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Metcalf v. Colvin

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

September 21, 2016

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



         This is an action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of Defendant's final decision denying Plaintiffs applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act and for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Act. For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. Procedural History

         On January 7, 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning August 25, 2011. (Tr. 11, 178-90) Plaintiff alleged that she became unable to work due to heart problems, emphysema, chronic anxiety, depression, and foot problems. (Tr. 86) The applications were denied, and Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 86-115, 121) On March 7, 2014, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before the ALJ. (Tr. 664-704) On June 10, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability from August 25, 2011, through the date of the decision. (Tr. 11-22) Plaintiff then filed a request for review, and on July 27, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request. (Tr. 1-3) Thus, the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         II. Evidence Before the ALJ

         At the March 7, 2014 hearing, Plaintiff was represented by counsel. After counsel presented an opening statement, he questioned Plaintiff. Plaintiff testified that she was 43 years old, measured 5 feet 7 inches, and weighed 126 pounds. She was married but had been separated for years. Plaintiff stated that she stopped working because she could no longer perform the job physically or mentally. She last worked at Eagle Lake for Crown Corporation. Her previous occupations included housekeeping and nurse assistant. (Tr. 59-62)

         Plaintiff stated that she quit smoking about a year ago. However, she continued to have problems with her breathing. Plaintiff described these problems as shortness of breath, wheezing, closing off, tightness, and heaviness. Activities such as walking and allergies triggered her shortness of breath. In addition, her breathing problems worsened in the summer because of the humidity. Plaintiff used an albuterol inhaler and Advair for asthma attacks. With regard to her heart problems, Plaintiff testified that she was wearing a 30-day monitor so her doctor could get more details regarding Plaintiffs chest pain and heart rate irregularity. She described the chest pain as "real sharp." Plaintiff felt weak after the chest pain subsided. (Tr. 62-65)

         Further, Plaintiff testified that she saw a podiatrist for problems with her feet. Plaintiff experienced pain from a big bone in her foot. Her doctor told her she needed surgery. Standing triggered the pain. Plaintiff also took medication for headaches, which she experienced daily. The pain was a sharp, stabbing pain with some pounding. Sometimes her eyes hurt, and she became nauseous. Medication provided a little relief. Plaintiffs anxiety and depression began around 1995 and had become progressively worse over the years. Plaintiff testified that she had difficulty concentrating, and she did not remember what she read. She did not sleep well, and she did not like being around other people because she felt closed, nervous, and panicked. Plaintiff stated that she did not deal well with stress. She became nervous and angry under stress. Further, she had trouble finishing things she set out to do and staying on task. (Tr. 65-70)

         Plaintiff took several prescription medications. Side effects included headaches, nausea, sleep, and fatigue. She had a driver's license but did not drive very often. Plaintiff testified that she could walk for 10 minutes before needing to stop and rest due to shortness of breath and pain. Plaintiff experienced pain in her foot, back, and hips. She believed she could stand still for about 5 minutes and sit for 15 minutes. Plaintiff had problems climbing stairs, bending over, stooping, lifting, and carrying. She stated that it was hard for her to lift a full gallon of milk. Plaintiff did not visit with others or go to church. She had no hobbies. (Tr. 70-73)

         During the hearing, Plaintiff experienced a panic attack and had to step outside. When the hearing resumed, Plaintiff testified that she lived with her two sons, ages 23 and 18. Her sons helped with household chores such as cooking, cleaning, and shopping. Plaintiff was able to put laundry in the machine and set the dryer. She sometimes folded clothes. Plaintiff had problems accomplishing those activities during the day because of her nerves and pain. She woke up around 5:30 a.m., made coffee, and took her medications. Plaintiff then sat in her recliner and looked outside. Watching TV made her nervous, and sometimes she sat with the blinds shut. She did not know how to use a computer, but she read once in a while. Plaintiff further testified that she did not talk on the phone because the phone made her nervous. Plaintiff lay down two to three times a day, but she was most comfortable in the recliner. She estimated that she sat in the recliner five to seven hours a day. (Tr. 73-77)

         The ALJ also questioned the Plaintiff, who testified that sitting caused her hips, back, and knees to hurt. She stopped working because she was physically unable, and she could no longer stand being around people. Plaintiff last worked as a housekeeper at a hotel. The ALJ then confirmed the medical records with Plaintiff and her attorney. (Tr. 77-79)

         A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. The VE identified Plaintiffs prior jobs as a nurse assistant, which was medium exertional and semi-skilled; and a housekeeper, which was light and unskilled work. The ALJ asked the VE to assume a person 40 to 43 years old with a 12th grade education and Plaintiffs past work experience. In addition, the person could lift, carry, push, and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. The individual could sit with normal breaks for six hours in an eight-hour workday; stand and walk for six hours in an eight-hour day; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Further, the person needed to avoid even moderate exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, and extremes of humidity, as well as even moderate exposures to fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poor ventilation. The individual was limited to low-stress work, which the ALJ defined as simple, routine tasks in a relatively static environment with infrequent changes. The person could have superficial interaction with others. Given this hypothetical, the VE testified that the individual could perform Plaintiffs past work as a housekeeper. (Tr. 80-82)

         The ALJ then reduced the lifting and carrying to 10 pounds occasionally and five pounds frequently, as well as reducing the standing and walking to two hours in an eight-hour day. Given these further limitations, the VE testified that Plaintiffs past work would be precluded. However, the individual could perform jobs such as unskilled hand packer, production worker assembler, and surveillance system monitor. If the VE further assumed that the person would be off task 15 percent of the work day or work week, the individual would not be able to perform work-related tasks and would be terminated. If the person missed work two or three days a month, he or she would be precluded from work. (Tr. 82-84)

         Plaintiffs attorney also questioned the VE. The attorney asked the VE to assume both the first and second hypotheticals; however, the person had a marked restriction in her ability to maintain a work week schedule and be consistently punctual; her ability to complete a normal work week without interruption from psychologically based symptoms; her ability to respond appropriately to routine changes in the work setting; and her ability to demonstrate reliability. Given these additional limitations, the VE testified the individual would be unable to perform any job on a sustained, full-time basis. (Tr. 84)

         On February 2, 2013, Plaintiff completed a Function Report - Adult. She reported that during the day she woke up, took her morning medication, sat in her recliner, and ate when she was hungry. Some days she put laundry in the washer and dryer and washed some dishes. Plaintiff and her son fixed supper together. She sat in the recliner and sometimes took a bath. She took her bedtime medications and went to bed. On better days she could cook a meat and a vegetable. She sat down while preparing food. Plaintiff was able to perform light house cleaning with many breaks. She did not do yard work due to the heat and humidity. She could shop for groceries, household items, personal things, and clothes. Her son helped her with shopping. Plaintiff sometimes watched TV. She did not participate in social activities, and she had problems getting along with others due to anxiety and depression. Plaintiff opined that her conditions affected her ability to lift, squat, bend, stand, reach, walk, sit, kneel, talk, stair climb, remember, complete tasks, concentrate, understand, follow instructions, use hands, and get along with others. She did not handle stress or changes in routine very well. (Tr. 241-48)

         III. Medical Evidence

         On August 18, 2010, Plaintiff saw Abegaile S. Denison, M.D., for a medication refill and complaints of anxiety and pain. Plaintiff reported relationship problems and anxiety symptoms that were aggravated by stress at home or work. Her pain was located in her back and right knee, but Dr. Denison noted that prior x-rays of Plaintiff s lumbar spine, hip, and right knee were negative. Plaintiff was anxious and fearful with a flattened affect, but the psychiatric exam was otherwise normal. Dr. Denison ...

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