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Branson v. Astrue

January 8, 2008

GWENDOLYN J. BRANSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Leon Jordan United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This is an action for judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of defendant Commissioner's final decision denying plaintiff's claim for disability insurance and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. For the reasons provided herein, defendant's motion for summary judgment [doc. 16] will be denied, and plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings [doc. 14] will be granted to the extent it seeks remand under sentence four of § 405(g).*fn1

I. Procedural History

Plaintiff applied for benefits in April 2003, claiming to be disabled by right leg pain which purportedly limits her standing, walking, and lifting. [Tr. 68, 388]. She alleged a disability onset date of May 8, 2002. [Tr. 386]. Her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing, which took place before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") in November 2004.

In February 2005, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. [Tr. 364-74]. Plaintiff sought review from the Commissioner's Appeals Council. The Appeals Council vacated and remanded for further evaluation of plaintiff's mental status. [Tr. 382-84].

The ALJ conducted a second administrative hearing in December 2005 and subsequently rendered another decision denying benefits. Therein, he found that plaintiff suffers from "obesity, history of bilateral total knee replacements, bursitis in the right hip, carpal tunnel syndrome status post carpal tunnel release on the right, fibromyalgia, rule out pain disorder, mild to moderate depression and anxiety disorder, rule out obstructive sleep apnea, [and] rule out pain disorder," which are "severe" impairments but not equivalent, singularly or in concert, to any impairment listed by the Commissioner. [Tr. 25]. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff's subjective complaints are to some degree overstated, and he also declined to adopt an opinion of plaintiff's treating orthopaedic surgeon. [Tr. 25, 27-28]. The ALJ ultimately concluded, based on vocational expert testimony, that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to engage in a significant number of unskilled sedentary jobs existing in the local and national economies. [Tr. 29]. Plaintiff was accordingly deemed ineligible for benefits.

Appeals Council review was denied on December 2, 2006. [Tr. 10]. The ALJ's second ruling therefore became the Commissioner's final decision. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. Through her timely complaint, plaintiff has properly brought her case before this court for review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

II. Plaintiff's Background and Testimony

Plaintiff was born in 1963 and has a college degree. [Tr. 74, 77]. She has previously worked as a nurse. [Tr. 69].

Plaintiff claims constant, worsening pain in her right leg and hip which she rates an "eleven" on a scale of one to ten. [Tr. 68, 91, 400, 529]. She allegedly can perform virtually no housework and must elevate her legs most of the time due to pain and swelling. [Tr. 49, 92, 401, 460]. Plaintiff is able to drive [Tr. 92, 401, 460] and attend church several times per week. [Tr. 408, 460].

III. Relevant Medical Evidence

Plaintiff is 5'7" tall and weighs up to 283 pounds. [Tr. 67, 516]. Treating physician David Wooten has "emphasize[d] the need . . . to lose weight" [Tr. 139, 145, 157, 450] and has related plaintiff's obesity to her complaints of fatigue and shortness of breath. [Tr. 355]. In January 2004, rheumatologist Martin Gornisiewicz wrote that "[g]eneralized fatigue is the main problem for her." [Tr. 359]. In late 2004, Dr. Wooten wrote, "She needs to get on a weight loss program. If she wants to feel better, she is going to have to try to lose weight." [Tr. 352].

Orthopaedic surgeon Harold Cates performed a left knee replacement in 1999 and a right knee replacement in 2002. [Tr. 268, 323]. The left knee surgery is noted to have produced "good clinical results and no pain." [Tr. 265].

Since her right knee surgery, however, plaintiff has complained of "unrelenting" pain. [Tr. 249]. Dr. Cates subsequently performed right knee revision surgery in June 2003. [Tr. 253]. He has since noted tenderness, ...


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