United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
TERRY I. ADELMAN, Magistrate Judge.
This is an action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying Dana Brooks' application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq., and application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. All matters are pending before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge, with consent of the parties, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Because the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, it is affirmed.
I. Procedural History
On January 21, 2011, plaintiff Dana Brooks applied for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI), claiming she became disabled on November 1, 2010, because of panic disorder, anxiety, depression, and hepatitis C. (Tr. 132-37, 138-44, 173.) Upon initial consideration, the Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's claims for benefits. (Tr. 85, 86, 90-94.) On January 17, 2012, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) at which plaintiff testified. (Tr. 48-84.) On March 21, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claims for benefits, finding plaintiff able to perform her past relevant work. (Tr. 28-42.) On December 18, 2012, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 10-14.) The ALJ's decision is thus the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
In the instant action for judicial review, plaintiff raises numerous claims that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Specifically, plaintiff claims that the ALJ improperly weighed the opinion evidence in this cause and failed to accord controlling weight to the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Modad. Plaintiff further contends that the ALJ erred in determining her complaints not to be credible. Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ failed to consider the combined effect of all of her impairments and erred in relying on vocational expert testimony that was based on an incomplete and faulty hypothetical question. Plaintiff requests that the final decision be reversed and that judgment be entered in her favor, or that the matter be remanded for further consideration. For the following reasons, the ALJ did not err in her determination.
II. Testimonial Evidence Before the ALJ
A. Plaintiff's Testimony
At the hearing on January 17, 2012, plaintiff testified in response to questions posed by the ALJ and counsel.
At the time of the hearing, plaintiff was forty-two years of age. Plaintiff stands five feet, two inches tall and weighs 165 pounds. Plaintiff is separated from her husband and has three adult children. Plaintiff lives in a mobile home with her boyfriend. Plaintiff completed the tenth grade in high school and obtained her GED. Plaintiff subsequently attended college for two years. (Tr. 54-56.)
Plaintiff's Work History Report shows that plaintiff worked as a deli worker in a grocery store in 2005 and as a janitor in 2005 and 2006. In 2007, plaintiff worked as a cashier in a truck stop. From October 2007 to January 2008, plaintiff worked as a laborer in a factory. From June to October 2010, plaintiff worked as a cashier in a gas station. (Tr. 180.) Plaintiff testified that she left this job because of her feelings of panic and her urge to "run out the back" door when people would arrive. Plaintiff testified that she worked in housekeeping during the summer of 2011 but left that job because of her panic episodes. (Tr. 57-58.)
Plaintiff testified that she was currently unable to work because of her panic and her inability to leave the house when she is alone. Plaintiff testified that she feels the need to run if she is around people too long, including her mental health providers. (Tr. 59, 70.) Plaintiff testified that seeing people or being seen by people overwhelms her because she feels everyone is watching her or talking about her. (Tr. 75.) Plaintiff testified that her throat closes up and she cannot breathe when she has her panic attacks. Plaintiff testified that she uses an inhaler for such episodes, although the inhaler was prescribed for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. (Tr. 67.)
Plaintiff testified that she has a fear of being in a motor vehicle accident, cannot drive, and has difficulty riding as a passenger in a car. Plaintiff testified that she almost jumped out of a moving truck on one occasion because of her fear. (Tr. 81.)
Plaintiff testified that she was diagnosed with hepatitis C one year prior. Plaintiff testified that she was checked for hepatitis C when she learned her sister had the disease. (Tr. 61, 64.) Plaintiff testified that she receives injections and takes medication for the condition. Plaintiff testified that the medication makes her nauseous and causes vomiting and "head rushes." (Tr. 65.)
Plaintiff testified that she was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome several years prior when she worked at the factory and she used to wake up in pain during that time. Plaintiff testified that she currently experiences numbness and tingling in her hands. (Tr. 81-82.)
Plaintiff testified that her stress and medication also cause her to have constant headaches for which she takes Tylenol. Plaintiff testified that her medication also causes her to have flu-like pain all over. (Tr. 61-62, 71.)
Plaintiff testified that she regularly sees Nurse Practitioner Sandy for medication refills and that NP Sandy worked for Drs. Geronimo and Modad. Plaintiff testified that she saw Dr. Geronimo until Dr. Modad took over his practice. Plaintiff testified that she had visited this treatment team once a month but had seen Dr. Modad only once. (Tr. 60-61.) Plaintiff testified that she also regularly visits an eye doctor, Dr. Dalton, because vision problems are a side effect of hepatitis C. Plaintiff testified that her vision is worsening. (Tr. 63.)
Plaintiff testified that she frequently has night terrors and does not sleep well. Plaintiff testified that her headaches are usually worse in the morning from the stress of the previous night. (Tr. 72.) Plaintiff testified that her medical provider has offered a sleep aid for her, but that she has not taken it because of her concern that she might not wake up if she needs to. (Tr. 82-83.)
Plaintiff testified that she has problems with her memory and sometimes cannot remember when or if she has taken her medication. Plaintiff testified that she sometimes forgets when she is cooking, causing kitchen fires. (Tr. 73.) Plaintiff testified that she has difficulty following recipes and continues to make errors even though she has read through a recipe multiple times. (Tr. 74.) Plaintiff testified that she also has difficulty making decisions and does not trust her own judgment. (Tr. 75.) Plaintiff testified that she would not trust herself to complete assigned tasks and has had such difficulty within the previous few years. (Tr. 80.)
As to her daily activities, plaintiff testified that she usually wakes up in a panic around 4:00 a.m. and gets up and paces around or runs her hands or wrists under cold water to calm down. Plaintiff testified that she then takes her medication. Plaintiff testified that she is able to get herself ready but experiences pain and dizziness while doing so. Plaintiff testified that she sometimes naps during the day because of her sleeping difficulties at night. (Tr. 75-76.) Plaintiff testified that she sometimes cooks but cannot be alone in the kitchen. Plaintiff testified that she does laundry but sometimes forgets to put the clothes in the dryer before starting the dryer. (Tr. 77-78.) Plaintiff testified that she does not watch television very often and no longer reads because of concentration difficulties. (Tr. 78-79.) Plaintiff testified that she goes grocery shopping once a month at either a local market or at Wal-Mart. Plaintiff testified that she likes to spend time with her sister and mom and a couple of friends, but that she will not go to places to see them. (Tr. 74-75.)
B. Vocational Expert Interrogatories
On February 3, 2012, John F. McGowan, a vocational expert, answered written interrogatories put to him by the ALJ. (Tr. 220-26.)
Mr. McGowan classified plaintiff's past relevant work as a cleaner/housekeeper, cashier, and bench assembler as light with an SVP level of two. (Tr. 221-23.)
Mr. McGowan was asked to consider an individual of plaintiff's age and past relevant work and who had at least a high school education. Mr. McGowan was further asked to assume the individual had no exertional limitations but had the following nonexertional limitations:
can perform work that does not involve handling food preparation; understand and carry out simple work instructions; interact occasionally with co workers and supervisors [on] a casual and infrequent basis; adapt to changes in the routine work setting; would perform best in settings where the claimant could work independently and work at a flexible pace.
(Tr. 224.) Mr. McGowan responded that such a person could perform plaintiff's past work as a housekeeper and bench assembler as defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (Tr. 224-25.)
III. Medical Records Before the ALJ
Plaintiff was admitted to the emergency department at Missouri Baptist Sullivan Hospital on March 11, 2010, for flu symptoms. Plaintiff was given Albuterol inhaler for wheezing. Plaintiff was diagnosed with acute bronchitis and acute sinusitis and was discharged that same date in stable condition. (Tr. 345-50.)
On April 13, 2010, plaintiff reported to Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) Kathleen Walters that she was experiencing anxiety and panic attacks. FNP Walters noted plaintiff to be anxious, and Paxil was prescribed. Plaintiff was referred to Dr. Barton for further evaluation. (Tr. 262-64.)
Plaintiff visited Dr. Rod T. Barton on April 22, 2010, and reported having severe panic attacks a few times every day and that she had a fear of the public. Plaintiff reported that she stays home during the day and sleeps and then experiences sleep problems at night with severe nightmares. Plaintiff also reported having headaches and abdominal pain. Dr. Barton noted plaintiff to have flight of thoughts and ideas, to have tangential thoughts, and to talk with stress in her voice. Physical examination showed tenderness to the abdomen with palpation. Mental status examination showed plaintiff's recent memory to be impaired. Plaintiff's language use/comprehension was also noted to be impaired. Dr. Barton noted plaintiff's fund of knowledge to be decreased and that she had impaired intellectual functioning. Plaintiff's reasoning was noted to be concrete. Plaintiff was noted to have suspicious perceptions and obsessions. Dr. Barton diagnosed plaintiff with anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Plaintiff was prescribed Klonopin and Depakote and was instructed to return in two weeks. (Tr. 259-61.)
Plaintiff returned to Dr. Barton on May 6, 2010, and reported her condition to have improved with medication but that she experienced fatigue with Klonopin. Dr. Barton noted plaintiff's general appearance and behavior to be normal except that her mood was anxious. Plaintiff was prescribed Depakote and was instructed to return in three to four weeks. (Tr. 256-58.)
Plaintiff visited FNP Walters on May 27, 2010, who noted plaintiff to appear well. FNP Walters noted plaintiff to be taking Paxil. Mental status examination was normal except plaintiff's mood was noted to be anxious. Plaintiff was prescribed BuSpar (Buspirone) and was instructed to continue with Paxil. Outpatient counseling was recommended. (Tr. 254-55.)
On June 7, 2010, plaintiff reported to FNP Walters that she was feeling much better and currently experienced panic attacks only two or three times a week instead of every day. Plaintiff reported that BuSpar was helping her a lot. FNP Walters noted plaintiff to be pleasant and cooperative. Plaintiff's mood and affect were noted to be bright. Plaintiff was in no acute distress. Plaintiff was continued in her diagnosis of anxiety and was instructed to increase her dosage of BuSpar. (Tr. 253.)
Plaintiff returned to FNP Walters on July 8, 2010, and reported that the increased dosage of BuSpar made her tired and that she felt better on her original, reduced dosage. Plaintiff also reported that Paxil did not help her condition. Plaintiff reported continued panic attacks two or three times a week, especially when in a store or driving a car. Plaintiff also reported having right knee pain, bilateral hip pain, and carpal tunnel symptoms in both hands. Tenderness was noted about the right knee and with internal rotation of the hips. X-rays were ordered and a knee immobilizer was provided. Anaprox was prescribed for pain. Plaintiff was also instructed to discontinue Paxil and to resume her lower dosage of BuSpar. Zoloft (Sertraline) was prescribed. Klonopin was also prescribed for breakthrough anxiety. (Tr. 252.) On July 14, plaintiff reported to FNP Walters that Zoloft was working well and that she felt much better. Plaintiff reported taking Klonopin on two occasions. Plaintiff also reported her knee pain to be much better. Laboratory testing was ordered, and plaintiff was instructed to return in one month. (Tr. 250.)
On July 21, 2010, FNP Walters noted recent testing to yield positive results for hepatitis C. Plaintiff denied having any symptoms. Repeat lab testing was ordered, and it was noted that ...