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Brenda K. Hollabaugh v. Michael J. Astrue

September 7, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: McLAUGHLIN, Sean J., District Judge.



Brenda K. Hollabaugh ("Plaintiff"), commenced the instant action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her claims for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. and § 1381 et seq. Plaintiff filed her applications on October 6, 2008 alleging disability since December 28, 2005 due to degenerative arthritis of the right knee and a learning disability (AR 12; 154; 158-159).*fn1 Her applications were denied (AR 76-85), and following a hearing held on June 18, 2010 (AR 26-58), the administrative law judge ("ALJ") issued his decision denying benefits to Plaintiff on July 12, 2012 (AR 12-22).

Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was subsequently denied (AR 1-3), rendering the Commissioner's decision final under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The instant action challenges the ALJ's decision. Presently pending before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the Plaintiff's motion will be denied and the Commissioner's motion will be granted.


Plaintiff was 40 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision (AR 29). She has a high school education and attended some learning support classes while in school (AR 29; 32). She has past work experience as a fire restoration/working supervisor (AR 20; 160).

Plaintiff suffered a gunshot wound to the right knee in 1997 and has undergone five procedures since that time, with the last being in 2002 (AR 30). On April 16, 2008, Plaintiff was seen by Frank McLaughlin, D.O. at Conneaut Valley Health Center and complained of increased right knee pain (AR 257-270).*fn2 Physical examination revealed swelling, and she was instructed to use moist heat or ice on her knee (AR 270). An x-ray of Plaintiff's right knee dated April 21, 2008 showed degenerative changes with probable small knee joint effusion (AR 221).

On August 14, 2008, Plaintiff presented to the emergency room at the Meadville Medical Center and reported injuring her left knee after twisting it while stepping down (AR 213). Plaintiff reported moderate pain and mild swelling, but no tingling, weakness or numbness (AR 213). Moderate tenderness and swelling was found on physical examination with a limited range of motion secondary to pain (AR 213). X-rays revealed no evidence of a fracture and minimal degenerative changes were noted (AR 214; 223). Plaintiff was diagnosed with a sprained left knee, instructed to use crutches and wear a knee mobilizer (AR 214).

On August 20, 2008, Plaintiff was seen at Conneaut Valley by Joseph Mercurio, D.O., who reported that Plaintiff's left knee was tender anteriorly in the subpatellar area on physical examination, and that she had significant pain during testing (AR 267). He diagnosed her with a left knee sprain with possible ligament involvement and prescribed Naproxen (AR 267). An MRI of Plaintiff's left knee on August 31, 2008 showed trace left knee joint effusion with a small amount of fluid along the inferior margin of the patella (AR 224).

Plaintiff was evaluated by Vincent Paczkoskie, M.D. on October 6, 2008 and reported that she experienced pain with walking, running, sitting or standing (AR 255). On physical examination, Dr. Paczkoskie found her knees had valgus alignment with a normal range of motion (AR 255). She had some crepitus bilaterally, right greater than left, and anterior joint line tenderness was also noted bilaterally (AR 255). She was neurovascularly intact distally (AR 255). Dr. Paczkoskie found the x-rays demonstrated moderate degenerative joint disease of Plaintiff's knees bilaterally, and that an MRI of Plaintiff's left knee showed trace effusion (AR 255). He diagnosed Plaintiff with bilateral knee degenerative joint disease with a significant patellofemoral component (AR 255). Dr. Paczkoskie recommended physical therapy, as well as rest, exercise and "good shoe wear" (AR 255). He further discussed the role of weight reduction, and noted that if Plaintiff's condition failed to improve with physical therapy, injection therapy would be the next step (AR 255).

Plaintiff returned to Conneaut Valley on February 9, 2009 and was seen by a nurse practitioner for complaints of knee pain (AR 262). Physical examination revealed bilateral crepitus (AR 262). Plaintiff acknowledged she had not followed Dr. Paczkoskie's recommendation, and had not attended physical therapy in seven years (AR 262). She was assessed with knee pain, and physical therapy was again recommended (AR 262).

Plaintiff was seen by Dr. McLaughlin on March 19, 2009, who noted Plaintiff was "doing well" (AR 257). Physical examination revealed no cyanosis, clubbing or edema in her lower extremities, her reflexes were �, and her muscle strength was 5/5 and equal in both her upper and lower extremities (AR 257). Dr. McLaughlin assessed her with chronic knee pain and referred her to a pain clinic (AR 257).

On April 30, 2009, Plaintiff underwent a consultative examination performed by Alexandra Hope, M.D. (AR 231-241). She reported that her right knee constantly ached, and that she also had sharp pains, daily swelling, stiffness and numbness (AR 231). Plaintiff stated that her knee gave way at times and her pain was exacerbated with prolonged sitting or standing (AR 213). She also complained of intermittent aching in her left knee with prolonged walking or standing (AR 231). Plaintiff reported that she was independent with mobility and daily living, and that she used a cane held with her right hand (AR 231). She was able to shop and drive short distances (AR 231).

On physical examination, Dr. Hope found moderate deformity and effusion of Plaintiff's right knee; swelling in the right popliteal fossa; crepitus in the right knee and mild creptitus in the left knee (AR 232). She further found Plaintiff's right knee was tender but her left knee was not (AR 232). Dr. Hope found no ligamentous instability of either knee, and her straight leg raise testing was negative bilaterally in the sitting and supine positions (AR 232-233). Dr. Hope reported that Plaintiff sat restlessly, her sit/stand transition was "stiff", her gait was flat-footed and antalgic on the right, and heel-to-toe walk was performed briefly with right knee pain (AR 233). Dr. Hope assessed Plaintiff with, inter alia, chronic right knee pain with swelling, inflammation and range of motion loss; post-traumatic degenerative arthritis of the right knee; chronic intermittent left knee pain; and degenerative changes of the left knee (AR 234). Dr. Hope found Plaintiff's prognosis was "poor" until she had total knee arthroplasty in the future (AR 234).

Dr. Hope opined that Plaintiff could occasionally lift and carry up to ten pounds; stand and/or walk for one hour or less per day with an assistive device; and sit for eight hours per day with an alternating sit/stand option (AR 239). Dr. Hope further opined that Plaintiff was precluded from using foot controls, and could occasionally bend, but never kneel, stoop, crouch, balance or climb (AR 240). Dr. Hope also found additional manipulative and environmental limitations (AR 240).

On May 4, 2009, Abu Ali, M.D., a state agency reviewing physician, reviewed the medical evidence of record and concluded that Plaintiff could occasionally lift twenty pounds, frequently carry ten pounds, stand and/or walk for a total of at least two hours in an 8-hour workday, sit for about six hours in an 8-hour workday, and was unlimited in pushing and pulling activities (AR 242-248). He further found Plaintiff could occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl and had no manipulative limitations, but should avoid even moderate exposure to hazards such as machinery and heights (AR 244-245). Dr. Ali noted that Plaintiff was able to drive and care for her home and personal needs, although with some difficulty (AR 247). He further noted that Plaintiff had received various forms of treatment, including medication, that had been successful in controlling her symptoms (AR 247-248). Finally, he found that his assessment was consistent with certain aspects of Dr. Hope's report (AR 248).

On May 26, 2009, Plaintiff was seen at the Pain Management Clinic at Meadville Medical Center (AR 294-295). Plaintiff reported experiencing constant pain that interfered with her ability to walk, drive and sleep (AR 294). Plaintiff stated that medications and cortisone injections had not helped alleviate her pain (AR 294). Plaintiff reported that she was able to wash dishes, cook, do the laundry, clean her home and read (AR 295).

On June 1, 2009, Plaintiff was seen by Tiffany Dorta, PA-C and Anthony Colantonio, M.D. (AR 289-292). Plaintiff reported constant right knee pain, which she described as throbbing, shooting, stabbing, sharp, pressing, wrenching and burning (AR 291). She stated that she struggled significantly with walking and required the use of a cane (AR 291). Plaintiff reported that physical therapy, injection therapy and anti-inflammatories had provided no relief (AR 291). Plaintiff's lower extremity examination revealed numbness and weakness in her right knee, and Dr. Colantonio noted that she had a "profound right antalgic gait" (AR 289-291). Examination of Plaintiff's left knee revealed no pain and she exhibited a good range of motion (AR 289). Dr. Colantonio assessed Plaintiff with nociceptive*fn3 and neuropathic pain affecting her right knee (AR 291). He started her on ...

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