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Martin v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 7, 2019

ORPHA MARTIN, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,[1] Defendant.


          GERALD J. PAPPERT, J.

         Orpha Martin seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. Judge Davis referred the case to Magistrate Judge Sitarski for a Report and Recommendation (“R. & R”). (ECF No. 14.) The case was reassigned to this Court after Judge Davis' retirement. (ECF No. 21.) Upon careful consideration of Martin's Brief and Statement of Issues in Support of Request for Review (ECF No. 12), the Commissioner's Response (ECF No. 13), Martin's Reply (ECF No. 15), Judge Sitarski's R. & R. (ECF No. 17), Martin's Objections (ECF No. 18), the Commissioner's Response (ECF No. 20) and the Administrative Record[2] (ECF Nos. 10 & 11), the Court overrules Martin's objections and adopts the R. & R. denying her request for review and affirming the Commissioner's decision.



         Martin applied for DIB on August 5, 2012, alleging disability beginning on March 21, 2011.[3] (Administrative Record (“R.”) 16, 148-49, 211.) She graduated from nursing school with a nursing degree (RN) and Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). (Id. at 212, 940.) She has worked as a private duty staff nurse, a staff nurse for a state agency and a hospice nurse. (Id. at 213.)

         Martin seeks DIB due to a number of impairments, including bipolar disorder, depression, chronic back pain, diabetes, renal insufficiency and syncope. (Id. at 211.) Because Judge Sitarski thoroughly presented the facts in her R. & R., see (R. & R. at 3- 10), the Court summarizes only those facts relevant to Martin's objections.

         With respect to Martin's mental health impairments, her mental health status examinations were consistently normal. See (id. at 343, 416, 828, 833-34, 874, 920-21, 1683-84, 1693-94, 1725). Medication and regular therapy kept her conditions stable. See (id. at 565-68, 824, 1037, 1063, 1166, 1653, 1724, 1742.) In her Adult Function Report, Martin noted that she pays attention to and follows instructions, she does not need any special reminders to take care of herself or to take her medicine, she gets along with authority figures and she handles changes in her routine. (Id. at 189-91, 193-95.)

         Psychologist Curt Nicholson treated Martin for over twenty years. (Id. at 927.) In a letter dated October 15, 2012, Dr. Nicholson offered his “lay opinion” that Martin was “obviously disabled.” (Id. at 927-28.) He nonetheless noted that Martin's psychiatric medications have been “stable and adequate for many years” and that her “psychological functioning has been good enough for the past several years that she needs psychotherapy for only one hour every four weeks.” (Id. at 927.)

         On December 18, 2012, Dr. Robert Carey conducted a consultative psychological examination of Martin. (Id. at 937-45). Although Martin appeared depressed and tearful during the evaluation, Dr. Carey described Martin's judgment and insight as “fairly good, ” her speech as “well formed” and her thought processes as “clear.” (Id. at 941-43). He diagnosed her with bipolar disorder while noting that she was “quite stable at this point in time.” (Id. at 943.) Dr. Carey also found Martin moderately limited in her ability to carry out detailed instructions and respond appropriately to work pressures in a usual work setting. (Id. at 935.)

         State agency psychologist Thomas Fink reviewed Martin's records and on December 31, 2012 diagnosed her with non-severe affective and anxiety disorders. (Id. at 85-86.) He found that she was “functioning well psychologically [and] stopped working recently due to her physical, not mental, condition.” (Id. at 86.) In reviewing Dr. Carey's evaluation of Martin, Dr. Fink determined that Dr. Carey “overestimated the claimant's concentration problems.” (Id.) Dr. Fink concluded that Martin could “understand and follow instructions, relate and communicate with others, persist at tasks, make decisions, and work a range of jobs within her physical limitations.” (Id.)

         Martin's physical impairments were similarly treated with medication and routine medical visits. Dr. Lisa Allen, a rheumatologist, saw Martin on March 8, 2012 for complaints of osteoarthritis and that her “legs [were] giving way without warning.” (Id. at 872.) Dr. Allen encouraged Martin “to use her cane especially [out in] public as well as use a [PennDot] handicap placard. Additionally, [I] do think she should consider an application for disability as she is having significant difficulty participating in gainful employment.” (Id. at 874.) Although Dr. Allen documented some focal weakness, Martin did not experience any neurological or musculoskeletal deficits. (Id. at 872.)

         In the spring and early summer of 2012, Martin experienced lightheadedness, dizziness and hip pain. (Id. at 883, 1265, 1488, 1498-99.) An April 5, 2012 lumber MRI showed no change from an earlier 2008 MRI. (Id. at 23, 760). X-rays of Martin's hips and knees were normal, as were her stress echocardiogram and EKG. (Id. at 23, 529- 30, 799, 805, 1333). In her Adult Function Report, Martin stated that she did not use a cane. (Id. at 195.)

         On January 14, 2013, state consultative physician Michael Brown reviewed Martin's medical records and assessed her physical RFC. (Id. at 87-90). Dr. Brown determined that Martin could: lift twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand and/or walk and sit about six hours in an eight-hour work day and occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, kneel, crouch, or crawl but never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. (Id. at 88.)


         Martin's application for DIB was initially denied by the Social Security Administration on February 4, 2013. (Id. at 16, 94-98.) On March 6, 2013, she filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (Id. at 103-04.) Martin and a vocational expert testified at the hearing on August 22, 2014. See (id. at 31-80). Martin testified that she continued to work after her alleged disability onset date until December of 2012. (Id. at 44-48.) She stated that her mental health issues did not affect her ability to work, and she could lift five pounds and stand for about five minutes before experiencing “severe back pain” that required her to sit down. (Id. at 62, 70-71.) Martin brought a cane to the hearing, stating that she needed the cane to walk “long distances” such as from the parking garage to the hearing. (Id. at 67.) The vocational expert testified that Martin performed her nursing duties at the light exertional level because she “never lifted more than twenty pounds at most of the jobs she's performed the last 15 years.” (Id. at 72.) She also testified that someone with Martin's RFC could perform jobs as a nurse as actually performed by Martin but could not perform jobs as customarily performed because those job required a medium exertional level. (Id. at 73.)

         On September 15, 2014, after reviewing the record and applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, [4] the ALJ held that Martin was not disabled under the Social Security Act and denied her claim. (Id. at 13-25.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Martin had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since January 31, 2012, the amended onset date. (Id. at 18.) At step two, the ALJ found that Martin had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis, lumbar stenosis, stage 4 chronic kidney disease with anemia, obesity and hypertension. (Id. at 18-19.) At step three, the ALJ determined that the impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet the severity of one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. (Id. at 20.) The ALJ proceeded to step four, finding that Martin had the RFC to perform light ...

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