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Murphy v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 27, 2016

DEBORAH MURPHY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          George A. O'Toole, Jr. District Judge.

         The plaintiff, Deborah Murphy, appeals the denial of her application for Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Before the Court are Murphy's Motion for Order Reversing the Commissioner's Decision (dkt. no. 15) and the Commissioner's Motion for Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner (dkt. no. 20). The court now affirms the Commissioner's decision because there is substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the decision, and no error of law was made.

         I. Procedural History

         Murphy protectively applied for benefits on February 18, 2010 claiming that she had been unable to work since November 1, 2008. (Administrative Tr. at 198-208 [hereinafter R.].)[1]Murphy's applications were initially denied on July 23, 2010 and again upon reconsideration on December 30, 2010. (R. at 112-15, 137-51.) On February 23, 2011, Murphy filed a written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at 154-55.)

         On December 14, 2011, a video hearing was held before ALJ John S. Lamb. (Id. at 85- 111.) At the video hearing, Murphy provided oral testimony and was represented by attorney Russell R. Bowling. (Id.) In addition to Murphy, ALJ Lamb heard oral testimony from vocational expert Mark Leaptrot. (Id. at 106-11.) On February 3, 2012, ALJ Lamb issued a written decision finding that although Murphy was unable to perform any of her past relevant work as an “administrative clerk and customer service worker, ” she could perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy based on her “age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity” (“RFC”). (Id. at 125-26.) Accordingly, ALJ Lamb found that Murphy was not disabled pursuant to the Social Security Act and therefore was not entitled to benefits. (Id. at 127.)

         On March 21, 2012, Murphy requested a review of ALJ Lamb's decision by the Appeals Council. (Id. at 157.) Upon review, the Appeals Council vacated ALJ Lamb's decision and remanded the case for further consideration of Murphy's RFC, her mental impairments, and the medical opinions of record. (Id. at 132-36.) As a result, on June 3, 2013, a second hearing occurred before ALJ M. Dwight Evans. (Id. at 43-84.) At the hearing, Murphy again gave oral testimony and was again represented by Bowling. (Id. at 43-74.) ALJ Evans also heard testimony from vocational expert Theresa Manning. (Id. at 74-81.) On July 12, 2013, ALJ Evans issued a written decision finding that Murphy was not disabled because she was “capable of performing past relevant work as a secretary.” (Id. at 37-38.) In response, on September 10, 2013, Murphy requested an Appeals Council review of ALJ Evans's decision (Id. at 19-20.) On February 5, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Murphy's request for review rendering ALJ Evans's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at 1-6.) Having therefore exhausted her administrative remedies, Murphy timely filed this civil action.

         II. Background

         Murphy was born on July 29, 1962, and has a high school education. (Id. at 47-48, 90.) Murphy alleges that she was diagnosed with Raynaud's disease at the age of twenty-nine, and that the onset date of her disability was November 1, 2008. (Id. at 100, 90.) Raynaud's is a circulatory disease that results in the narrowing of the “smaller arteries that supply blood to your skin” causing affected areas, such as the fingers and toes, to become “numb and cold.” Mayo Clinic, Diseases and Conditions: Raynaud's Disease, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/raynauds-disease/basics/definition/con-20022916 (last visited May 12, 2016). Prior to the alleged onset date Murphy worked as a secretary, but allegedly found it increasingly difficult to be effective as her Raynaud's purportedly worsened over time. (Id. at 52-53.) Murphy claims that her Raynaud's limits her ability to work. (Id. at 53-58.)[2]

         A. Medical History

         i. Dr. Ashok K. Joshi

         On February 2, 2010, Murphy began seeing Dr. Ashok K. Joshi, M.D. as her primary care physician. (Id. at 353.) The purpose of Murphy's first visit was to obtain a referral from Dr. Joshi to a vascular surgeon for possible treatment of her reportedly severe Raynaud's. (Id.) Dr. Joshi described Murphy as presenting with joint pain in multiple joints, joint stiffness, swelling in the small joints of her hand, and discoloration in her fingers. (Id.) Dr. Joshi reported that Murphy denied suffering from gout, rheumatoid arthritis (though he indicated an interest in follow-up), fatigue, rash, malar rash, or that she was taking any medications. (Id.) Dr. Joshi's examination of Murphy's rheumatology revealed a normal range of motion in her cervical spine, normal forward and lateral bending in her lumbar spine, normal range of motion of all joints in her upper extremity, normal range of motion of all joints in her lower extremity, and “puffy/swollen” hands with normal proximal interphalangeal joints. (Id. at 354.) Dr. Joshi noted that Murphy described smoking half a pack of cigarettes per day for the past twenty years, drinking alcohol on social occasions, and drinking one to two cups of coffee per day. (Id.)

         On April 1, 2010, Murphy visited Dr. Joshi again for an annual physical exam. (Id. at 356.) During the visit, Dr. Joshi performed a routine medical exam and evaluated Murphy's Raynaud's and nicotine addiction. (Id.) Dr. Joshi described Murphy as having no appreciable disease, alert, and oriented. (Id. at 357.) Dr. Joshi reported that Murphy's skin was “unremarkable” with “no suspicious lesions, ” but that her hands and feet had a “bluish discoloration” caused by her Raynaud's. (Id. at 357-58.) To treat Murphy's Raynaud's, Dr. Joshi stated that she should continue to take cilostazol tablets two times per day, and ordered a battery of lab tests. (Id. at 356.) In addition, to combat her Raynaud's, Dr. Joshi recommended that Murphy stop smoking cigarettes and “wear gloves in cold weather.” (Id.)

         On October 19, 2010, Murphy visited Dr. Joshi for a follow up to review her test results. (Id. at 362.) Dr. Joshi reported that Murphy's chief complaint was a year of “constant pain” that she rated a “10/10” in her elbows and knees for which she was taking ibuprofen. (Id.) Dr. Joshi reported that Murphy described the pain in her elbow as bilateral, lateral, and exacerbated by lifting and holding things. (Id.) Murphy denied any radiation of the pain, redness, swelling, tingling, or numbness, or that it was caused by trauma or injury. (Id.) Dr. Joshi examined her elbow and found there was no swelling, redness, or deformities, but that there was moderate tenderness on the lateral epicondyle. (Id.) Dr. Joshi opined that Murphy's range of motion was unremarkable with “normal flexion and extension, ” and strength was within normal limits. (Id.) Dr. Joshi performed a neurovascular examination and determined that Murphy had normal sensation and pulses. Based on the tests and Dr. Joshi's examination, he indicated that Murphy had tennis elbow, abnormal liver function tests (“LFT”), macrocytosis, alcoholic fatty liver, and proteinuria. (Id.) To treat the tennis elbow, Dr. Joshi referred Murphy to two rehabilitation facilities for physical therapy, and recommended that she begin a home exercise program. (Id. at 362-63.) For Murphy's abnormal LFTs and macrocytosis, Dr. Joshi ordered additional tests. (Id. at 363.) In light of her Raynaud's, Dr. Joshi referred Murphy to Dr. Joseph Rossacci, a specialist in nephrology, for her proteinuria. (Id.)

         ii. Dr. Paul M. Burke, Jr.

         On April 1, 2010, Murphy was examined by Dr. Paul M. Burke, Jr., M.D. Dr. Burke described Murphy's “long-standing history of Raynaud's, ” her attempts to treat the condition, and the challenges it has caused in her life, particularly in her ability to work. (Id. at 350.) Dr. Burke conducted a physical examination of Murphy describing her as “resting comfortably, ” but with diminished temperature in both hands with no discoloration, thickened skin potentially related to “chronic skin nutritional changes, ” intact motor functioning, and slightly depressed sensory functioning. (Id.)

         Based on his examination, Dr. Burke told Murphy that it was imperative that she quit smoking immediately, and that she take cold avoidance measures such as moving to a warmer climate. (Id.) Dr. Burke opined that Murphy was suffering from “one of the worst cases of Raynaud's I have ever witness[ed]” and that she suffered from “classic symptoms.” (Id.) Dr. Burke prescribed Pletal “to see if that will improve her distal perfusion, ” and advised Murphy that he would see her again as needed. (Id.) As far as appears from the record, Dr. Burke had no further encounter with Murphy.

         Iii. Dr. Mary Connelly

         On July 22, 2010, Dr. Mary Connelly, M.D. completed a Physical Residual Functional Capacity Assessment (“RFCA”) based on a review of the medical records generated from Murphy's visits with Drs. Joshi and Burke. (Id. at 384.) In her RFCA, Dr. Connelly reported that Murphy could occasionally lift twenty pounds, frequently lift ten pounds, stand and/or walk for “about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, ” sit for “about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, ” and push and/or pull unlimitedly. Additionally, Dr. Connelly opined that Murphy had no postural, visual, or communicative limitations, that she had an unlimited ability to reach in all directions, finger, and feel, but that she had a limited ability to handle and was “limited to occ[assional] twisting and grasping.” (Id. at 384-87.) In terms of environmental limitations, Dr. Connelly asserted that Murphy should “avoid all exposure” to extreme cold, but that she had an unlimited capacity for exposure to extreme heat, wetness, humidity, noise, vibration, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, and hazards such as heights and machinery. (Id. at 387.) To contend with Murphy's environmental limitations, Dr. Connelly recommended that Murphy “wear gloves when exposed to cold” and that she cease smoking. (Id.)

         iv. Dr. Dorothy Linster

         On December 20, 2010, Dr. Dorothy Linster, M.D. issued a Physical RFCA based on her evaluation of Murphy's medical records from Drs. Joshi and Burke. (Id. at 398.) With regard to exertional limitations, Dr. Linster averred that Murphy could occasionally lift and/or carry fifty pounds, frequently lift twenty-five pounds, stand and/or walk “about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, ” sit for “about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, ” and push and/or pull unlimitedly. (Id. at 392.) Dr. Linster stated that Murphy had no postural, visual, or communicative limitations. (Id. at 393-95.) As to manipulative limitations, Dr. Linster asserted that Murphy had an unlimited capacity for reaching in all directions, fingering, and feeling, but that she was limited to frequent, but not continuous, handling because of her “hand pain/Raynaud's.” (Id. at 394.) Finally, in regards to environmental limitations Dr. Linster opined that Murphy should “avoid even moderate exposure” to extreme cold, but that she could be exposed to an unlimited amount of extreme heat, wetness, humidity, noise, vibration, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, and hazards. (Id. at 395.)

         v. Dr. Isabella Pasniciuc

         On July 29, 2010, Murphy was examined by Dr. Isabella Pasniciuc, M.D. for bilateral elbow pain. (Id. at 418.) According to Dr. Pasniciuc, Murphy had been experiencing progressive elbow pain for six months “to the point that she could not carry anything with her arms.” (Id.) Murphy described the pain to Dr. Pasniciuc as radiating up to her shoulder, worse in the morning and in her right elbow, and aggravated by bending. (Id.) Murphy also discussed experiencing “diffuse numbness and tingling in her forearms and hands, ” regular coldness in her fingers, and pain in her lower back. (Id.) Murphy told Dr. Pasniciuc that the pain had escalated to such an intolerable level during the prior week that she went to the emergency room to seek relief. (Id.) During her emergency room visit, Murphy was prescribed Motrin, which Murphy stated was ineffective. (Id.) Dr. Pasniciuc noted that Murphy had a “scattered macular rash” on her chest, neck, abdomen, and lower legs that had “been there for a while” and had gone largely ignored. (Id.) Dr. Pasniciuc reported that previous testing had so far ruled out the possibility that Murphy was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, or scleroderma. (Id.)

         Dr. Pasniciuc's examination of Murphy's extremities revealed that Murphy's range of motion was “severely limited by pain” particularly on the right side and when bending, that she was experiencing tenderness in both elbows, that there were “hardened and thickened [illegible] on fingers on both hands, ” and that she had a papular rash on her palms. (Id. at 419.) Dr. Pasniciuc indicated that Murphy was “in mild distress due to pain, ” but that she was “alert and oriented x3” with “good judgment and insight” during the examination. (Id.) Based on her examination, Dr. Pasniciuc stated that Murphy had bilateral elbow pain, and provided her with a prescription for Voltaren Gel and 50 mg of Tramadol. (Id.) Dr. Pasniciuc advised Murphy to avoid cold weather and to obtain an x-ray of both elbows. (Id.) Dr. Pasniciuc also informed Murphy that she might be suffering from a “systemic connective tissue disease, ” and that “she might need to see a rheumatologist.” (Id.)

         One week later, on August 5, 2010, Murphy visited Dr. Pasniciuc again to follow up on her “persistent bilateral elbow pain.” (Id. at 416.) Dr. Pasniciuc reported that the “x-rays of the elbow were negative.” (Id.) According to Dr. Pasniciuc, Murphy reported that the “Voltaren gel helps a little bit, ” but that her fingers continued to turn cold and purple in cold climates. (Id.) During the examination, Dr. Pasniciuc noted that Murphy's condition appeared to have improved since her previous visit, but that she had “bilateral swollen hands, ” rashes on her palms, papules on her palms and neck, and purple discoloration on the tips of several of her fingers. (Id.) Dr. Pasniciuc indicated that she believed Murphy's elbow pain was related to her Raynaud's, that she should see a rheumatologist, and that if the pain continued she would “need to come back to have a local steroid injection.” (Id.) Dr. Pasniciuc repeated her advice to Murphy that she avoid cold weather, and provided her with a prescription for Nifedipine. (Id.)

         vi. Dr. Stephen Burgess

         On September 14, 2011, Dr. Stephen Burgess, M.D., Ph.D. conducted a physical medical consultative examination of Murphy at Tri-State Occupational Medicine, Inc. (Id. at 401.) Dr. Burgess described Murphy as “a reliable historian” during his examination, and reported that they had discussed Murphy's history of Raynaud's and the personal and professional difficulties it has caused in her life. (Id.) Dr. Burgess opined that Murphy “has no specific limitations if she is warm.” (Id.) Dr. Burgess further averred that when warm, Murphy is “able to stand, sit, walk, climb stair[s] or ladders, squat, kneel, bend, twist, carry, lift, and push or pull without limitations.” (Id.) In addition, Dr. Burgess found that when warm, Murphy could “perform housework such as sweeping, mopping, doing laundry, vacuuming, washing dishes, cooking, dusting, making beds, mow[ing], and weed[ing].” (Id. at 401-02.) However, Dr. Burgess noted that when exposed to cold, Murphy's “hands become numb and stiff very quickly and she is unable to use her hands until she warms up” which prevents her from performing rudimentary tasks such as the lifting of “light items such as a cup.” (Id. at 402.) Dr. Burgess noted that when Murphy's hands are cold she cannot “perform any sort of fine motor activity . . . this includes typing, writing, buttoning buttons, and so forth.” (Id.)

         Generally, Dr. Burgess described Murphy as “well developed and well nourished.” (Id.) Dr. Burgess reported that Murphy was attempting to quit but was still smoking “two or three cigarettes a day, ” drinking one glass of alcohol per day, and was not taking any street drugs. (Id.) Dr. Burgess indicated that Murphy “ambulates with a normal gait, which is not unsteady, lurching, or unpredictable, ” and does not need the assistance of a handheld device. (Id.) Dr. Burgess opined that Murphy “has a normal stance and appears stable at station and comfortable in the supine and sitting positions.” (Id.) According to Dr. Burgess, Murphy's intellectual functioning and hearing appeared normal. (Id.) Dr. Burgess noted that Murphy was cooperative and that her memory for recent and remote medical events was good. (Id.)

         Dr. Burgess examined Murphy's upper extremities and noted that her shoulders, elbows, and wrists were non-tender with no “redness, warmth, swelling or nodules.” (Id. at 403.) Dr. Burgess indicated that Murphy was capable of forward flexion of her extended arms to 180 degrees bilaterally, “abduction of both extended arms in a sideways arc in the coronal plane of the body . . . to 180 degrees bilaterally, ” flexion of her elbows “to 150 degrees bilaterally with extension normal to 0 degrees bilaterally, ” and extension of her wrists “to 70 degrees bilaterally with flexion to 80 degrees bilaterally.” (Id.) Dr. Burgess noted that his examination of her hands revealed “some redness, swelling, and tenderness . . . fairly globally.” (Id.) Additionally, Dr. Burgess opined that Murphy's hands had no atrophy, Heberden or Bouchard's nodes, ulnar deviation or synovial thickening, and she could “make a fist bilaterally, ” could “write and pickup coins with either hand without difficulty, ” and had normal “range of motion of the joints of the fingers of both hands.” (Id.) Dr. Burgess examined Murphy's lower extremities noting that there was “no tenderness, redness, warmth, swelling, fluid, crepitus or laxity of the knees, ankles, or feet, ” and “no calf tenderness, redness, warmth, cord sign, or Homans sign.” (Id.) Dr. Burgess stated that Murphy was capable of knee extension to zero degrees and flexion to 150 degrees bilaterally. (Id.) Dr. Burgess opined that Murphy's “ankle joints demonstrate plantar flexion of 40 degrees bilaterally and dorsiflexion of 20 degrees bilaterally.” (Id.) Dr. Burgess's examination of Murphy's skin revealed “significant splotchiness of the palms bilaterally with tiny macules which appear to be no larger than one to two millimeters in diameter, some of which are blanching and some of which are not, ” but otherwise her skin was “grossly unremarkable with no ulceration on the skin or fingertips.” (Id. at 404.)

         Dr. Burgess stated that Murphy had “severe Raynaud's phenomenon which affects her ability to work in any sort of cold or cool environment.” (Id.) In addition, Dr. Burgess stated that he found “some indication on the hand of possible autoimmune disease or even vasculitis.” (Id.) Dr. Burgess noted that Murphy would benefit from a follow-up with a rheumatologist, but that it was “probably not necessary” for the purposes of his evaluation. (Id.) In sum, Dr. Burgess opined that Murphy appeared “to be episodically moderately impaired” in her capacity “to perform work-related activities such as bending, stooping, lifting, walking, crawling, squatting, carrying, traveling, pushing and pulling heavy objects, as well as the ability to hear or ...


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