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Buonanno v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

April 28, 2017

IDA BUONANNO, Plaintiff,


          John J. McConnell, Jr. United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Ida Buonanno is in her 60's and previously worked as a products assembler and city clerk for 32 continuous years, Ms. Buonanno seeks judicial review of the final administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") determined at step 2 of the sequential evaluation process that, while Ms. Buonanno had medically determinable impairments by way of back and hand pain, hypertension, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder, none of these impairments, singularly or in combination, were "severe impairments" qualifying her for benefits. The Appeals Council denied review, and Ms. Buonanno now appeals to this Court for relief. Because this Court finds that the ALJ erred in failing to develop the record, the Court reverses the ALJ's ruling and remands for further consideration.

         I. FACTS

         Ms. Buonanno completed high school in Italy. Tr. at 26-27. She had worked as an assembler for twenty-five years, and then in the City of Providence Clerk's office. Tr. at 27-28. She took care of her sick husband until his death three years prior. Tr. at 38. Her husband had been verbally and physically abusive to her. Tr. at 39.

         Beginning in 2008, Ms. Buonanno could no longer work becaxise of back pain and mental health issues. Tr. at 35. In January 2009, Ms. Buonanno, after complaining of weakness and fatigue, chest pains, and right arm numbness, treated with Stephen M. Scott, M.D., an internist. Tr. at 262. Dr. Scott diagnosed Ms. Buonanno with anxiety disorder. Id. She latter presented to Dr. Scott with constant low back pain. Tr. at 260. Dr. Scott prescribed Flexeril and Tramadol and sent her for x-rays of her lumbosacral spine, which showed narrowing of the posterior aspect of the disc space between L5 and SI, indicating early degenerative arthritis. Tr. at 260, 264. Ms. Buonanno returned to Dr. Scott in 2010 because of depression and physical and verbal abusive from her husband. Tr. at 258. He noted that Ms. Buonanno had "left for weeks but returned as she has no money, " Id. Dr. Scott also noted that Ms. Buonanno's "depression was getting worse" and that she was "ill-appearing, " and therefore he diagnosed her with generalized anxiety and major depressive disorder. Id. Ms. Buonanno again presented to Dr. Scott feeling depressed with some suicidal thoughts. Tr. at 256. She demonstrated a flat affect and reported that she was worried about violence from her spouse. Id. Dr. Scott again diagnosed Ms. Buonanno with generalized anxiety and major depressive disorder. Id.

         Ms. Buonanno then saw Walter A. Hollinger, M.D., an internist at St, Joseph's Health Services, in November 2013 and again in July 2014, explaining she had increased depression, headache, dizziness, and decreased appetite. Tr. at 317-24. She reported not getting much effect from one of her medications-Citalopram. Tr. at 318. She was experiencing insomnia and not getting the full effect from the medication Fluoxetine for her depression. Tr. at 322.

         In the fall of 2014, Ms. Buonanno went to Giulio G. Diamante, M.D., an ophthalmologist, reporting progressive blurred vision in both eyes. Tr. at 332, 335. On examination, Dr. Diamante found that Ms. Buonanno had blepharitis, inferior corneal thinning consistent with keratoconus, and cataracts in both eyes. Id. Dr. Diamante noted she might have lenticular astigmatism, reducing her net perception of astigmatism in each eye. Id. He also noted that, with standard cataract surgery, her astigmatism might be more pronounced. Tr. at 335.

         At the January 2015 ALJ hearing, Ms. Buonanno testified that she was depressed and always stayed home. Tr. at 31-32. She had memory problems, difficulty concentrating, and felt worthless. Tr. at 32. She would break up tasks into smaller tasks in order to complete them. Tr. at 41. Ms. Buonanno testified that her friends helped her with household chores. Tr. at 40, She can sit, stand, and walk for twenty minutes at a time. Tr. at 32. She sleeps only one to two hours a night, despite taking medication. Tr. at 33. Ms. Buonanno sometimes went to dinner or shopping with friends but did not really go out socially much. Tr. at 35.

         Ms. Buonanno stopped going to treatment because she lost her health insurance after she left work due to her disability. Tr. at 39-40.

         State medical expert John Pella, M.D., after reviewing the evidence, testified as follows:

This is a somewhat limited record medically. [Prior to the date last insured, ] the claimant had systemic hypertension requiring treatment but no end organ damage. References to low back pain in April of [2009]. She did have plane [sic] films of the lumbosacral spine which revealed mild degenerative disc disease at ¶ 5 and SI. No more detailed studies such as MRI and [there is] little descriptive [sic] with regard to any neurological complaints or impairment. References to general anxiety disorder, a depressive disorder as well, on treatment. Borderline obesity through that period. BMI value anywhere from 27 to 33. No basis for the complaints of sciatica in the record. No basis for complaint of the arm pain in the record. No basis for the cognitive effects in the record. She has one episode of atypical chest pain not pursued. And the recent record suggests vision problems which may extend back into that period but are not - we have no examination at that period to . . . make that determination.

Tr. at 43-44.

         In addition, a Vocational Expert testified that Ms. Buonanno's past work as a small product assembler was light and unskilled, and her work as a clerk was light and semi-skilled. Tr. at 45.

         The ALJ denied Ms. Buonanno's claim at the second step of the evaluation process, finding that she does not have a severe disability. In large part, the ALJ ...

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