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Brooks v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Columbia Division

February 22, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,[1] Defendant.

         Chief Judge Crenshaw Magistrate Judge Newbern

         The Honorable Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr., Chief Judge


         Pending before the Court in this Social Security appeal is Plaintiff Robin Annette Brooks's motion for judgment on the administrative record (Doc. No. 18), to which the Commissioner of Social Security has responded (Doc. No. 20). Upon consideration of these filings and the transcript of the administrative record (Doc. No. 14), [2] and for the reasons given below, the undersigned RECOMMENDS that Brooks's motion for judgment be GRANTED, that the decision of the Commissioner be REVERSED, and that the cause REMANDED for further administrative proceedings consistent with this report.

         I. Background

         Brooks filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on February 20, 2013, alleging disability based on bulging discs and arthritis in her back, degenerative disc disease, and high blood pressure. (Tr. 28, 111-12, 226.) Tennessee Disability Determination Services (DDS) denied Brooks's claims upon initial review and again following her request for reconsideration. Brooks requested de novo review of her case by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The ALJ heard the case on March 4, 2015, and Brooks appeared with counsel and gave testimony. (Tr. 45-82.) A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. At the conclusion of the hearing, the ALJ took the matter under advisement until May 12, 2015, when he issued a written decision finding Brooks not disabled. (Tr. 28-37.) That decision contains the following enumerated findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 6, 2012, the amended alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: obesity, lumbosacral spondylosis with myelopathy, osteoarthritis of the right knee, and arthritic changes of the left knee (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of 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).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except with no climbing ladders/ropes/scaffolds; occasional climbing ramps/stairs, balancing, stooping, crouching, kneeling or crawling; no walking on uneven surfaces; and limited to standing/walking 4 hours in an 8-hour workday.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
7. The claimant was born on January 30, 1962 and was 42 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the [original] alleged disability onset date. The claimant subsequently changed age category to closely approaching advanced age (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
8. The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
9. 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).
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from March 31, 2004, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

(Tr. 30, 32, 35-37.)

         On May 5, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Brooks's request for review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 1-3), rendering that decision final. This action seeking review was timely filed on May 5, 2016. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Review of the Record

         The following review is taken from Brooks's Memorandum (Doc. No. 19) in support of her Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record:

On the amended alleged onset date, Plaintiff was 50 years old. (Tr. 28, 203.) She has an eighth grade education. (Tr. 227.) She has past work as a caregiver, harness builder, and laborer. (Tr. 228.)

         A. Concise Summary of the Medical Records

On the alleged onset date of November 6, 2012, Plaintiff underwent MRI of the lumbar spine ordered by her longtime pain management doctor Damon Dozier, M.D. (he had been treating her since at least January 4, 2012 on at least six occasions - Tr. 321, 324, 327, 329, 334, 336). (Tr. 362.) At ¶ 1-L2 there was moderate disc space narrowing; and at ¶ 5-S1 there was severe disc space narrowing, mild broad-based posterior disc bulge, and moderate bilateral facet arthropathy. (Tr. 362.) The overall impression was multilevel spondylosis [without spinal or foraminal stenosis, no change when compared to a previous MRI dated July 20, 2009]. (Tr. 362.)
Between November 2012 and April of 2013, Plaintiff treated with Dr. Dozier on four occasions for pain management related to her lower back pain that radiated into her hips. (Tr. 311-21, 437-40.) During these visits it was noted Plaintiff's problems included depressive disorder, pain in her lower leg, lumbosacral spondylosis without myelopathy, degeneration of thoracic or lumbar intervertebral disc, cervicalgia, pain in her thoracic spine, and lumbago. (Tr. 312.) Examinations by Dr. Dozier showed tenderness over the spinous process from . . . L1-L5, decreased extension, a depressed mood, decreased range of motion, limited ambulation, mildly increased pain with facet-loading, and tenderness of the SI joints. (Tr. 313, 317, 320, 439.) During this period, Plaintiff was diagnosed with degeneration of the thoracic or lumbar intervertebral disc; lumbago; depressive disorder; pain in the thoracic spine; lumbosacral spondylosis without myelopathy; and cervicalgia. (Tr. 314, 317, 321.) Injections were planned, and she was prescribed Ibuprofen, Cymbalta, Lortab, Venlafaxine, methocarbamol, and Neurontin. (Tr. 314-15, 317-18, 320-21.) In April 2013, Dr. Dozier performed a radiofrequency ablation of the lumbar medial branch and dorsal ramus of L5. (Tr. 393, 439.)
On May 8, 2013, Plaintiff presented to Donita Keown, M.D., per the referral of the Tennessee Disability Determination Services for a consultative physical examination. (Tr. 372.) Here, Plaintiff reported a long history of chronic stiffness and pain in the lower back; and she reported epidural steroids and radiofrequency ablation had not improved her condition. (Tr. 372.) She also reported radiating discomfort into the bilateral buttocks and lateral thighs. (Tr. 372.) Examination revealed Plaintiff was 64 inches tall and weighed 284 pounds. (Tr. 372-73.) Dr. Keown diagnosed chronic low back pain with degenerative disc disease and facet arthropathy[;] bilateral knee pain, likely attributable to degenerative joint disease; morbid obesity, not limiting mobility; ...

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