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Whiting v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

May 29, 2014

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


DAVID J. NOVAK, Magistrate Judge.

Lorraine Whiting ("Plaintiff") is 51 years old and has previously worked as a grill cook, an inventory counter, a stock clerk, a mail handler and a factory line assembler. On July 29, 2010, Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("Act") alleging lupus, connective tissue disorder, depression and numbness in her toes. Plaintiff's claim was presented to an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), who denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. The Appeals Council subsequently denied Plaintiff's request for review.

Plaintiff now challenges the ALJ's denial of benefits, arguing that the ALJ erred in assessing her credibility and the credibility of her family and friend. (Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mem.") (ECF No. 10) at 17-29.) Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This matter is now before the Court by consent of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1) on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for review. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 9), GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 11); and AFFIRMS the final decision of the Commissioner.


Because Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's credibility assessments, Plaintiff's educational and work history, medical history, consulting physician's opinions, reported activities of daily living and hearing testimony are summarized below.

A. Plaintiff's Education and Work History

Plaintiff completed school through twelfth grade. (R. at 33.) Plaintiff previously worked as a grill cook, an inventory counter, a stock clerk, a mail handler and a factory line assembler. (R. at 34-37, 229.) Until May 30, 2008, Plaintiff worked as a full-time grill cook for Compass Group USA. (R. at 34, 151.) Plaintiff stopped working, because her family moved to Fredericksburg shortly after the birth of her grandson. (R. at 151.)

B. Plaintiff's Medical Records

1. Dr. Maria Darland

On April 18, 2010, Plaintiff first consulted rheumatologist Maria Darland, M.D. about her pain, muscle tenderness and insomnia. (R. at 499.) In a Multi-Dimensional Health Assessment Questionnaire, Plaintiff indicated that she had only mild difficulty with tasks such as dressing herself, getting in and out of bed, walking outdoors and washing her body. (R. at 499.) However, Plaintiff was unable to walk two miles or participate in sports, and she indicated feeling stiff each morning when she awoke. (R. at 499.) On a scale of 100, with 100 being very poor and zero being very well, Plaintiff ranked her overall health condition as 60. (R. at 499.) Likewise on a similar scale with 100 being very bad, Plaintiff listed her pain level as 70 and her fatigue level as 75. (R. at 499.) On May 18, 2010, after a physical evaluation and laboratory testing, Dr. Darland diagnosed Plaintiff with mixed connective tissue disease ("MCTD") (ribonucleoprotein complex). (R. at 498.) This diagnosis stemmed from Dr. Darland's assessment that Plaintiff's symptoms, including muscle soreness, insomnia and joint swelling, were consistent with lupus. (R. at 501.) On July 16, 2010, Dr. Darland concluded that Plaintiff suffered from systemic lupus erythematosus, as well as MCTD. (R. at 492.)

From August 26, 2010 through October 21, 2011, Dr. Darland treated Plaintiff for MCTD issues on multiple occasions. (R. at 490, 664, 769, 775, 778, 781, 789, 792.) Dr. Darland prescribed methotrexate and prednisone for Plaintiff, and her MCTD issues fluctuated in severity and frequency. (R. at 815.) On October 21, 2011, Dr. Darland opined that Plaintiff's MCTD was "much better." (R. at 775.) During a December 1, 2011 visit, Dr. Plaintiff experienced a MCTD flare-up. (R. at 769)

2. Dr. Joseph Cherian

On May 6, 2010, Plaintiff sought treatment for pain from her primary care physician, Joseph Cherian, M.D. (R. at 584.) Dr. Cherian examined Plaintiff and found normal breathing, muscle and motor strength, reflexes, gait and mood. (R. at 587-588.) Dr. Cherian indicated that Plaintiff suffered from chronic pain, unspecified backache, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, lumbago and lymphocytosis. (R. at 589.) Dr. Cherian explained the importance of Plaintiff seeking non-pharmacological treatment, such as yoga, stretching, regular aerobic exercise, weight loss and a healthy diet to alleviate her pain. (R. at 589-90, 682-83.) On May 12, 2010, Dr. Cherian noted that Plaintiff's breathing, muscle strength, reflexes, gait and mood appeared normal. (R. at 576.) Between June and August, Plaintiff consulted with Dr. Cherian, and although Plaintiff reported pain and inflammation, each visit yielded normal observations by Dr. Cherian. (R. at 547-48, 555-56, 563-64, 571-72.)

On November 2, 2010, Dr. Cherian assessed that medications had lessened Plaintiff's back and shoulder pain and that her swelling was less severe. (R. at 677-78.) Dr. Cherian again encouraged Plaintiff to exercise. (R. at 683.) During several subsequent visits beginning in December 2010 and continuing through February 2011, Dr. Cherian noted that Plaintiff demonstrated normal breathing, muscle strength, gait and reflexes, and while Plaintiff's mood was depressed, she remained stable with medication. (R. at 696-98, 706-07, 709, 711-12, 717-19, 721-22, 1067-78, and 1080-81.) On October 19, 2011, Plaintiff reported occasional flare-ups, but Dr. Cherian noted improvement in several of Plaintiff's symptoms. (R. at 852-58.)

3. Dr. Robert Bloom

On February 3, 2011, pulmonary specialist Robert Bloom, M.D. evaluated Plaintiff and determined that Plaintiff had low normal pulmonary function. (R. at 833.) Dr. Bloom noted that Plaintiff had smoked one pack of cigarettes per day for twenty-five years. (R. at 832.) During the examination, Plaintiff exhibited normal lung volumes and normal diffusing capacity. (R. at 833.) Dr. Bloom assessed that Plaintiff demonstrated no evidence of interstitial lung disease or shrinking lung syndrome associated with lupus. (R. at 833.) Dr. Bloom wrote a letter to Dr. Darland, Plaintiff's rheumatologist, stating that "it is absolutely essential that [Plaintiff] stop smoking." (R. at 833.)

Dr. Bloom saw Plaintiff on October 13, 2011, for a follow-up visit. (R. at 820.) A chest radiograph showed Plaintiff's lung fields to be almost clear, but Dr. Bloom noted minimally increased interstitial markings, which he attributed to Plaintiff's history of smoking. (R. at 820-21.) Dr. Bloom assessed very mild interstitial lung disease, esophageal reflux and low-grade depression. (R. at 821.) Dr. Bloom again observed that Plaintiff's lung function was normal and that Plaintiff showed no evidence of progressive pulmonary disease. (R. at 821.)

4. Physical Therapy

On May 11, 2011, Plaintiff began physical therapy to address her back pain. (R. at 1131.) Before starting the therapy, Plaintiff described constant back pain beginning in 2004 due to her employment, which involved production work and lifting. (R. at 1131.) On a scale of one to ten, with one being the least pain, Plaintiff rated her pain as a six out of ten at worst and a three out of ten at best. (R. at 1132.) Plaintiff had received physical therapy in the past, but she indicated that an "episode" the previous month had caused her extreme pain. (R. at 1131.) Plaintiff regularly attended physical therapy during May and June of 2011. (R. at 1091, 1094, 1097, 1100, 1103, 1106, 1109, 1113, 1116, 1122, 1125, 1128.) Plaintiff's final session occurred on June 6, 2011, at which point she had to stop treatment because of insurance limitations. (R. at 1096.) In her final physical therapy report, Plaintiff indicated that she could lift 10-15 pounds, carry a gallon of milk from her car to her house, sit for more than 60 minutes, stand for 51-60 minutes, and walk on a treadmill for 0-10 minutes. (R. at 1091). Plaintiff's physical therapist described that Plaintiff's condition at the time of discharge as "good" and encouraged Plaintiff to continue a home program therapy. (R. at 1092.)

C. State Agency Physicians

State agency physician Luc Vinh, M.D. reviewed Plaintiff's medical records and determined that Plaintiff had no manipulative, visual, communicative or environmental limitations and no severe mental impairments. (R. at 70-71, 81.) Dr. Vinh opined that Plaintiff could occasionally lift and/or carry 20 pounds and frequently lift and/or carrying 10 pounds. (R. at 80.) Plaintiff could stand and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour day and sit for six hours in an eight-hour day. (R. at 80.) Dr. Vinh further determined that Plaintiff had no limitation in her ability to push or pull and could occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. (R. at 80-81.) State agency physician R.S. Kadian, M.D. reached the same conclusions. (R. at 68-71.)

State agency mental health professionals Yvonne Evans, Ph.D. and Nicole Sampson, Ph.D. also reviewed Plaintiff's medical records and opined that Plaintiff had only mild restrictions on daily activities, mild difficulties in social functioning, mild difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace and ...

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