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Lawson v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Rock Island Division

February 9, 2017

CARMEN LYNN LAWSON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION

          JONATHAN E. HAWLEY, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Now before the Court are the Plaintiff, Carmen Lawson's, Motion for Summary Judgment (D. 14)[1] and the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Affirmance (D. 18). Both parties have provided supporting Memoranda thereto. (D. 15, 19). For the reasons stated herein, the Court DENIES the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and GRANTS the Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance.[2]

         I

         On June 21, 2012, Lawson filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) alleging disability beginning on August 29, 2001. Her claim for SSI was denied initially on August 10, 2012, and denied upon reconsideration on February 5, 2013. On March 12, 2013, Lawson filed a request for a hearing on her application for Social Security benefits. Lawson appeared at the hearing before the Honorable David W. Thompson (ALJ) by video on March 5, 2014. She was represented by an attorney. At the hearing, Lawson amended her alleged onset date of disability to June 8, 2012. Following the hearing, the ALJ denied Lawson's claim on April 21, 2014. The Appeals Council denied Lawson's request for review on July 24, 2015, making the ALJ's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Lawson filed the instant civil action, seeking review of the ALJ's Decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c) on September 25, 2015.

         II

         At the time Lawson applied for SSI, she was 40 years old. She was living in a mobile home, in Aledo, Illinois with her boyfriend, who earns income. Lawson has a high school education but has not worked since 2001. On the various SSA forms she submitted, Lawson indicated that she has pancreatitis which causes her pain and limits her ability to work.

         At the hearing before the ALJ, Lawson testified that her bouts with pancreatitis have increased over the last two years to “several times a month.” (D. 7 at pg. 50). Lawson said her bouts last anywhere from three days to a week, during which time she either seeks treatment at a hospital or lays down with a heating pad. She believes stress and diet (either not eating enough, or eating the wrong foods) triggers her pancreatitis attacks. Lawson has been hospitalized due to the pain from her pancreatitis. The chief remedy is a bland diet, after which Lawson's condition stabilizes and she is released from the hospital. (e.g. D. 7-3 at pg. 111).

         In approximately June of 2012-Lawson was unsure of the precise date- she had stents put in her pancreas to ease her condition. Lawson said the procedure lessened the pain. She also testified that, on average, she has two bouts with pancreatitis a month. As of March 2014, however, Lawson said she had approximately 40 attacks in the past year. Five or six of those attacks were the type she described as excruciating.

         Lawson stated that Doctor Wurzburger has been her primary care physician for approximately two and a half years. Wurzburger completed residual functional capacity (“RFC”) questionnaires on Lawson in February 2103 and January 2014. In both, Wurzburger estimated that Lawson would miss approximately four days of work due to her pancreatitis attacks. Lawson testified that she is unable to tend to her normal household chores during her pancreatitis flare ups and her boyfriend has to take care of them instead. She is on Prilosec for her upset stomach as well as Vicodin and ibuprofen to manage her pain, but they do not work well.

         Vocational Expert, Brian Paprocki, also testified at Lawson's hearing. He presented his finding that Lawson had a past relevant work history as a waitress/cook, performed at a light level. In answering questions from the ALJ, Paprocki opined that if an employee were to miss four or more days of work per month, they would be precluded from competitive employment of any kind. He also stated that if an employee were less than 80% productive on the job it would preclude them from holding down competitive employment. In response to questioning from Lawson's counsel, Paprocki further explained that “two days per month, unexcused” from work, or a productivity rate of 85%, would also preclude Lawson from maintaining competitive employment. (D. 7 at pg. 57).

         In closing, Lawson's counsel stressed that Wurzburger's opinions should be given weight. Counsel concluded by stating “We're here because the acute pancreatitis would unexpectedly keep [Lawson] off work and lead to absenteeism which would not be tolerated on any full-time, competitive basis and that's the basis for her claim and that's why we're here today.” Id. at pg. 58.

         Lawson has, admittedly, struggled with alcohol abuse. She was convicted of DUI in 2001 and lost her driver's license. Lawson testified that she has not drank alcohol since 2005. There is a notation in her medical records, however, from March 2013 where medical staff documented that Lawson admitted to “binge drinking” lately. Id. at pg. 53; D. 7-3 at pg. 74, 86. At the hearing, Lawson claimed the note is inaccurate.

         III

         In his Decision, the ALJ determined that Lawson had the severe impairment chronic pancreatitis (20 CFR 416.920(c)). (D. 7 at pg. 25). The ALJ crafted the following Residual Functional Capacity for Lawson:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c).

Id. at pg. 28. In reaching that finding, the ALJ recounted Lawson's testimony at the hearing regarding her condition. Following protocol, he determined there was a medical impairment reasonably expected to produce Lawson's symptoms. The ALJ further found, however, that in evaluating the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of Lawson's symptoms, he needed to make a finding on the credibility of her statements “based on a consideration of the entire case record[]” since her statements were not “substantiated by objective medical evidence[.]” Id. at pg. 28.

         After considering all of the evidence, the ALJ found Lawson's statements “not entirely credible[.]” Id. at pg. 29. He went on to explain that her claim of complete and total disability could not be accepted. The ALJ noted that Lawson's claims of extreme limited functional capacity are not supported by the medical records. He emphasized that, based on the record, Lawson's compliance with treatment instructions-mainly diet-was questionable. The ALJ supported this logic by citing instances memorialized in Lawson's medical records where she was implicated for drinking alcohol after 2005, concluding:

This evidence casts doubt on the claimant's credibility and leads to a serious question about her drinking and her denial of drinking at all since 2005. Whether the claimant is drinking or not, the clear indication is that what she consumes causes her pancreatitis episodes. Given these findings, the undersigned cannot conclude that the claimant is ...

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