April 13, 2015 – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has affirmed a decision to deny disability benefits to a Wisconsin woman who said she could not work because of severe neck and head pain, noting her travel and daily running routine.
Brenda Mitze, 43 when she applied for disability benefits, claimed she could not work because of the pain she experienced after brain surgery. A surgeon had removed a cyst in her brain, but Mitze experienced post-operation pain in her neck and head.
An MRI revealed that she had a pinched nerve in her neck. She rejected a standard treatment, an occipital nerve injection, to control the pain and declined specialty care recommended by a pain specialist. In addition, a chiropractor said Mitze gave a “dramatic presentation” of her symptoms before he concluded that Mitze would probably have to miss work more than four times a month and take frequent brakes.
Despite the pain, Mitze, a mother and wife who never held a full-time job, continued a daily running routine, competed in a 5,000-meter running race, and travelled to Australia for a month. An administrative law judge denied Mitze’s application for benefits, concluding Mitze’s disability did not preclude full-time, gainful employment. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin upheld the decision. Mitze appealed.
Even assuming Mitze did not exaggerate her symptoms, a three-judge panel in Mitze v. Colvin, No. 14-2599 (April 9, 2015), affirmed the denial of disability benefits, concluding the administrative law judge had good reasons to conclude she was not totally disabled.
The panel noted that she declined pain treatment options that could have helped her. “A further reason to doubt that the plaintiff’s pain symptoms are totally disabling is her ability to run for an hour daily and run a 5,000-meter (3.1 mile) race,” wrote Judge Richard Posner, noting a lack of evidence that running could be therapeutic.
Mitze also flew to Australia, the panel noted, “very long flights (at least 20 hours each way), which a person with disabling pain would be likely to find extremely uncomfortable if he or she was traveling in coach, which so far as appears the plaintiff was.”
The combination of these things, the panel explained, made it reasonable for the administrative law judge to conclude that Mitze did not have a disability that qualified her for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, the panel concluded.