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Edwards v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

September 1, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This action is before this Court for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that Plaintiff Dana Su Edwards was not disabled and, thus, not entitled to disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, or supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act, 42 §§ 1381-1383f. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.


         Plaintiff, who was born on May 1, 1967, protectively filed applications for benefits on January 30, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of November 21, 2011, [1] due to depression, anxiety, spinal stenosis, and arthritis in her left knee and back. (Tr. 152-55, 225.) After Plaintiff's applications were denied at the initial administrative level, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and such a hearing was held on September 25, 2013. By decision dated October 21, 2013, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in the Commissioner's regulations. Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work but that, pursuant to the Commissioner's Medical-Vocational Guidelines found at 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, she was not disabled. Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration was denied on March 23, 2015. Plaintiff has thus exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the final agency action now under review.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by using the Medical-Vocational Guidelines to find Plaintiff not disabled because Plaintiff's nonexertional impairments limited her ability to perform the full range of exertional work described in the Commissioner's regulations. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC determination did not properly account for her nonexertional impairments of obesity and depression. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence in the record because it did not include all medically established physical restrictions, as demonstrated by the objective medical evidence and Plaintiff's subjective complaints; and was not based on a medical source that specifically addressed Plaintiff's work-related limitations and abilities.

         Medical Record

         The Court adopts Plaintiff's unopposed Statement of Uncontroverted Medical Facts (Doc. No. 20-1) as supplemented by Defendant's unopposed Statement of Additional Facts (Doc. No. 23-2). Together, these facts present a fair and accurate summary of the medical record. The Court will discuss specific facts as they are relevant to the parties' arguments.

         Evidentiary Hearing of September 25, 2013 (Tr. 354-68)

         Upon questioning by her attorney, Plaintiff testified that she was 46 years old on the date of the hearing and that she graduated high school but did not go further in school or complete any vocational training. Plaintiff testified that she lived in a two-story house with her husband and two children, aged 23 and 16, and that she used the steps twice a day, in the morning and at night. Plaintiff testified that she last worked in October 2008, as a seamstress, when she took short-term disability for a pinched nerve in her back, after which her employer would not take her back. Plaintiff testified that she did not have health insurance but paid for medical treatment when she could “come up with the money.” She testified that she could only stand for 15 minutes at a time and that she was in pain after sitting as a passenger in the car for the hour that it took to drive to the hearing.

         Plaintiff testified that she did household chores, but her family helped; that she cooked for up to two hours at a time but kept a chair by the stove so she could sit when needed; and that she could lift a full gallon of milk but nothing heavier. Plaintiff testified that her depression sometimes caused her to stop doing housework or taking showers for days at a time; that she attended church twice a week but otherwise did not leave the house much; that she first started seeing a physician, Javed Choudry, M.D., for mental health treatment on July 31, 2013; and that she took medication for her depression but still had trouble concentrating and focusing when stressed. Upon the final question by her counsel as to whether there was anything else she felt the ALJ should know about what had kept her from being able to work, Plaintiff answered “I don't think so.” The ALJ did not ask Plaintiff any questions, and no vocational expert (“VE”) was called to testify.

         ALJ's Decision of October 21, 2013 (Tr. 11-23)

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 21, 2011, the alleged disability onset date. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe physical impairments of lumbar osteoarthropathy, anterolisthesis, canal stenosis, medical compartment narrowing in the left knee, and obesity, but that no impairment or combination of impairments met or medically equaled the severity of one of the deemed-disabling impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         The ALJ considered Plaintiff's mental impairments but found that they were not severe. Specifically, the ALJ found that the record did not establish that Plaintiff's alleged mental impairments significantly limited, or were expected to significantly limit, her ability to perform basic work-related activities. The ALJ referred to a May 2012 report Plaintiff made to the State agency, in which she stated that she had not seen a psychiatrist or psychologist as of her disability onset date. (Tr. 188.) The ALJ also noted that subsequent records did not demonstrate an increase in mental health treatment, and that although Plaintiff was previously prescribed Cymbalta for depression and had been on and off medication for years, she reported to Dr. Choudry on July 31, 2013 that she had not taken depression medication for nine months and that her depression worsened during that time. Dr. Choudry subsequently prescribed Prozac but otherwise noted that Plaintiff's general appearance was normal and she did not have any suicidal or homicidal ideation, hallucinations, or delusions. (Tr. 337.)

         The ALJ further found Plaintiff's mental impairments were not severe because Plaintiff had only mild limitations in activities of daily living; social functioning; and concentration, persistence, and pace; and no episodes of decompensation that lasted for an extended duration (two weeks or more).[2] The ALJ referred to a psychiatric review technique form completed by Robert Cottone, Ph.D., on March 2, 2012, which supported these findings and, in fact, found that Plaintiff was less restricted in that she had no limitation in activities of daily living or social functioning. (Tr. 295-305.) The ALJ also noted that nothing else in the record indicated more than ...

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