Despite one doctor’s opinion that she was disabled, a woman who was denied disability benefits failed to win her case at the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Years after a car accident in the late 1990s, Jennifer Karr consulted a neurosurgeon, Dr. Isa Canavati, who diagnosed her with several spinal disorders. Karr’s pain began worsening in the 2010s, and her various treatments were not helping.
Thus, in 2016, Karr applied for Social Security disability benefits. Multiple reviews found that she could perform light duties while alternating between sitting, standing and walking. Meanwhile, Karr made a trip to the emergency room for back pain and numbness, and her pain continued.
In late 2017, Karr returned to Canavati, who opined that she could not sit, stand or walk for an extended period of time and that her pain affected her sleep. Karr ultimately underwent a spinal surgery in January 2018.
The prior November, Karr had appeared before an administrative law judge and testified that she needed to change positions every 15 to 20 minutes. The ALJ, however, determined Karr was not disabled because she could perform sedentary work with limitations. The ALJ gave only “partial weight” to a letter from Canavati, pointing instead to other reports that Karr “had full strength and could walk normally.”
The Indiana Northern District Court affirmed the ALJ’s ruling, as did the 7th Circuit. Judge Michael Scudder wrote for the unanimous appellate panel Wednesday.
“The ALJ reasonably and adequately explained why Dr. Canavati’s statement was not entitled to controlling weight,” Scudder wrote. “For starters, it is not even clear that Dr. Canavati’s statement reflects his own observation or medical opinion as opposed to a recording of Karr’s own description of her condition. … The latter is a real possibility, for the statement in question appears next to other comments recording Karr’s subjective complaints.”
Further, “Even if Dr. Canavati’s statement represented his medical judgment, it was inconsistent with other objective evidence in the record,” Scudder continued. “Progress reports from Karr’s primary care provider in late 2016 and early 2017 indicated a normal range of motion, no back tenderness, and normal strength. The ALJ also pointed to a physician assistant’s notes from Karr’s May 2017 emergency room visit reporting a normal physical exam.”
However, the ALJ did err in one part of the analysis, Scudder wrote: the judge did not evaluate Canavati’s statement within the relevant statutory framework. While that would normally necessitate remand, the error was harmless in this case because of the ALJ’s “firm ground” in finding Canavati’s opinion “extreme” and “at odds with the weight of the other medical evidence.”
“In the end, then, this appeal amounts to a failure of proof on Karr’s part,” Scudder concluded. “She had every opportunity to present evidence aligning with and reinforcing Dr. Canavati’s statement, but she did not do so.
“Although we are sympathetic to Karr’s situation, she has failed to muster the evidence to prove her alleged disability and entitlement to disability benefits. Mindful of the deference underpinning the substantial evidence standard,” the panel affirmed.
The case is Jennifer L. Karr v. Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, 20-1939.