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Fitez-Skeens v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division

July 31, 2018


          Thomas M. Rose District Judge.


          Sharon L. Ovington United States Magistrate Judge.

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff Crystal Fitez-Skeens' June 2014 applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. She brings the present case challenging those denials and asserting she is under a work-precluding disability due to her many health problems, including serious, chronic, and debilitating pain. Her contentions focus on the decision by Social Security Administrative Law Judge Benjamin Chaykin, who concluded that she was not under a disability because, in large part, she could still perform a limited range of light work. Plaintiff contends that ALJ Chaykin failed to properly evaluate her symptoms including her pain.

         The Commissioner contends that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's evaluation of the severity of Plaintiff's symptoms and the impact her symptoms, including pain, have on her work abilities.

         Plaintiff was thirty-one years old-a “younger” person-at the time of the ALJ's decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c). She has a high-school-equivalent education. Her employment and earnings over the years have been sparse.

         Plaintiff testified during a hearing held by ALJ Chaykin that she has two young children and is not married. At the time of the ALJ's hearing (May 2016), she worked twenty hours a week at a nail salon as a fingernail technician owned by her mother. She usually worked five days a week from 10:00 to 2:00, depending on how much pain she was in. Her mother was sympathetic to Plaintiff's health problems and allowed her to miss work “quite often.” Id. at 212. She testified that she missed at least two to three work days per week. She worked on commission so her earnings depended upon how many customers she could handle, usually two to four each workday. When no customers needed her assistance, she usually answered the phone. (Doc. #6, PageID #s 207-08). The ALJ found that neither this work nor any work Plaintiff performed after late February 2016 constituted substantial gainful activity. Id. at 177.

         Plaintiff also told the ALJ that in 2014, she underwent carpal-tunnel surgery in both hands. The surgery “helped to a certain extent.” Id. at 210. Yet she still felt numbness extending up her arms. When she started working as a fingernail technician, the numbness radiated through her neck and shoulders. After she completed a 4-hour shift at work, her hands would be numb yet also feel like they were trying to wake up. Id. at 212-13. She explained that she did not think she could continue working at the end of a shift because her hand numbness would continue to worsen.

         Plaintiff's knees have also caused her significant problems. She's endured three surgeries on her left knee and one on her right knee. She can stand for only ten to fifteen minutes. She's had additional problems with back pain and additional treatments for them: injections, steroids, physical therapy. She told the ALJ that back surgery is in her future.

         During the two-year period before the ALJ's hearing, Plaintiff had gained weight. She attributed this to “[s]tress, physical limitations that stress [her] out, make [her] depressed and eat….” Id. at 215. She cannot exercise. She noted, “I tried to walk a little bit but there's only so much I can do but I can't do actual exercises now.” Id.

         Plaintiff has also experienced mental-health difficulties. She listed her diagnoses for the ALJ as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and another diagnosis she could not recall. She felt nervous and scared, and she's disappointed in herself. She further testified about the connection between her pain and her mental-health difficulties:

Well, like when I'm working and stuff and I feel the pain coming on and it's getting worse and it's getting stronger, I feel more like my heart starts racing, I feel more anxiety, I feel more depressed because I'm like oh my God I can't do this again, you know, I feel bad about not being able to do stuff with my children and work and having to rely and depend on everybody else.

Id. at 216.

         During a typical day, Plaintiff helped her children get ready for school. Her fiancé usually took them to school. If she did not go to work, she would sit or lie on the couch and not “really do much.” Id. at 217. During the day, she watched TV and read to pass the time. She did not use social media or spend time with friends. She “doesn't really have any friends.” Id. She was able to do some dishes but she can't stand for very long. She swept the floor and did a lot of laundry. Yet, when she tried to do too much with her arms (folding laundry or maneuvering things), her shoulders, neck, and hands started hurting. Her hands would get numb when she did a lot of laundry. Id.

         Plaintiff's driving was limited. She drove herself to and from work but, other than that, she drove only to and from doctor appointments. Id. at 205.

         Turning to ALJ Chaykin's decision, he concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability by conducting the 5-step evaluation required by social security law. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). His more significant findings began with his conclusion that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease in her lumbar spine and cervical spine; degenerative joint disease in her knees with residuals of corrective surgery; obesity; carpal tunnel syndrome with residuals of corrective surgery; hypertension; and anxiety disorder. The ALJ next found that Plaintiff's impairments did not automatically constitute a disability.[2] (Doc. #6, PageID #s 177-83).

         The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity or the most she could do despite her impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a); see also Howard v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 276 F.3d 235, 239 (6th Cir. 2002). Doing so, he found that despite Plaintiff's ...

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