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Laughlin v. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

January 20, 2015



JOHN V. ACOSTA, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Kristi Lynn Laughlin ("Claimant") seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act. This court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Following a careful review of the record, the court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

Procedural Background

Claimant filed an application for DIB on August 17, 2010, alleging disability because of a gastrointestinal disorder beginning June 1, 2004. (Tr. at 19.) The Commissioner denied Claimant's application initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. at 19.) Claimant appeared at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Wayne N. Araki ("the ALJ") on June 15, 2012, in Salem, Oregon. (Tr. at 19.) Thereafter, the ALJ issued an order finding Claimant was not disabled on or before December 31, 2006, her date last insured ("DLI"). (Tr. at 25.) Claimant now seeks review by this court of the ALJ's unfavorable decision.

Factual Background

Claimant was born and raised in Oregon, and at all times relevant to this review resided in Salem, Oregon. (Tr. at 33.) She has three children, two of which suffer from cerebral palsy. (Tr. at 44.) She graduated from high school and completed some college courses. (Tr. at 34.) Although she never completed her degree program, she attended Central Oregon Community College and focused on early childhood education. (Tr. at 34.) Between 1992 and 2004, Claimant held a number of jobs including: (1) office clerk for the Oregon Department of Agriculture; (2) tax collector for the Oregon Department of Revenue; (3) secretary; (4) court security guard; and (5) retail sales associate. (Tr. at 35-40.) However, Claimant left the work force when her first child was born in 2001, and She has not returned to work since. (Tr. at 48, 142-43.)

I. Medical Facts

In April 2004, Claimant began experiencing gastrointestinal distress and sought treatment from Lawrence K. Gates, Jr., MD ("Dr. Gates."). (Tr. at 634-37.) When Dr. Gates first began treating Claimant, she complained of abdominal pain and rectal bleeding. (Tr. at 637.) Thereafter, her symptoms worsened. (Tr. at 626.) She started "feeling nauseated all of the time[, ]" and experienced cramps, bloating, and diarrhea. (Tr. at 626.) Dr. Gates performed a colonoscopy and diagnosed Claimant with gastroparesis. (Tr. at 626.)

Prior to August 2004, Claimant could not take medication to control her symptoms because she was breastfeeding following the birth of her second child. (Tr. at 625.) However, by September, Claimant had stopped breastfeeding and Dr. Gates prescribed Claimant medication which yielded some positive results. (Tr. at 625.) In September 2004, Claimant reported "about 30% improvement in her symptoms" while on a medication called "Reglan." (Tr. at 625-26.) One month later, Claimant reported "a gradual improvement in her symptoms" and some weight gain, though she remained uncomfortable and experienced "a little nausea." (Tr. at 624.) Due to some negative side effects of Claimant's medication, Dr. Gates changed her medication regimen and prescribed dietary modifications to control her gastrointestinal symptoms. (Tr. at 624.)

Laughlin's symptoms persisted through 2005 and early 2006, albeit with some improvement. (Tr. at 619.) In October and November 2005, Dr. Gates reported in his notes that Claimant was still experiencing intermittent "loose stools with bleeding" and nausea during bowel movements. (Tr. at 619.) However, Dr. Gates also remarked that, with the exception of the intermittent loose stools, Claimant was "[o]therwise, ... doing well." (Tr. at 619.) In January 2006, Dr. Gates reported Claimant was "generally doing well" and "had very few attacks" since the last time he examined her in November 2005. (Tr. at 617.)

Unfortunately, Claimant's condition declined yet again in late 2006. (Tr. at 617.) Dr. Gates reported in November 2006 that Claimant "got significantly worse" after she stopped breastfeeding her third child. (Tr. at 617.) Claimant reported nausea, vomiting, and extreme constipation. (Tr. at 617.) Dr. Gates ran a series of labs and prescribed Claimant a new medication, Zelnorm. (Tr. at 617.) During her final visit with Dr. Gates before her DLI, Claimant reported experiencing "substantial improvement on" Zelnorm. (Tr. at 614.) Soon thereafter, Zelnorm was pulled from the market, and despite taking new medications, Claimant's condition worsened significantly. (Tr. at 612.) By November 2007, Claimant had lost a significant amount of weight and, according to Dr. Gates, appeared chronically ill. (Tr. at 612.) By 2012, when she appeared before the ALJ, Claimant weighed ninety pounds and experienced constant, severe nausea. (Tr. at 50-52.)

In support of Claimant's DIB application, Dr. Gates rendered two written opinions discussing Claimant's condition and ability to perform work-related activities (the "Gates Letters"). (Tr. at 675-76.) The first letter, written on December 2, 2011, explains Claimant's symptoms and some of the treatments she has gone through in an attempt to remedy her condition. (Tr. at 676.) He opines that, due to her symptoms, Claimant's "functional capacity is markedly limited. She is limited to a sedentary lifestyle." (Tr. at 676.) He continues, "[s]he can sit for extended periods and can stand for brief periods but cannot really walk for more than about [fifteen] minutes at a time." (Tr. at 676.) The second opinion is a one-sentence, hand-written letter dated January 6, 2012. (Tr. at 675.) Dr. Gates's one-sentence letter reads: "I would say that Ms. Laughlin could sit for up to [two] hours." (Tr. at 675.) In neither letter does Dr. Gates comment about Claimant's functional capacity during the period from June 2004 to December 2006, when her disability insurance expired ("the Covered Period").

At the request of the Commissioner, state-agency physicians Richard Alley, MD ("Dr. Alley") and Sharon B. Eder, MD ("Dr. Eder") reviewed Claimant's medical records and rendered an opinion regarding her disability during the Covered Period. (Tr. at 58-71.) Dr. Alley believed that the medical evidence from the Covered Period did not support Claimant's statements about the severity of her symptoms. (Tr. at 61.) He observed that, although Claimant had some exertional limitations during the Covered Period, they were minor. (Tr. at 61.) Dr. Alley stated that Claimant was limited to: (1) occasionally carrying and lifting up to twenty pounds; (2) frequently lifting and carrying up to ten pounds; (3) Standing or walking for six hours in an eight-hour day; and (4) sitting for six hours during an eight-hour day. (Tr. at 61) Despite Claimant's limitations, Dr. Alley concluded Claimant was not disabled because she could perform past-relevant work as a clerk at the Oregon Department of Agriculture. (Tr. at 62-63.) Dr. Eder's report is almost identical to Dr. Alley's. (Tr. at 68-71.) Dr. Eder came to the same conclusion as did Dr. Alley regarding Claimant's exertional limitations, ability to perform past relevant work, and ultimate disability determination. (Tr. at 69-72.)

The record contains voluminous treatment notes from other physicians, but other than those discussed above, few pertain to the Covered Period. Even fewer of them are relevant to Claimant's gastrointestinal symptoms.

II. The ALJ's Findings

The ALJ engaged in the five-step "sequential evaluation" process for evaluating DIB claims. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The Claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner at step five to identify jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform despite his or her residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. Tackett ...

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