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Sawyers v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London

April 3, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security[1], Defendant.


          Danny C. Reeves United States District Judge.

         This matter is pending for consideration of cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff Diane Marie Sawyers [Record No. 8] and Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”). [Record No. 10] For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's motion will be granted and the relief sought by Sawyers will be denied.


         Sawyers filed an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) on September 30, 2013, alleging an onset disability date of May 4, 2013. [Tr. 167] Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration. [Tr. 106, 117-18] Sawyers then requested an administrative hearing before an ALJ, which was held on June 10, 2015. [Tr. 34] Following this hearing, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Ben Ballengee found that the claimant was disabled for part of the alleged disability period (May 4, 2013, through August 13, 2014), but that she was no longer disabled beginning August 14, 2014, because her condition had improved. [Tr. 15-28] Sawyers requested review of the ALJ's decision, which the Appeals Council denied. [Tr. 1] Sawyers has exhausted her administrative remedies and this case is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Sawyers was 54 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. [Tr. 40] She completed high school and a RN program. [Tr. 46] Sawyers's previous employment was as a registered nurse. [Tr. 42] Her latest date working was May 4, 2013, the onset date of her alleged disability. [Tr. 44] Sawyers's employer requested that she work full time, but the claimant responded that she was unable to work five days in a row. [Id.] Her employer then offered Sawyers a position working evenings occasionally. However, Sawyers declined the position and was terminated. [Tr. 45]

         Sawyers claimed that she was disabled due to neck pain, back pain, various spinal conditions, numbness and paresthesia in her right arm and elbow, and depression. [Tr. 194] She reported “constant knife-like pain” in her neck, into her right shoulder, scapula area, and into her right arm and fingers. [Tr. 209] Sawyers asserted that her symptoms prevent her from engaging in all sports, biking, and walking for exercise. [Tr. 211] However, she is able to make her own meals, complete some household chores, and occasionally shop for groceries. [Tr. 212]

         Medical evidence from before the alleged disability onset date shows that Sawyers visited doctors with complaints of shoulder pain due to a right rotator cuff tear, back pain, neck pain, elbow pain, and right arm pain. [See, e.g., Tr. 309.] Sawyers was diagnosed with cervical spondylosis with spinal stenosis and myelopathy in October 2012. [Tr. 311] Dr. Steven Kiefer performed a cervical discectomy to address this condition. [Id.] Dr. Kiefer reported that Sawyers was “doing wonderfully” following this operation and that she could “continue to increase her activities on a graded basis, ” but would “hold off on running and weight lifting for at least the next 3-4 weeks.” [Tr. 314] He also stated that Sawyers was able to “continue with some light aerobic cardiac workout” but should avoid heavy lifting and repetitive above-the-shoulder work. [Tr. 315]

         In early May 2013, Sawyers obtained an electromyography (EMG) that showed neuropathy in her right arm, suggesting cervical radiculopathy and ulnar neuropathy. [Tr. 344-46] On May 10, 2013, Sawyers underwent right ulnar nerve decompression surgery. [Tr. 347] Progress notes from May 20, 2013, indicate that Sawyers's right arm was better, but that she still had debilitating neck pain exacerbated by physical activity. [Tr. 350] Later, in January 2014, Sawyers underwent right C5-C6, C6-C7 and C7-T1 keyhole foraminotomies with pedicle screw stabilization at ¶ 7-T1. [Tr. 450]

         Dr. Kiefer saw Sawyers for a follow-up examination on May 14, 2014. [Tr. 450] He reported that the claimant had “no arm symptoms at this point; they have resolved but she does have a pressure-like feeling in her neck.” [Id.] Keifer acknowledged that Sawyers liked to “workout at the gym and run” but that these activities “have had to be temporized a bit.” [Id.] He further opined that Sawyer was “actually doing quite well.” [Id.] Regarding treatment options, he stated that he expected “some of the neck pressure to dissipate” and was “pleased that her arm symptoms [were] absent.” [Id.]

         Dr. Kiefer saw Sawyers for another follow-up examination in March 2014. [Tr. 451] He noted that her symptoms remained largely stable and that she was recovering nicely from her surgery. [Id.] Review of films of her neck showed “good position” and Kiefer concluded that, overall, Sawyers was “doing well.” [Id.] As a result, he cleared her to return to some activities at the gym and stated that she would “slowly increase these activities” by doing some low impact aerobics and building up from there. [Id.]

         Dr. Kiefer again examined Sawyers on August 13, 2014. [Tr. 453] He reported that her arm pain was better, but that Sawyers still had “a bit of a pressure-like sensation in her neck.” [Id.] However, she had been “working out avidly.” [Id.] He then stated: “Ms. Sawyers is holding her own. She is actually doing much better than preoperatively. She has some ongoing low grade symptoms. Hopefully, these will dissipate over time.” [Id.] As a result of these observations Kiefer concluded that he was “going to turn her loose.” [Id.] Radiographs on this date showed anterior spurring at ¶ 3 and C4 with stable fusion and alignment. [Tr. 457]

         The next treatment notes in the record from Dr. William Lester are dated March 23, 2015. [Tr. 461] Sawyers complained of neck pain, 6/10, that interfered with her sleep and numbness and tingling in the right arm and occasionally the right hand. [Id.] Dr. Lester found tender C6-C7, tremor with extension of the arm, 5/5 strength in both arms, and normal reflexes. [Id.] His impression was cervical tremor and paresthesia in both arms. [Id.]

         Dr. Lester again examined the claimant on April 20, 2015. [Tr. 460] Sawyers reported numbness and tingling in both arms and indicated that her neck pain had increased to 7/10. [Id.] Dr. Lester indicated a positive Tinel's sign but a negative Phalen's maneuver. [Id.] He referred Sawyers to Dr. Taylor for bilateral EMG/NCV studies; however, the record does not indicate that Sawyers saw Dr. Taylor or otherwise obtained the studies. [Id.]

         Dr. Lester completed a medical source statement on June 5, 2015. [Tr. 487] He stated that she was able to lift and carry up to 10 pounds continuously, 11 to 20 pounds frequently, 21 to 50 pounds occasionally, and 51 to 100 pounds never. [Id.] Lester noted that Sawyers “may be limited by pain.” [Tr. 488] He concluded that Sawyers had limitations in reaching, pushing, and pulling, but that she was able to handle, finger, and feel continuously with both hands. [Tr. 489] Dr. Lester then confirmed that Sawyers was able to perform ...

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