United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin
DECISION AND ORDER AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER'S
WILLIAM C. GRIESBACH, CHIEF JUDGE.
Melody Smith filed this action for judicial review of a
decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying her
application for disability insurance benefits and a period of
disability as well as supplemental security income (SSI)
under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Smith
contends that the administrative law judge's (ALJ)
decision is flawed and requires remand for two reasons: (1)
the ALJ erred by failing to give treating physician Dr. John
Cotter's opinion controlling weight, and (2) the ALJ
failed to adequately consider the impact of Smith's
obesity on her ability to work. For the reasons that follow,
the Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.
of 2014, Smith filed a Title II application for a period of
disability and disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI
application for SSI. R. 13. Smith listed epilepsy, migraines,
osteoarthritis, torn cartilage, trigeminal neuralgia,
depression, PTSD, and anxiety as the conditions that limited
her ability to work. R. 337. After her application was denied
initially and on reconsideration, Smith requested a hearing
before an ALJ. On June 23, 2017, ALJ Deborah M. Giesen
conducted a video hearing where Smith, who was represented by
counsel, and a vocational expert (VE) testified. R. 37-87.
who is 5'7", was 43 years old and weighed 275 pounds
at the time of the hearing. R. 41, 49. She has two associate
degrees from a technical college, one in business management
and one in marketing, and lives with her boyfriend and
11-year-old son. R. 41, 49. Although Smith testified to
working various jobs, the only job the ALJ found relevant
from Smith's prior work history was her position stocking
items at Walmart. R. 46. At the time, Smith's only source
of income was from her participation in a work program. R.
testified that she has bilateral carpal tunnel in both hands,
and that she previously had surgery on her left hand and was
slated to have surgery on her right. R. 53-54, 62. Smith
stated she cannot fully make a fist with her left hand; feels
shocks of pain in it; and has difficulty gripping items,
opening jar lids, and tying her shoes because of the lack of
sensation in her left hand. R. 62. Smith reported that she
was in physical therapy to regain mobility in her left hand,
but that she still experiences hand pain. R. 53-54. Smith
also stated that she has similar limitations with her right
hand in that she drops items and is not capable of fine
fingering, but is capable of buttoning a shirt and can pinch
items with some of her fingers. R. 63-64.
further testified that she had surgery in August of 2016 to
remove a synovial cyst in the facet joint on her L5 vertebrae
that was compressing her sciatic nerve but still experiences
sciatic radiating pain from her hip down to her knee due to
permanent nerve damage. R. 69. Smith stated that this pain
limits her ability to walk, sit down, and lay down for
extended periods of time. R. 70. In addition, Smith reported
having difficulty sleeping due to the pain and her PTSD, and
that she was generally waking up five to six times a night.
testified that she has difficulties raising her arms above
shoulder level and that attempts to do so result in neck,
shoulder, and upper back pain. R. 66. Smith also testified
about the effects of her obesity, stating that she has
difficulties standing for more than ten minutes, that it
causes pain in her lower spine, and that she is unable to
bend or stoop. R. 65. She stated that her limited mobility
makes it difficult for her to enter and exit the SUV that she
drives. R. 75.
stated that she suffers from migraines and that, if they are
not treated with medication, they can last 15 to 16 hours. R.
67. When she is suffering from a migraine, Smith said she
turns off all of the lights, avoids noises, and remains as
still as possible. Id. Smith also testified that she
suffers from incontinence and constant constipation and that,
as a result, she ends up soiling herself five to six times a
day and wears bladder pads. R. 70. Smith further testified
that she is seen by a counselor every two weeks and that she
suffers from anxiety attacks on a daily basis that render her
incapable of doing anything. R. 57, 72.
addition to the conditions listed in her application, Smith
testified that she suffers from severe overactive bladder
syndrome, sciatica and nerve damage in her right and left
legs, bilateral trigeminal neuralgia, degenerative disc
disease, arthritis in both hips, bilateral carpal tunnel,
ulnar nerve neuropathy, ganglion cysts in left hand, leg pain
due to nerve damage, generalized anxiety disorder, major
depressive disorder, PTSD, sleeplessness, memory loss, hyper
vigilance, adjustment disorder with anxious mood, adjustment
disorder with mixed emotional features, chronic pain, and
chronic pain syndrome. Her kneecap is misaligned, and her
right leg is an inch and a half shorter than her left. R. 60.
Smith also reported difficulties balancing. R. 71.
testified that she has a driver's license and reported
that she avoids driving alone during the day and usually
rides with a passenger because she often falls asleep at the
wheel but does not have the same problem driving alone at
night. R. 53. She has no restrictions on her driver's
license due to epilepsy or narcolepsy. R. 52. Regarding
self-care, Smith testified that she is able to brush her
teeth, but has difficulties showering, bathing, and taking
care of herself in the bathroom due to her limited mobility.
R. 72, 75-76. Smith stated that she had difficulties caring
for her youngest son because she could not pick him up and
received assistance from the child's father and other
family members to help care for him. R. 76-78. Smith also
testified that she is unable to contribute much to housework
because of the limitations with her hands. R. 73.
stated that she smokes half a pack to a pack of cigarettes
daily and that her attempts to quit were unsuccessful due to
adverse reactions to various treatments. R. 50-51. Smith
testified that she very rarely drinks and only used illegal
drugs during a one-month stay in Colorado in March of 2014
where she smoked marijuana to relieve nerve pain. R. 55.
Smith stated she has been prescribed Tegretol for seizures
and two medicines, Ketorolac and Toradol, for her migraines.
R. 51, 55, 58. As a side effect of the various medications
that she takes, Smith testified that she suffers from memory
loss and has difficulties remembering what medications she
has taken during the course of the day and has lapses when
she is driving where she forgets where she is going. R. 68.
sixteen-page decision dated July 12, 2017, the ALJ determined
that Smith is not disabled. R. 13-28. The ALJ's decision
followed the five-step sequential process for determining
disability prescribed by the Social Security Administration
(SSA). R. 14-15. At step one, the ALJ concluded that Smith
has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her
March 28, 2018 alleged onset date and that she met the
insured status requirements through December 31, 2014. R. 16.
At step two, the ALJ concluded that Smith has the following
severe impairments: status post resection of lumbar synovial
facet cyst, degenerative disc disease of cervical spine,
degenerative joint disease of right hip with labral tear,
obesity, migraine headaches, degenerative joint disease of
knees, carpal tunnel syndrome, ulnar neuropathy,
depression/adjustment disorder with anxiety, and chronic pain
her claim that she suffered from epilepsy, the ALJ noted that
while epilepsy appears in the past medical history of some of
the records, Smith had not undergone any treatment for it
during the period at issue and had not had any seizures since
she was a child. Because there were no medical records that
substantiated the condition, the ALJ found it was not a
medically determinable impairment. R. 16. The ALJ also found
her reported chronic history of episodic urinary incontinence
could be accommodated with adult undergarments. R. 17.
Plaintiff's claim of PTSD was found to be, like her
epilepsy, not a medically determinable impairment, and
neither her ...