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Putnam v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southern Division

October 17, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


NANETTE K. LAUGHREY, District Judge.

Plaintiff Phyllis Putnam seeks review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and VII of the Social Security Act. Doc. 8. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded for further consideration.

I. Background

Plaintiff was born in 1964 and has a high school education. Plaintiff alleges she became disabled on January 1, 2007, from the combined effects of degenerative disc disease and back pain, depression, headaches, and seizures. In January 2007, while Plaintiff worked in the medical field, she was attacked by a patient. As a result of the attack, she required back surgery, and a titanium rod and screws were inserted. Plaintiff alleges that since January 2007, she has suffered chronic back pain.

After Plaintiff's back surgery in January 2007, Plaintiff began seeking treatment for back pain in approximately June 2009. She sought treatment on average every two months until July 2012, with some visits occurring multiple times in a month and some visits as far as five to six months apart. Plaintiff underwent various forms of treatment including surgery with hardware placement, a walking and home exercise program, steroid injections, physical therapy, and a kyphoplasty. She was also prescribed narcotic medication. See e.g., TR-286, 343, 442-43, 459-61, 573. In September 2011, Plaintiff suffered a seizure which resulted in a lumbar spine compression fracture and she underwent corrective surgery again. TR-339, 342-43. In June 2012, Plaintiff reported that her back pain was stable on medication, but that she suffered from shoulder pain. TR-602. She reported increased pain in July 2012 after a fall.

In April 2010, Plaintiff reported frequent headaches. TR-580. She complained of frequent headaches from August to November 2010. Plaintiff's physician discussed hydration, nutrition, identification of triggers, stress management and relaxation techniques, and nicotine and caffeine reduction as possible solutions. TR-570.

In March 2011, Plaintiff went to the hospital after suffering from a seizure. TR-369. She reported that she had a history of seizures but ceased taking medication for the condition in 2000. TR-413. Plaintiff also reported seizures in September 2011, July 2012, and possibly one other time in 2012. TR-342, 590.

There are four medical opinions in the record. In January 2011, Dr. Deborah Webster met with Plaintiff for a behavioral medicine evaluation and conducted two hours of psychological testing as well as a forty-five minute diagnostic interview. TR-280-82. Dr. Webster opined Plaintiff had a pain disorder with both psychological factors and a general medical condition. TR-280. Plaintiff suffered from depression, most likely a dysthymic disorder. TR-280. She also suffered from migraines with aura and cervicalgia. Dr. Webster opined that Plaintiff "would benefit from participation in the intensive chronic pain day treatment program." TR-281.

In April 2011, Dr. Q. Michael Ditmore, a non-examining state agency consultant, reviewed Plaintiff's records and completed a Physical Residual Functional Capacity Assessment. TR-294-99. Dr. Ditmore opined Plaintiff could lift and carry ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally and stand, walk, or sit for a total of six hours in an eight hour day. TR-295. Plaintiff's ability to push or pull was unlimited. TR-295. Plaintiff was limited in her ability to reach. TR-296.

In May 2011, Dr. Robert Cottone, a non-examining state agency consultant, reviewed Plaintiff's records and completed a Psychiatric Review Technique and a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment. TR-300-313. Dr. Cottone opined Plaintiff had mild restriction of activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning and concentration, persistence, or pace, and one or two repeated episodes of decompensation. TR-308. He opined that Plaintiff was markedly limited her ability to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions and her ability to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods. TR-311. She also had some moderate limitations in other areas of concentration and social interaction. TR-311-12.

In June 2012, Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Reed Click, completed a Medical Source Statement - Physical. TR-418-19. Dr. Click opined Plaintiff could lift and carry five pounds frequently and ten pounds occasionally, stand or walk continuously for fifteen minutes for a total of three hours in an eight hour day, and sit continuously for thirty minutes for a total of four hours in an eight hour day. TR-418. Plaintiff's ability to push or pull was limited due to mid-upper back pain. Plaintiff would need to lie down or recline two times per day for thirty minutes to alleviate pain. TR-419. Dr. Click opined that Plaintiff's use of hydrocodone impaired her cognitive function.

After a hearing, an administrative law judge (ALJ) concluded that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, headaches, seizures, and depression. TR-13. Plaintiff's impairments were severe in nature and reasonably expected to cause the symptoms she alleged, but the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms were not as severe as Plaintiff alleged. TR-18. In coming to this conclusion, the ALJ - among other observations - remarked that Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Click, rendered opinions unsupported by the record and that Plaintiff's statements as to the severity of her impairments were not completely credible. TR-18-20.

The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work except she must have a sit-stand option with the ability to change positions every thirty minutes, can occasionally climb stairs and ramps, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. TR-17. She can never climb ropes, ladders, and scaffolds. She is limited to no more than frequent reaching overhead. She has exposure limitations. She can understand, remember, and carry out at least simple instructions and non-detailed tasks. She can demonstrate adequate judgment to make simple, work-related decisions and can respond appropriately to supervisors and co-workers in a task-oriented setting where contact with others is casual and infrequent. She can perform repetitive work according to set procedures, sequence, or pace. TR-17. After presenting these limitations to a vocational expert, the vocational expert testified that Plaintiff could work as a bench assembler and an electric equipment or light fixture assembler. TR-23.

In support of his conclusions, the ALJ afforded "some weight" to Dr. Ditmore's and Dr. Cottone's opinions. The ALJ acknowledged that the opinions of non-examining consultants Dr. Ditmore and Dr. Cottone were are not generally due more weight than the opinion of a treating physician, but remarked that "some weight" was due to them, "particularly in a case like this in which there exist a number of other reasons to reach similar conclusions." TR-21. It is unclear what, if any, weight the ALJ afforded Dr. Click's opinion, but the ALJ remarked that Dr. Click's opinion "apparently relied quite heavily on the subjective report of symptoms and limitations provided by" Plaintiff. TR-20. The ALJ also observed that Dr. Click's ...

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