moderate lower back pain, an X-ray of Plaintiff's lumbar spine showed moderate degenerative changes at ¶ 4-L5 with an anterior subluxation of the L4 on L5, but the remainder of the examination revealed only mild degenerative changes. Doc. 14-8 at 15, 17. An August 2013 MRI of Plaintiff's lumbar spine revealed: (1) at ¶ 4-5, a disc bulge, bilateral facet effusion and anterolisthesis causing severe bilateral neuroforaminal stenosis; and (2) at ¶ 5-S1, a disc bulge, bilateral facet hypertrophy and facet effusion causing severe left and moderate right neuroforaminal stenosis. Doc. 14-9 at 4. In a November 2013 examination, Plaintiff had a normal gait pattern, could heel and toe walk without difficulty, her sensation was grossly intact, a straight leg raise test was negative, and she had full range of motion in her cervical and lumbar spine and full strength in all of her extremities. Doc. 14-9 at 15-16.

         In the latter half of 2013, state agency physicians Drs. Randal Reid and Betty Santiago, M.D., both opined the Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to (1) lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; (2) sit/stand/walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday; (3) occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes and scaffolds; and (4) occasionally stoop, kneel, and crouch. Doc. 14-4 at 4-7; Doc. 14-4 at 15-18. Both doctors listed three occupations “in which there are a significant number of jobs that exist in the national economy” that Plaintiff could perform, including ticket seller. Doc. 14-4 at 9; Doc. 14-4 at 18. At Plaintiff's administrative hearing, a vocational expert (“VE”) testified that, given the RFC found by Dr. Santiago and the example job of ticket seller she provided, Plaintiff could perform that light, unskilled work. Doc. 14-3 at 87-88.

         C. The ALJ's Findings

         In February 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application for benefits, finding that she had the RFC to perform the restricted range of light work specified by the state agency physicians. Doc. 14-3 at 26. The ALJ acknowledged that the framework of medical vocational guideline rule (“Grid Rule”) 202.14 supported a finding of “not disabled, ” and Plaintiff could make a successful adjustment to work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, such as ticket seller, as stated by the VE. Doc. 14-3 at 32-33.

         D. Appeals Council

         Plaintiff submitted additional medical records to the Appeals Council (“AC”), which revealed that she continued to experience back and knee pain. Doc. 14-3 at 40-42. A spinal MRI performed in March 2015 demonstrated diffuse disc bulging at the L4-5 level with severe bilateral neuroforaminal stenosis at the L4-5 level and moderate to severe bilateral neuroforaminal stenosis at the L5-S1 level. Doc. 14-3 at 54. In December 2015, Plaintiff reported that her knee and back pain level had ...

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