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Brown v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Delaware

June 13, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         On October 19, 2011, Plaintiff Carla Anita Brown ("Brown") filed for disability insurance benefits under Title II, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, and for supplemental security income under TitleXVI, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. Brown originally asserted she had become disabled as of December 5, 2008 due to osteoarthritis, asthma, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, anemia, and bilateral knee pain. Her claims were denied initially on April 16, 2012, and upon reconsideration on October 15, 2012. Brown timely requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which was held on June 2, 2014. The ALJ issued a partially favorable decision on August 18, 2014, finding that Brown was disabled on June 1, 2014 and after, but not before. (D.I. 9-2 at 33). Because Brown was considered disabled as of June 1, 2014, she was only entitled to supplemental security income, not disability insurance benefits. Id. Disability insurance benefits were only available through the date last insured-March 31, 2014.[1]The Appeals Council declined Brown's request for subsequent review on December 28, 2015. Having exhausted all administrative remedies, Brown filed a complaint with the court seeking review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) on February 17, 2016. (D.I. 2). The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("the Commissioner") timely answered on June 10, 2016. (D.I. 8). Brown filed for summary judgment on August 1, 2016, (D.I. 12), and the Commissioner cross-moved for summary judgment on September 30, 2016. (D.I. 14). Because the court finds that the ALJ's decisions were supported by substantial evidence as addressed below, it will deny Plaintiffs motion and grant summary judgment in favor of the Commissioner.


         Brown alleges she has been disabled since December 5, 2008. (D.I. 15 at 8). At the time of the administrative hearing, Brown consulted multiple doctors for back, knee, and leg pain stemming from lumbarTadiculopathy. (D.I. 12 at 6). Apart from epidural steroid injections, Brown never had surgery, but underwent physical therapy and took prescribed medications. (D.I. 12 at 10). On August 18, 2014, the ALJ released his decision currently in dispute. (D.I. 9-2 at 35).

         A. Medical History

         1. Dr. McCrossan's Assessments

         Brown went to Dr. McCrossan ("McCrossan") with complaints about back pain after a January 2011 motor vehicle accident. (D.I. 12 at 6). McCrossan conducted several physical examinations; McCrossan noted lumbar tenderness on the left side of Brown's body, and discomfort in Brown's right knee. Id. Despite prescribing medication and physical therapy, McCrossan noted the knee pain and back pain persisted. Id. McCrossan also wrote that Brown's leg pain "has remained disabling." (D .1. 9-10 at 55). However, McCrossan consistently noted that Brown had a normal gait. (D.I. 9-9 at 45, 50, 52, 55, 57).

         2. Dr. Wilson's Assessments

         Dr. Wilson ("Wilson") diagnosed Brown with lumbar radiculopathy with painand swelling in the left leg. (D.I. 9-1.1 at 28). Based on the information gathered, Wilson estimated that Brown could sit for two to four hours during the course of an eight hour workday, and could stand or walk for approximately one hour. Id. In addition, Wilson estimated that Brown should alternate between sitting and standing every fifteen to twenty minutes to relieve pain. Id. Wilson also concluded that Brown never lift more than twenty-five pounds, that she rarely lift twenty pounds, that she could occasionally lift ten pounds, and could frequently lift less than ten pounds. Id. at 29. Due to her findings, Wilson classified Brown as disabled, as evidenced in a note to the Wilmington Housing Authority declaring she should be "exempt from community service due to disability." Id. at 21.

         B. ALJ Findings

         In his August 18, 2014 decision, the ALJ applied the regulatory five-step sequential evaluation based on the evidence on record. (D.I. 9-2 at 24-34). If all five steps are satisfied, then Brown would be classified as disabled, but if any steps fail, then Brown would not be classified as disabled. Id. at 26. At step one, he determined that Brown did not engage in substantial gainful activity. Id. at 27. At step two, he concluded that Brown had several severe impairments, including "degenerative disc disease of the spine, [and] degenerative joint disease of the bilateral knees." Id. At step three, he determined Brown's impairments did not equal the severity of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 28. At step four, he concluded that Brown could not return to her past work given her impairments. Id. At step five, he determined that, despite Brown's impairments, she could still attain work available in significant numbers in the national economy.[2] (Id. at27., 33-34). To reach this conclusion, the ALJ relied on a vocational expert, Linda Augins, who testified that Brown could work as an addresser, a telephone information clerk, or table worker. (Id. at 32-33, 63, 65-66).

         The ALJ also used the medical evidence to conclude Brown was not disabled. After reviewing the medical evidence, the ALJ reasoned that "the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible." (D.I. 9-2 at 30). To support his conclusion, the ALJ pointed out that "the claimant's objective examination findings [from her doctors] have been quite normal on many occasions" in areas including respiration, Tange of motion for lumbar and knees, motor function, strength, sensation, reflexes, posture, gait, and coordination. Id. In addition, the ALJ noted that Brown did not always follow treatment recommendations by her doctors. Id. The ALJ also considered the discrepancies between Brown's.complaints and the medical examinations; one such discrepancy was Brown's complaints of back and leg pain stemming from lumber radiculopathy did not match the CT scan performed on February 10, 2012 indicating a radicular-type problem would not cause Brown's symptoms. Id. at 30-31; (D.I. 9-13 at 34). The ALJ also noted that McCrossan's medical conclusion that Brown's leg pain "remained disabling" did not conform to McCrossan's findings during her multiple physicals that Brown had a normal gait. (D.I. 9-10 at 55; D.I. 9-9 at 45, 50, 52, 55, 57).

         Regarding Wilson's conclusions to the Wilmington Housing Authority, the ALJ gave the evidence little weight because "the definition of disability used on [that] form [was] not comparable to the sequential evaluation process used for determining such status" under the Social Security Act. (D.I. 9-2 at 31). However, the ALJ assigned Wilson's other medical conclusions- for example, Brown's ability to carry weight or length of time sit or stand-moderate weight. Id. Regarding McCrossan's conclusions that Brown's symptoms were disabling, the ALJ gave the evidence little weight because they were conclusions "address[ing] an issue reserved to the Commissioner" and were inconsistent with other medical findings in the record such as those discussed above. Id.

         III. ...

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