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Sollenberger v. Colvin

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

June 11, 2014




Plaintiff Tammi N. Sollenberger has filed this action seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Sollenberger’s claim for supplemental security income benefits. (Doc. No. 1).


Sollenberger filed her application for supplemental security income benefits on August 23, 2010, claiming that she became disabled on August 1, 2007. Tr. 250. Sollenberger has been diagnosed with numerous impairments, including right shoulder brachial plexopathy and tendinopathy, left shoulder arthritis at the acromioclavicular (“AC”) joint, right carpal tunnel syndrome, right and left hand tendonitis, mild spondylosis and stenosis of the cervical spine, depression, anxiety, gastroesophageal reflux disease, hyperlipidemia, asthma, a lumber strain, hyperthyroidism, and mild tendinopathy of the left ankle . Tr. 12. On February 7, 2011, Sollenberger’s application was initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination. Tr. 119.

On March 24, 2011, Sollenberger requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 124. The ALJ conducted a hearing on December 22, 2011 and again on May 15, 2012;[1] Sollenberger was represented by counsel at both hearings. Tr. 22-60, 63-87. On May 22, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Sollenberger’s application. Tr. 10-22. On August 1, 2012, the Appeals Council declined to grant review. Tr. 1. Sollenberger filed a complaint before this Court on September 20, 2012. (Doc. No. 1). Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and this case became ripe for disposition on February 7, 2013, when Sollenberger declined to file a reply brief. (Doc. Nos. 12, 13).

Sollenberger appeals the ALJ’s determination on four grounds: (1) the ALJ failed to properly account for the side effects caused by Sollenberger’s medications, (2) the ALJ failed to properly account for Sollenberger’s mental impairments, (3) the ALJ erred in failing to give greater weight to the opinion of an examining physician than to two non-examining physicians, and (4) the ALJ’s determination that Sollenberger could perform two jobs that exist in sufficient numbers in the national economy is not supported by substantial evidence. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

II. Statement of Relevant Facts

Sollenberger is 40 years of age, did not attend school beyond the eleventh grade, and is able to read, write, speak and understand the English language. Tr. 24, 293. Sollenberger has not obtained a GED and has no vocational training. Tr. Id. She does not have any past relevant work. Tr. 18.

A. Sollenberger’s Impairments

The relevant medical records begin on February 4, 2009 when Sollenberger had her first appointment with Stephen Flack, MD. Tr. 459. At this appointment, Sollenberger stated that she had continual pain in her left shoulder; no diagnosis was reached. Id. On March 24, 2009, Sollenberger was examined by a certified physician assistant, Daria Pellegrino, where it was noted that Sollenberger’s left shoulder was “painful with any type of rotating movement or extension.” Tr. 395. Ms. Pellegrino set up an appointment for an MRI of Sollenberger’s left shoulder to diagnose the problem. Id.

On April 4, 2009, an MRI was taken of Sollenberger’s left shoulder. Tr. 375. This MRI revealed an anterior osteophyte[2] over the acromion and probable mild tendonitis near the AC joint. Id., tr. 372, 459. The MRI results led Shabbar Hussain, MD to perform surgery on Sollenberger wherein he removed a portion of Sollenberger’s clavicle bone and a portion of the acromion. Tr. 372. At follow-up appointments, Dr. Hussain consistently noted that Sollenberger was “doing fairly well, ” although she still complained of pain. Tr. 373-74. Sollenberger attempted to alleviate this pain through physical therapy, but the therapy was discontinued after she failed to achieve noticeable results. Tr. 482.

On June 29, 2009, a follow-up MRI was performed on Sollenberger’s left shoulder. Tr. 509. The MRI revealed a mild shortening of the distal clavicle due to recent surgery, but revealed no evidence of fracture, dislocation, or bony destructive change. Id. When the pain did not abate, Sollenberger presented to Albert Tom, MD and Nicole Myers, PA-C for further examination. Tr. 427. A subsequent MRI on October 22, 2009 revealed “some tendonitis of the subscapularis tendon.” Tr. 426, 590. On January 13, 2010, Sollenberger was examined by Mary Bush, MD. Tr. 520. Dr. Bush noted that Sollenberger could not take Tramadol because it caused nausea and an upset stomach, although Gabapentin was “helping not only with her shoulder pain but with her intermittent right upper extremity pain.” Id. Dr. Bush had previously prescribed a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (“TENS”) unit to Sollenberger, and at this appointment Dr. Bush noted that Sollenberger “has gotten a lot of relief with this device.” Id.

On December 8, 2009, Sollenberger reported to Dr. Tom and Ms. Myers that she was experiencing significant pain in her right shoulder, radiating into her right arm which caused numbness and tingling in her right hand. Tr. 424. An x-ray “reveal[ed] no acute bony abnormalities, ” so Dr. Tom and Ms. Myers scheduled an MRI. Id. This MRI, conducted on December 10, 2009, revealed mild teninopathy or tendonitis of the supraspinatus tendon in the right shoulder. Tr. 423, 586. On December 18, 2009, Sollenberger was given a subacrominal injection in an attempt to relieve her pain. Tr. 423. This injection provided some relief, although it did not significantly ease Sollenberger’s pain. Tr. 422, 429.

In early January 2010, Stanton Sollenberger, DO conducted an EMG test on Sollenberger. Tr. 414-15. The results of the test were consistent with borderline right carpal tunnel syndrome and a posterior cord brachial plexopathy.[3] Tr. 415. On January 19, 2010, Dr. Tom and Ms. Myers confirmed this diagnosis. Tr. 422.

On January 18, 2010, an MRI of Sollenberger’s cervical spine showed a diffuse disc bulge at the C5-C6 vertebrae, causing “some mild central spinal stenosis and some mild right and left neural foraminal” spondylosis.[4] Tr. 522, 537, 584. In an attempt to alleviate the pain associated with Sollenberger’s cervical impairments, Dr. Bush gave Sollenberger a series of three epidural steroid injections. The first injection was performed on March 23, 2010, after which Sollenberger reported a seventy-five percent reduction in her pain. Tr. 471, 527. The second injection was performed on May 11, 2010, after which Sollenberger again reported a seventy-five percent reduction in her pain. Tr. 469, 531. The final injection was given on June 30, 2010, although Sollenberger only reported a twenty-five percent decrease in her pain afterwards. Tr. 467-68, 535. A second cervical spine MRI was conducted on October 12, 2010; this MRI again revealed a central disc protrusion at the C5-C6 vertebrae producing “mild spinal stenosis.” Tr. 583. Otherwise the MRI was unremarkable. Id.

On February 5, 2011, Sollenberger presented to Ms. Pellegrino for an examination. Tr. 638-40. As this appointment, Ms. Pellegrino noted that Sollenberger suffered from chronic depression, but that the depression was “well controlled” with medication. Tr. 638. On February 18, 2011, Ms. Pellegrino completed a medical assessment form for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. Tr. 643. On this form, Ms. Pellegrino diagnosed Sollenberger with depression, cervical spinal degenerative disc disease, asthma, and hyperlipidemia and opined that, as a result, Sollenberger was disabled. Tr. 644-45. On February 14, 2012, Ms. ...

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