United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division
DEBRA J. KNIGHT, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
CAROL E. JACKSON, District Judge.
This matter is before the Court for review of an adverse ruling by the Social Security Administration.
I. Procedural History
On October 20, 2010, plaintiff Debra Knight filed applications for a period of disability, disability insurance, Title II, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., and supplemental security income, Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq., with an alleged onset date of March 31, 2007, which was also the last date of her insured status. (Tr. 166-78). After plaintiff's applications were denied on initial consideration (Tr. 115), she requested a hearing from an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Tr. 125-26).
Plaintiff and counsel appeared for a hearing on February 29, 2012. (Tr. 68-107). On May 25, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled before March 31, 2007. (Tr. 10-25). The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on May 8, 2013. (Tr. 1-6). Accordingly, the ALJ's decision stands as the Commissioner's final decision.
II. Evidence Before the ALJ
A. Disability Application Documents
In her Disability Report (Tr. 194-201), plaintiff listed her disabling conditions as fybromyalgia; severe widespread muscle pain, tenderness, and weakness; chronic fatigue syndrome; depression, malaise and anxiety; significant short-term memory loss; difficulty concentrating and focus; osteoarthritis; residuals of past back injury; neck pain and immobility; and sleep apnea. Between 2002 and 2008, she held jobs as a cashier, child care worker, envelope stuffer, school kitchen worker, and teacher's aide. (Tr. 197). When the applications were filed in 2010, plaintiff's medications included Ampheta S/Combo,  Cymbalta,  Hydrocodone/APAP,  and Propranolol. (Tr. 241).
Plaintiff completed a Function Report on December 16, 2008. (Tr. 254-66). She wrote that she was extremely stiff upon waking and felt too ill to eat breakfast. She required two to three hours to perform personal care and often required her husband's help to dress. She usually attempted one household chore, such as making her bed or doing laundry, but experienced extreme fatigue, chest pain, and shortness of breath if she exerted herself for more than 15 minutes. She described her sleep as very restless, due to pain from staying in one position. (Tr. 255-56). Throughout the day she walked from room to room, skimmed magazines, and watched birds from her deck. Reading and watching television put her to sleep. "Real cooking" took her 3 to 4 hours, so her husband usually cooked the evening meal. She drove to the bank or post office once or twice a month, but driving longer than 15 minutes caused pain and fatigue. She accompanied her husband to the grocery store. Her husband paid the bills, but plaintiff was able to manage bank accounts and count change. She needed reminders to take her medicine. She was no longer able to complete yard work, walk outdoors, paint, or read. She spent time with family members but found socializing with friends to be too taxing. Plaintiff had difficulties with lifting, bending, standing, squatting, reaching, walking, sitting, kneeling, climbing stairs, using her hands, completing tasks, understanding, following instructions, memory and concentration. She no longer handled stress well. She required a raised toilet seat and elevated counters to make attending to her personal care less taxing.
Plaintiff's Work History Report shows that she was employed doing factory assembly work for 19 years, until March 1999. Starting in 2002, she held a series of short-term jobs, working in a high school kitchen (2002), as a cashier at Wal-Mart (2002), as a secretary for Kelly Services (2005), a teacher's aide (2003), and in a day care center (2008). (Tr. 246). Plaintiff wrote of her work at the day care center, "They always asked me to work full time. I told them it was not physically possible for me... [T]he woman I worked with... would do all the lifting of the babies - she could hand them to me, then I could bottle feed them [and] rock them to sleep." (Tr. 232). Her co-worker wrote that she helped plaintiff lift the children because plaintiff was afraid she would drop them. "She hurt all the time in her arms and legs." (Tr. 245).
B. Testimony at Hearing
Plaintiff testified that she graduated from high school. (Tr. 99). She resided with her husband, who was retired and received a pension and Social Security. (Tr. 70-71). She had previously worked assembling small electrical units. (Tr. 91).
The ALJ explained that the medical information in the present record did not date back to March 2007, the date on which plaintiff was last insured. (Tr. 75, 77). Therefore, the ALJ retrieved the medical records associated with the prior claim.
Plaintiff testified that she was in too much pain from fibromyalgia "to do anything at all anymore." (Tr. 77). The pain caused her to toss and turn while sleeping and she estimated that she slept between three and five hours a night. A sleep study established that she had sleep apnea. When questioned by the ALJ, plaintiff acknowledged that she did not follow through with treatment for the condition but explained that she did not have health insurance and so was often unable to comply with some recommendations. (Tr. 83-84).
When asked what she did during the day, plaintiff responded, "Not a lot." She sat around, got up and walked, and sat again. She did some light housework, but her husband took care of most tasks. (Tr. 100). She was able to make sandwiches but it took her six hours to cook a meal the last time she attempted to do so. She was able to do laundry, but her husband had to carry it up and down the stairs for her. Watching television put her to sleep and she did not read because her vision was blurry. (Tr. 102-03). She did not use a computer. She occasionally went grocery shopping but otherwise did not go anywhere, which she found upsetting.
When she worked as an assembler, plaintiff stood all day and lifted 20 pounds occasionally and 75 pounds infrequently. (Tr. 91-92). The work became too physically demanding for her to continue. She testified that she was crying at work and had incidents "like passing out." Once, an ambulance was called because she thought she was having a heart attack. She continued to have "really bad chest pains" in which her chest got really tight and she experienced pain. It made her very frightened. (Tr. 92). Her physician told her that the chest pain might be due to the fibromyalgia, because she apparently did not have a cardiac condition. She took Propranolol to treat the chest pain. After leaving her position with the factory, plaintiff worked as a retail sales clerk, daycare provider, envelope stuffer, kitchen helper, teacher aide and a poll worker. (Tr. 95-96). These positions did not rise to the level of substantial gainful employment. (Tr. 12).
Delores Gonzalez, M.Ed., a vocational expert, provided testimony regarding plaintiff's past work. Ms. Gonzalez testified that plaintiff's work as a retail sales clerk is classified as light and semi-skilled; the day care worker position is classified as light and semi-skilled and has a Specific Vocational Preparation (SVP) level of 4; envelope stuffer is classified as light and unskilled with an SVP of 2; kitchen helper is medium and unskilled with an SVP of 2; teacher aide is light and semi-skilled with an SVP of 3; and production assembler, as plaintiff performed it during the relevant period, is light and unskilled with an SVP of 2. Ms. Gonzalez identified customer service as a transferable skill that could be performed at the sedentary level as a telephone customer service representative or receptionist. (Tr. 99).
C. Medical Records
Plaintiff's discussion of the medical records begins in June 2005. Prior to that date, she was diagnosed with mild mitral valve prolapse (Tr. 430), chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia (Tr. 382, 396, 370). She periodically complained of tightness in her chest, feeling light-headed, neck pain, shortness of breath, and pedal edema. (Tr. 430, 342, 341, 380, 340). She consistently reported fatigue, tenderness and swelling of the joints, irritable bowel, and gastroesophageal reflux disease. (Tr. 344, 338, 377, 339). Her primary care physician, Rosemary Cannistraro, M.D., Ph.D., occasionally noted that the muscle beds were tender to palpation. (Tr. ...