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Feeney v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 12, 2017



          Legrome D. Davis, J.

         AND NOW, this 12th day of June 2017, upon careful and independent consideration of Plaintiff Jolene Feeney's Brief and Statement of Issues in Support of Request for Review (Doc. No. 6), Defendant's Response in Opposition (Doc. No. 7), Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. No. 8), the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Elizabeth T. Hey (Doc. No. 11), Plaintiff's Objections to the Report and Recommendation (Doc. No. 13), Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Objections, (Doc. No. 15), and the administrative record (Doc. No. 5), it is hereby ORDERED as follows:

1. Plaintiff's objections to the report and recommendation (Doc. No. 13) are OVERRULED.
2. The report and recommendation (Doc. No. 11) is APPROVED and ADOPTED.
3. The decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration is AFFIRMED.
4. Plaintiff's request for review is DENIED. Judgment is entered in the matter in favor of the Defendant and against the Plaintiff.
5. The Clerk of Court is directed to close this matter for statistical purposes.

         Plaintiff Jolene Feeney brings this action seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her disability benefits and supplemental security income (“SSI”). The matter was referred to Magistrate Judge Elizabeth T. Hey, who prepared a Report and Recommendation proposing that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed. After an independent review of the record, this Court concurs with Magistrate Judge Hey's recommendation, and will affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         I. Background

         Feeney seeks disability benefits and SSI on the basis of several conditions, including back and hip pain, depression, and anxiety. R. at 79, 377. Feeney was in a car accident in March 2007 that necessitated back surgery, and alleges that began suffering chronic back pain thereafter. R. at 389, 400. According to Feeney, she was unable to work as a result of these conditions from October 2008 until January 2012. R. at 376.

         Feeney initially filed this request for benefits in October 2010, seeking benefits dating back to October 2008.[1] R. at 258. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Gerald Spitz held a hearing in August 2012, and denied Feeney's application for benefits, finding that she was capable of performing light work with a sit/stand option. R. at 142. Feeney requested a review of that decision, which the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council granted; remanding the case for further evaluation and a new decision by ALJ Deborah Mande.

         A hearing was held before ALJ Mande on June 17, 2014. At the hearing, Feeney testified to her symptoms, stating that on some days she experienced severe pain in her left hip, severe enough that it would interfere with her walking. R. at 79. She also said she suffered from insomnia and depression. Id. As a result of these symptoms, Feeney said she did not work at all in 2009 and 2010. R. at 76. She testified that in February 2011 she began taking care of her mother, who was ill. R. at 76-77. She assisted her in showering, managed her medication, and performed household tasks such as cooking, grocery shopping, and taking out the trash. R. at 77, 83-84. This assistance was initially unpaid, but at some point Feeney began receiving pay for providing this care. R. at 77. She continued caring for her mother until October 2012, when her mother moved into a nursing home. R. at 81. Her mother passed away in 2013. R. at 83.

         ALJ Mande also reviewed Feeney's medical records. The report and recommendation includes a detailed description of the medical evidence in the record, but this Order will provide a summary. In 2010, Feeney sought repeated medical attention, complaining of back pain. R. at 396, 386, 389. At the first two of these visits, at Jeanes Hospital in September 2010, the treating physicians noted that she had pain and decreased range of motion in her back, but that she could walk without assistance and with a normal gait. R. at 385-391, 396-401. She had an intact range of motion in her extremities and there was no evidence of fracture or malalignment on X-rays of her lumbar spine. Id. On both instances, the hospital discharged Feeney with a prescription for pain medication. R. at 387, 394, 401.

         In November 2010, Feeney was seen by an orthopedic surgeon at the Rothman Institute. 432-33. Based on an MRI and X-rays, the surgeon concluded that Feeney did not have “true radiculopathy” or disc herniation, although he did note some less significant degenerative changes of the spine. R. at 433. The surgeon recommended against surgery at that point, instead suggesting that Feeney should attempt to lose weight and should engage in aqua-therapy. Id.

         Feeney returned to the Rothman Institute in December 2010, and was seen by a certified physician's assistant. R. at 531. She again complained of back pain, saying that her symptoms were “worse early in the morning, ” but that she was otherwise “able to function with her normal daily activities.” Id. The physician's assistant, in consultation with the surgeon, recommended weight loss and aerobic exercise. R. at 532. He recommended against surgery in favor of “exhaust[ing] all nonoperative treatment.” Id.

         In April 2011, Dr. John DeCarlo, M.D., conducted a consultative examination of Feeney. DeCarlo noted that Feeney complained of low back pain. R. at 445. His physical examination revealed no palpable edema, no straight leg raising pain, and no atrophy above or below the knee joints. R. at 447. DeCarlo also tested Feeney's range of motion, which showed full or nearly full range of motion in all instances. R. at 451-52. DeCarlo filled out a statement assessing Feeney's ability to perform work-related physical activities, in which he listed a number of restrictions, including that she could not lift more than 10 pounds and could not stand or walk for ...

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