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Freeman v. Colvin

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

September 28, 2016

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



         Vicki Freeman (“Plaintiff”) seeks review of the decision of the Social Security Commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act. The parties consented to the exercise of authority by the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (ECF No. 4). Because the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the decision to deny benefits, the Court affirms the denial of Plaintiff's application.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         In November 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits based on the following medical conditions: degenerative disc disease, severe loss of hearing, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and acid reflux. (Tr. 116-17, 146). The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Plaintiff's claims, and she filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge. (Tr. 51-58, 67-68). The SSA granted Plaintiff's request for review and conducted a hearing on May 13, 2014. (Tr. 27-50). In a decision dated May 29, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from November 4, 2012, through the date of this decision.” (Tr. 13). The SSA Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's subsequent request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 1-2). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the Commissioner's final decision. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         II. The Administrative Proceeding

         A. Testimony at Hearing

         Plaintiff appeared with counsel at the administrative hearing on May 13, 2014. (Tr. 29). Plaintiff testified that she was sixty years of age, had a high school diploma and a “one-year office certificate, ” and was 5 foot 4 inches tall and weighed 280 pounds. (Tr. 31-32). Plaintiff stated that she had worked for the same company for thirty-eight years. (Tr. 32). She began her career as a machine operator and, in her final seven years with the company, worked as a production clerk, entering data, filing papers, and making copies. (Tr. 33-34). Plaintiff's employment ended on November 4, 2011 due to downsizing. (Tr. 35).

         Plaintiff testified that she suffered back pain, which “gets worse with limited, even limited activity, any activity, ” “extreme shortness of breath, ” and carpal tunnel syndrome. (Tr. 35-36). In regard to the symptoms in her hands, Plaintiff explained: “[S]ometimes you go to ta[ke] and pick up something, and a pain'll shoot through the my wrist and I will drop it. And sometimes I have pain all the way up my arms.” (Tr. 36). Plaintiff had difficulty “gripping things” and was unable to open jars and sealed water bottles. (Tr. 36-37). Plaintiff had a computer in her home, but used it “sparingly” because “I have trouble with my hands going numb if I use it very often.” (Tr. 37). Plaintiff estimated that she was able to use the computer twenty minutes before experiencing numbness. (Id.).

         Plaintiff explained that her doctor had recommended surgery for her carpal tunnel syndrome, but she declined surgery because her former coworkers “that had carpal tunnel surgery…ended up in worse shape than they started off with.” (Tr. 38). Plaintiff wore wrist splints, which “cut down on the pain some, ” but she “still can't grip very well[.]” (Id.).

         Plaintiff described constant pain in her lower back, which increased with any movement, walking, or lifting. (Id.). Plaintiff testified that on good days, she can “do some stuff around the house if I take frequent breaks, ” but, on bad days, “I'm lucky if I can get out of bed.” (Tr. 35). Plaintiff stated that, on a good day, she “could probably lift 10 pounds, ” and, on a bad day, “I can't lift anything. I'd drop it all.” (Tr. 39). Plaintiff could not stand longer than five minutes and could walk approximately twenty-five feet before needing to sit down. Plaintiff needed to lie down ten to twenty times per day for approximately twenty minutes. (Tr. 39-40). Plaintiff estimated that she experienced approximately three bad days per week. (Tr. 35).

         At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff had not consulted a pulmonologist about her breathing problems because she “d[id]n't have the money.” (Tr. 40-41). Plaintiff testified that she was taking the following medications: Piroxicam, Crestor, “Amlodbenaz” for “high blood pressure, ” Prilosec, and Gaviscon. (Tr. 41-42). Plaintiff explained that the Piroxicam eased the pain in her back and hands enough so that she was “able to function somewhat.” (Tr. 42). However, the Piroxicam “irritates my stomach, which irritates the acid reflux . . . .” (Tr. 43).

         On a typical good day, Plaintiff washed dishes and did laundry. (Tr. 43-44). Plaintiff also swept the floors, but needed “to stop and rest frequently” because her “back is hurting and I'm short of breath.” (Tr. 44). In regard to gardening, Plaintiff testified that, over “the last couple of years, I've been limited to what I can do.” (Id.). She explained, “I cannot use a tiller, my husband does that. And, he does the planting. . . . I can go out and pick a tomato or two, or something like that, but I can't really do a whole lot with the gardening.” (Id.). Plaintiff had a driver's license and regularly drove thirty minutes to her doctor appointments. (Tr. 45).

         Doug Lindahl, a vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. (Tr. 48-49). Mr. Lindahl stated that the duties of a production clerk required “constant reaching, handling and fingering” and the “main part of the job is doing the computer entry.” (Tr. 48). The ALJ asked Mr. Lindahl to consider a hypothetical claimant with the same age, education, and work history as Plaintiff who was limited to “to work at the light exertional level. Ability to occasionally climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl.” (Tr. 49). Mr. Lindahl responded that such person could perform Plaintiff's past work as a machine operator or production clerk. (Tr. 49). However, if the same hypothetical individual were “limited to occasional handling and fingering, bilateral, ” neither of those options would remain.

         B. Relevant Medical Records

         On January 12, 2012, Plaintiff visited her primary care physician, Dr. Ted Hatfield, for evaluation and management of hypertension, hyperlipidemia, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). (Tr. 231). Plaintiff was generally doing well, but reported nasal congestion and “some esophageal spasms and occasionally her food is hanging up.” (Id.). Dr. Hatfield noted that Plaintiff had gained ten pounds since her last visit, and he discussed with Plaintiff the relationship of obesity “to the GERD, reflux and potential for developing esophageal stricture requiring [dilation], etc.” (Id.). Plaintiff was taking Crestor, Lotrel, Feldene, and “over-the-counter Prilosec and says that works very well for her.” (Tr. 232). Dr. Hatfield recorded the following diagnoses: hypertension, hyperlipidemia, type 2 diabetes mellitus, GERD, osteoarthritis, and exogenous obesity. (Id.).

         On February 27, 2012, Dr. Kelly R. Hutson at Backworks Chiropractic began treating Plaintiff's chronic back pain. (Tr. 213). Plaintiff reported that she had been suffering chronic back pain for four to five years, and she had received physical therapy, aquatic therapy, injections, and nerve stripping, all of which provided “little or no relief.” (Id.). Plaintiff also noted loss of grip strength and pain in both hands and numbness in her fingers. (Tr. 214). On a functional rating index, Plaintiff stated that she “can do usual work; no extra work” and “can do a few [recreational] activities.” (Tr. 215).

         Dr. Hutson prescribed Plaintiff three sessions of chiropractic manipulation per week for the next four weeks. (Tr. 216). Plaintiff presented for fifteen sessions between February 28, 2012 and March 30, 2012, and her treatment included spinal vertebral axial decompression of the lumbar region. (Tr. 221-26). On March 30, 2012, Plaintiff's final day of treatment, Dr. Hutson assessed that Plaintiff's “condition is improving” and recommended Plaintiff continue “conservative chiropractic management.” (Tr. 226).

         In April 2012, Plaintiff underwent a colonoscopy, which revealed an adenomatous polyp. (Tr. 244, 296-300). On May 10, 2012, Plaintiff discussed concerns about her colonoscopy with Dr. Hatfield. (Tr. 232-33). Dr. Hatfield reassured Plaintiff and recommended she repeat the colonoscopy in six months. (Tr. 233). Dr. Hatfield noted: “Otherwise she has no complaints. She has got a big garden.” (Id.).

         Plaintiff visited Dr. Hatfield again on September 4, 2012 for evaluation and management of her hypertension, hyperlipidemia, type 2 diabetes mellitus, GERD, and osteoarthritis. (Tr. 234-35). Again, Plaintiff stated that she was “doing well and has no real complaints today, ” and she was taking generic Prevacid “that seems to work as well for her as any of the other medications she had.” (Tr. 235). Dr. Hatfield noted that Plaintiff “is talking about her garden, apparently [it] did well.” (Id.).

         Plaintiff followed up with Dr. Hatfield about her blood pressure on November 7, 2012. (Tr. 236-37). Because Plaintiff complained of “pain with radiation into the buttocks in the right leg, ” Dr. Hatfield ordered an MRI and referred Plaintiff to Dr. Franklin Hayward. (Tr. 237). On November 13, 2012, a lumbar spine MRI without contrast revealed “[m]ild to moderate lumbar degenerative spondylosis that is most significant at ¶ 1-2 and L3-4 where it produces mild spinal stenosis.” (Tr. 249-50).

         On December 3, 2012, Plaintiff saw Dr. Hayward at the Heartland Spine Institute. (Tr. 256-57). Plaintiff informed Dr. Hayward that her constant pain limited her ability to work, walk, drive, sleep, and stand. (Tr. 256). Plaintiff reported that a chiropractor previously performed spinal decompression, “which improved her symptoms.” (Id.). Plaintiff explained that “[h]er symptoms are worse when she stands and are relieved when she sits, ” and she described “numbness/tingling in bilateral hands and fingers.” (Id.) Dr. Hayward observed that Plaintiff was “significantly overweight” and therefore not a candidate for surgery. (Id.). He recommended “significant weight reduction” to relieve her back pain, suggested bariatric surgery, and “told her that if she has significant weight reduction and continued to have low back pain, she could be reevaluated at that time.” (Tr. 257). Plaintiff stated that she was not interested in surgery.

         Plaintiff returned to Dr. Hatfield's office on January 4, 2013, and said “she has been doing well, but she [was] very tearful and upset” because “[t]hey eliminated her job at work[.]” (Tr. 313-14). Dr. Hatfield and Plaintiff discussed Dr. Hayward's recommendation that she undergo bariatric surgery, and Plaintiff stated “she is not interested in it.” (Tr. 314). Dr. Hatfield refilled Plaintiff's medications and ...

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