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Cardinale v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division

January 11, 2017

CHRISTINA M. CARDINALE, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Honorable Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff has filed this action challenging the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiffs claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423. Jurisdiction of this court is pursuant to § 205(g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). As reflected by the memoranda and argument submitted by the parties, the issues now before the court are whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence, or whether there is "good cause" as to necessitate remanding the case to the Commissioner for further consideration. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         The plaintiff, Christina M. Cardinale, was born on February 6, 1954, and eventually completed her high school education. Mrs. Cardinale has also completed a course of study in data processing. Plaintiff has worked as a bookkeeper, auditor, cashier, and administrative assistant. She last worked on a regular basis in 2012. On December 20, 2012, Mrs. Cardinale filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. She alleged that she became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment on November 30, 2012 because of bulging discs in her back and high blood pressure. Plaintiff now maintains that she has remained disabled to the present time. The record reveals that Mrs. Cardinale met the insured status requirements of the Act at all relevant times covered by the final decision of the Commissioner. See gen., 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423(a).

         Mrs. Cardinale's claim for disability insurance benefits was denied upon initial consideration and reconsideration. She then requested and received a de novo hearing and review before an Administrative Law Judge. In an opinion dated September 15, 2015, the Law Judge also determined that plaintiff was not disabled. The Law Judge found that Mrs. Cardinale suffered from several severe impairments, including spondylosis of the lumbar spine with L5-S1 rupture; degenerative joint disease; tendonitis with a partial tear in her right shoulder; and obesity. Despite this combination of impairments, the Law Judge ruled that Mrs. Cardinale retained sufficient functional capacity to perform sedentary work such as was required in her prior job as an administrative assistant. Accordingly, the Law Judge ultimately concluded that plaintiff was not disabled, and that she is not entitled to a period of disability or disability insurance benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). Upon receipt of the Law Judge's adverse decision, plaintiff sought review by the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. In conjunction with her request for review, Mrs. Cardinale submitted a number of new medical reports. However, the Appeals Council eventually adopted the Law Judge's opinion as the final decision of the Commissioner. Having exhausted all available administrative remedies, Mrs. Cardinale has now appealed to this court.

         While plaintiff may be disabled for certain forms of employment, the crucial factual determination is whether plaintiff was disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2). There are four elements of proof which must be considered in making such an analysis. These elements are summarized as follows: (1) objective medical facts and clinical findings; (2) the opinions and conclusions of treating physicians; (3) subjective evidence of physical manifestations of impairments, as described through a claimant's testimony; and (4) the claimant's education, vocational history, residual skills, and age. Vitek v. Finch, 438 F.2d 1157, 1159-60 (4th Cir. 1971); Underwood v. Ribicoff. 298 F.2d 850, 851 (4th Cir. 1962).

         On appeal, plaintiff makes two, somewhat related arguments. Mrs. Cardinale maintains that the Administrative Law Judge failed to properly develop the record in her case. However, the court believes that the Law Judge conducted a thorough and complete evaluation and review of all the evidence in the administrative record presented to the Law Judge for consideration. Plaintiff argues that the Law Judge failed to address questions raised by plaintiff s testimony and to procure additional evidence, given certain ambiguities in the record. However, the court is simply unable to identify any significant deficiencies in the Law Judge's consideration of the case. It must be remembered that the burden of proof, and the responsibility to produce appropriate evidence, rests with the claimant. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512. While it is true that the Administrative Law Judge recognized that the record set forth little evidence concerning plaintiffs emotional problems in context with her physical complaints, the court concludes that any shortcomings in the evidence should have been addressed by Mrs. Cardinale.

         On the other hand, the court believes that plaintiffs second argument on appeal, which in some ways is an extension of the first, does have merit. As noted above, in requesting review of the Administrative Law Judge's opinion by the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council, plaintiff, through her legal representatives, submitted additional medical evidence. The court believes that the new evidence submitted by plaintiff was such as to address certain deficiencies in the medical record as identified by the Administrative Law Judge. Nevertheless, in adopting the Law Judge's opinion as the final decision of the Commissioner, the Appeals Council limited its consideration of the new medical evidence to the following statement:

We considered whether the Administrative Law Judge's action, findings, or conclusion is contrary to the weight of the evidence currently of record. We concluded that the additional evidence does not provide a basis for changing the Administrative Law Judge's decision.

         (TR 2). The court is simply unable to conclude whether the Commissioner's treatment of the new evidence is supported by substantial evidence.

         In her testimony at the administrative hearing, Mrs. Cardinale related that, because of her physical problems and inability to work, she suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress. (TR 56). She testified that she has received treatment, including mediation, from mental health specialists for her emotional problems. (TR 56, 62). The Administrative Law Judge addressed this issue as follows:

The claimant testified to having nightmares sometimes, she reported having PTSD that was diagnosed in 2007 to 2008, and she alleged treatment of therapy. In her December 2014 summary that the claimant submitted, she wrote that she had attended counseling sessions and had been treated by her family physician for PTSD and anxiety. She further noted taking such medications as bupropion (Ex. 15F/5-7). However, the medical evidence does not indicate that the claimant was ever diagnosed with or treated for a mental disorder by an acceptable medical source. In addition, she typically had normal mental signs on exam throughout the relevant period. Therefore, I find that the claimant's alleged PSTD/anxiety disorder is a non-medically determinable impairment.

(TR24).

         The court believes that the new evidence submitted to the Appeals Council substantiates plaintiffs testimony regarding her emotional symptomatology. The new reports relate to periods of treatment, both before and after the date of the Administrative Law Judge's opinion. For example, in a letter from a licensed professional counselor dated December 21, 2015, the course of plaintiff s treatment is summarized as follows:

This letter is to confirm that Christina Cardinale started receiving individual counseling services at The Women's Initiative from June 12, 2014 to December 2, 2014 completing 22 sessions, Then she returned for services on August 10/2015 receiving as of today 16 counseling sessions in this second round of treatment. In ...

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