United States District Court, D. Delaware
Sommer L. Ross, Esq., Wilmington, DE, Attorney for Plaintiff.
Charles M. Oberly III, United States Attorney, Wilmington, DE; Heather Henderson, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Wilmington, DE, attorneys for Defendant.
RICHARD G. ANDREWS, District Judge.
Plaintiff, Desarie A. Gibbs, appeals the decision of Defendant, Carolyn W. Colvin, the Acting Commissioner (the "Commissioner") of the Social Security Administration (the "Administration"), which denied Ms. Gibbs' application for Social Security disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which grants original jurisdiction to the District Courts to review a final decision of the Commissioner.
Presently pending before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Ms. Gibbs and the Commissioner. (D.I. 11, 12). The case was referred to the United States Magistrate Judge, who issued a Report and Recommendation (D.I. 16) recommending that Gibbs' motion be denied and the Commissioner's motion be granted. Ms. Gibbs filed objections (D.I. 17) to which the Commissioner has responded. (D.I. 18). I review the objections to the Report and Recommendation de nova. See Brown v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 193, 195 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Goney v. Clark, 749 F.2d 5, 6 (3d Cir. 1984)). Ms. Gibbs has requested that the Court reverse the decision of the Commissioner and find her disabled, or in the alternative, remand this matter for a new hearing and decision. (D.I. 17, p. 9). For the reasons set forth below, the Court: (1) grants Ms. Gibbs' motion in part to remand this matter for a new hearing and decision; (2) denies Ms. Gibbs' request that this court find her disabled; (3) denies the Commissioner's motion; and (4) remands this matter to the Commissioner for a new hearing and decision consistent with this memorandum opinion.
A. Procedural History
Ms. Gibbs filed for DIB on May 5, 2010, alleging disability beginning on April 15, 2010, due to complications from sickle cell anemia, beta thalassemia, hypertension, carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis, and a torn rotator cuff. ("Transcript" (hereafter "Tr.") 128, 137). Her application was initially denied on November 9, 2010, and denied again on April 21, 2011 after Ms. Gibbs filed for reconsideration. (Tr. 75, 81). Subsequent to the denial of Ms. Gibbs' applications, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (the "ALJ") on September 25, 2012. (Tr. 38-71). The ALJ determined that Ms. Gibbs is not disabled for purposes of the Act in a decision dated October 19, 2012. (Tr. 20-32). Ms. Gibbs sought review of the ALJ's decision in a Request for Review dated November 16, 2012. (Tr. 15). The Appeals Council denied the Request for Review on December 12, 2013, after which the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. (Tr. 1-5). Ms. Gibbs filed this suit on February 4, 2014. (D.I. 1).
B. Plaintiff's Medical History, Condition, and Treatment
At the time of the ALJ's decision, Ms. Gibbs was 44 years old and defined as a "younger person" under 20 C.F.R § 404.1563(c). (D.1. 16, p. 3). Ms. Gibbs completed her high school education, holds a certificate in medical billing, and has worked as a customer service representative, a data entry clerk, and an insurance clerk. (Id.). Due to frequent absences and exhaustion which stem from her medical difficulties, Ms. Gibbs was fired from her previous position with State Farm Insurance on April 14, 2010, and has not worked since. (Tr. 54-55; D.I. 16, p. 3). Due to her medical problems, Ms. Gibbs requires assistance from her family members to accomplish routine tasks like bathing, childcare and chores. (Tr. 44-47).
The record contains Ms. Gibbs' detailed medical history, but a summary of the pertinent facts is appropriate. Ms. Gibbs was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia and beta thalassemia in 2001, which cause her to experience vaso-occlusive pain crises. (Tr. 203, 421). She also suffers from a number of other medical conditions including hypertension, obesity, bursitis, a torn rotator cuff, carpal tunnel, and recurring pain in her hips, knees and back from sources unrelated to her sickle crises. (Tr. 201, 203, 234-41, 242, 306-14, 416-23, 484, 501). Records from Ms. Gibbs' treating physicians, supplemented by her own testimony, document reoccurring sickle cell pain crises. (Tr. 366, 571-72).
To manage her chronic pain, Ms. Gibbs visits her treating doctors on a routine basis and takes a litany of powerful medications, including Oxycontin, Percocet, Endocet, and Hydroxyurea. (Tr. 306-14, 416-23). According to Ms. Gibbs, and substantiated by consistent medical records, she experiences a pain crisis that necessitates pain medication about every other week for several days at a time. (Tr. 49, 418, 571-72, 576). Ms. Gibbs testified that she only seeks emergency room treatment in the event that her pain exceeds the capabilities of her strong medications. (Tr. 62, 456). That said, she is hospitalized for pain on average about once per year. (Tr. 176, 285, 408).
Ms. Gibbs' physical limitations and impairments due to her sickle cell pain have been documented by her treating physicians throughout her treatment history. Dr. Blatt, who treated Ms. Gibbs from 2005 until some point in mid-2010, noted that Ms. Gibbs was significantly incapacitated from her sickle cell pain and that the pain "has a major impact on her life [which] causes her to miss a great amount of work." (Tr. 238-40, 548). Dr. Goodill, who treated Ms. Gibbs from 2008 until at least 2012, described Ms. Gibbs' situation as "difficult" due to her frequent pain crises. (Tr. 571-72). Dr. Goodill opined in an impairment questionnaire that Ms. Gibbs' condition has slowly worsened with time and that Ms. Gibbs would be forced to be absent from work more than three times per month going forward. (Tr. 440-46). Dr. Lankiewicz, who treated Ms. Gibbs from 2009 until at least 2012, echoed Dr. Goodill's opinion regarding Ms. Gibbs' prognosis regarding work absences due to her impairments. (Tr. 432-39). Three of Ms. Gibbs' treating doctors (Drs. Lankiewicz, Goodill, and Gelman) all confirmed that Ms. Gibbs' hip pain results, in part, from avascular necrosis of both hips. (Tr. 417, 431, 484). Treating physicians Drs. Lankiewicz and Goodill, as well as state-retained physician Dr. Aldridge, all noted Ms. Gibbs' limited ability to perform reaching and handling manipulations due to problems with her right shoulder. (Tr. 319, 436, 443).
In a Physical Residual Functional Capacity Assessment dated November 8, 2010 (the "State Assessment"), Dr. Aldridge opined that Ms. Gibbs "maintains a functionally sedentary level of activity." (Tr. 321). Dr. Aldridge responded "no" when prompted to indicate whether the statements of Ms. Gibbs' treating physicians were on file with regard to her physical capacities. (Tr. 321). This response indicates that there were either no statements from treating physicians, or that the treating sources did not opine on Ms. Gibbs' physical capacities. (Tr. 321). The State Assessment was affirmed by Dr. Vinod Kataria in a cursory statement dated April 19, 2011. (Tr. 397). On February 23, 2012, the Administration opined that Ms. Gibbs "can perform a sedentary range of work activity." (Tr. 403).
C. ALJ's Findings and Decision
The ALJ found that Ms. Gibbs has a severe impairment, as defined by the Act, of "sickle cell disease with infrequent crises or flare-ups and obesity." (Tr. 22). In so finding, the ALJ also concluded that there was "minimal clinical evidence" to support any vocational impact by Ms. Gibbs' treatments for hypertension, carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis and tom rotator cuff, and obstructive sleep apnea. (Id.). The ALJ further found that Ms. Gibbs' combination of impairments was not severe enough to qualify for a Listing under the Act. (Tr. 24-26). The ALJ stated that the medical evidence did not support her statements about the frequency of her sickle cell pain crises. (Tr. 28). Additionally, the ALJ rejected the opinions of Ms. Gibbs' treating physicians because he found the opinions to be inconsistent with their treatment notes. (Tr. 29). Instead, the ALJ afforded significant weight to the State Assessment "because it was based on a thorough review of the evidence and familiarity with Social Security Rules and Regulations." (Tr. 30). Therefore, Ms. Gibbs was qualified to perform a reduced level of "light work." (Tr. 26-27). Relying on the state's vocational expert, ...