United States District Court, D. Minnesota
Sandra E. Allwood, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
PAUL A. MAGNUSON, District Judge.
This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. For the reasons that follow, both Motions are denied.
Plaintiff Sandra Allwood applied for disability insurance benefits on October 19, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of July 1, 2009. (Admin. R. at 219 (Application for Disability Insurance Benefits dated Oct. 19, 2011).) Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and the matter was referred to an administrative law judge (ALJ) for a determination. After a March 21, 2013, hearing, the ALJ found that Allwood suffered from three severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, and morbid obesity. (Id. at 20.) He also found, however, that none of these impairments were disabling; that is, he determined that Allwood retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work despite her impairments, and that she was not therefore entitled to disability benefits. (Id. at 21.) Allwood unsuccessfully appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, and this litigation followed.
Allwood first injured her lower back in 2001. (Id. at 382.) In the summer of 2009, while working as a Certified Nurse Assistant at a nursing home, Allwood either re-injured her back or aggravated the pre-existing injury. (Id. at 514.) Allwood was eventually diagnosed with a small tear of the annulus at her L4-L5 vertebrae on her left side, with a mild amount of narrowing of the space around the L4 nerve root. (Id. at 539.) A review of Allwood's MRI results in 2010 also showed that she had sclerosis of her sacroiliac joints bilaterally-that is, that the joints between Allwood's sacrum and ilium in her pelvis showed evidence of increased bone formation. (Id. at 560.) Throughout the fall and early spring of 2010, Allwood's physician's noted that she was capable of returning to work in some capacity, either with restrictions (id. at 521) or in a sedentary/clerical setting (id. at 544). An independent medical examination performed in April 2010 found that Allwood could return to work full time with some restrictions. (Id. at 568.) And indeed, Allwood did return to work at least part-time in July 2010 for several months, although record evidence of this is sparse. (See id. at 50, 52-53, 68-69 (Hr'g Tr.).)
In November 2010, one of Allwood's treating physicians noted that she was working with restrictions and determined that the work restrictions should continue. (Id. at 572-73.) But by early 2011, another physician reported that Allwood characterized her back pain as "excruciating." (Id. at 618.) She was referred to a surgeon to evaluate the possibility of surgery to alleviate her symptoms, and the surgeon recommended that she stay off work for a month pending the surgery. (Id. at 650.)
Allwood never had surgery on her back, either because her obesity made such surgery difficult or because insurance would not pay for the surgery. (Id. at 50.) Another independent medical exam in March 2011 doubted the efficacy of surgery, finding that there was a "histrionic component to her pain." (Id. at 658.) Allwood's surgeon vehemently disagreed with the independent medical examiner, however, writing that Allwood needed surgery and that her complaints of pain were consistent with what the MRIs and physical assessments showed. (Id. at 702.) Allwood contends that she cannot work because of the pain she suffers, and thus that she is entitled to disability insurance benefits.
A. Standard of Review
This Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining whether that decision is "supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole." McKinney v. Apfel , 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000).
Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion. In determining whether existing evidence is substantial, we consider evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision as well as evidence that supports it. As long as substantial evidence in the record supports the Commissioner's decision, we may not reverse it because substantial evidence exists in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome or because we would have decided the case differently.
Id. (citations omitted).
Allwood raises several challenges to the ALJ's determination. First, she argues that the ALJ improperly considered Allwood's attempted return to work in 2010 as something other than a permissible trial work period, and that this error caused the ALJ to misjudge the remainder of the evidence of disability. Next, Allwood contends that the ALJ erred in failing to give controlling weight to the opinions of her treating physician, Dr. Svetlana Zaydman, and failed to evaluate those opinions properly in light of other evidence in the record. Finally, Allwood asserts that the ALJ's determination of her residual functional capacity was ...