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Davis v. Colvin

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

September 29, 2016

AMY DAVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          AUDREY G. FLEISSIG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This action is before this Court for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that Plaintiff Amy Davis was not disabled, and thus not entitled to Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner shall be affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, who was born on November 10, 1976, filed her application for benefits on September 2, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of August 18, 2011, due to fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, depression, anxiety, and migraines. After Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial administrative level, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Such a hearing was held on August 12, 2013, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. By decision dated September 17, 2013, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform certain jobs that the VE testified a person with Plaintiff's RFC could perform and that were available in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration, accompanied by additional evidence, was denied on January 22, 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's decision is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. More specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed reversible error by not according proper weight to the opinions of two examining state agency medical consultants (Karen A. MacDonald, Psy.D., who performed a psychological evaluation in September 2011; and Gary W. Rucker, D.O., who performed a physical examination in November 2011), and of Plaintiff's treating physician (Gene Smith, D.O.). Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ erred in failing to account for Plaintiff's obesity in the RFC; improperly assessing the credibility of Plaintiff's hearing testimony; failing to credit three third-party statements; relying on Plaintiff's poor work history in assessing her credibility; and relying on the VE's testimony that a person with Plaintiff's RFC could perform certain jobs. In sum, Plaintiff argues that the combination of her impairments clearly leave her unable to work on a sustained basis. She asks that the Court reverse the Commissioner's decision and remand the case with directions to award Plaintiff benefits, or with directions for further proceedings.

         Medical Record

         The Court adopts Plaintiff's Statement of Facts (Doc. No. 17-1) as amended by Defendant (Doc. No. 21-1), along with Defendant's Statement of Additional Facts (Doc. No. 21-2). Together, these statements provide a fair description of the medical record. Specific facts will be discussed as needed to address the parties' arguments.

         ALJ's Decision (Tr. 20-33)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: herniated nucleus pulposus, status post-surgical intervention, lumbago, morbid obesity, bipolar disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder. The ALJ found, however, that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that equaled the severity of a deemed-disabling impairment listed in the Commissioner's regulations. The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to lift up to ten pounds occasionally; stand and/or walk for two hours in an eight-hour day; sit for six hours in an eight-hour day with normal work breaks and the ability to sit and stand at will; occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, crouch, and crawl; adapt to routine changes and sustain a normal work schedule and tolerate occasional contact with others, but would do best if allowed to work independently with only casual interactions required. In addition, Plaintiff was limited to simple work.

         In arriving at this RFC, the ALJ reviewed Plaintiff's hearing testimony and the record evidence as to Plaintiff's physical and psychological conditions. The ALJ stated that she considered Plaintiff's obesity within the functional limitations in the RFC. With respect to Plaintiff's back pain, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff's post-surgery treatment for back pain, and post-surgery examinations, did not support a finding that the pain was disabling. The ALJ pointed to, for example, a normal neurological and musculoskeletal examination, with normal range of motion, dated December 23, 2011.

         Turning to Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's mental impairments, singly and in combination, did not satisfy the criteria of Listing 12.04 (affective disorders) or Listing 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders). Based on an examination of the record, including Plaintiff's testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had mild restrictions in activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in social functioning, and moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, and pace. The ALJ stated that a review of the record showed that Plaintiff had not received psychiatric treatment consistent with disabling conditions, as treatment consisted almost exclusively of medication management by her primary care physician. The ALJ noted the lack of any documentation that Plaintiff was ever refused more specialized treatment for any reason, including insufficient funds.

         The ALJ then explained the weight she afforded opinion evidence in the record. She stated that she afforded the November 17, 2011 opinion of examining consultant Dr. Rucker “some weight.” Dr. Rucker had opined, following a physical examination, that Plaintiff was too overweight (5' 8” and weighing 361 lbs.) “to withstand physical activity long enough to sustain a job.” (Tr. 417.) The ALJ stated that she took this opinion into account in limiting Plaintiff to sedentary work. The ALJ found that the letter from Plaintiff's treating physician Dr. Smith, dated October 11, 2011, six months after Plaintiff had back surgery (a lower lumbar decompression), stating that Plaintiff was “unable to work due to recent back surgery” (Tr. 425), lacked probative value in determining Plaintiff's ongoing limitations.

         And the ALJ afforded the September 28, 2011 opinion of examining consultant Dr. MacDonald “partial weight.” Dr. MacDonald interviewed Plaintiff and conducted a Mini Mental Status Examination - 2nd ed., on which Plaintiff achieved a score of 40, reflecting “almost two standard deviations from the average means, ” and impairment in the work-related functions of auditory memory; recalling and following detailed instructions; concentration, attention, pace, and persistence; and social interaction and adaptation to environment. Dr. MacDonald diagnosed bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and a Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score of 50, [1] and opined that Plaintiff was “incapable of tolerating normal external stress and vocational pressures” and that her concentration, persistence, and pace along with her ability to socially interact and adapt to her environment was impaired. (Tr. 388-89.) The ALJ believed that Dr. MacDonald's opinion that Plaintiff was unable to tolerate even normal stress and had a GAF of only 50 was inconsistent with the “longitudinal” evidence in the record which indicated a higher level of functioning with appropriate medication. For example, Plaintiff reportedly told Dr. MacDonald that she experienced hallucinations (Tr. 388-89), but no evidence of hallucinations was suggested by any of Plaintiff's treating sources. als The ALJ gave “considerable weight” to the opinion of non-examining psychological consultant David Hill, Ph.D., who indicated on a checkbox form (Tr. 407-09) dated October 23, 2011, that Plaintiff's only mental limitations were moderate limitations in her ability to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions, complete a normal workday and workweek, and interact appropriately with the general public. Dr. Hill noted that he based his opinion on Plaintiff's Function Report. In that report dated August 9, 2011, Plaintiff wrote that she took care of her (14 year-old) son, fed her pets, prepared sandwiches and simple dinners, and was able to dust, fold laundry, and load the dishwasher; but was no longer able “to keep her household and [herself] clean.” (Tr. 245-55.) Dr. Hill added that Plaintiff was able to adapt to routine changes in a simple repetitive work environment.

         The ALJ addressed the statements of Plaintiff's mother and two of Plaintiff's friends and found that they did not establish Plaintiff was disabled, because the declarants were not medically trained and were not disinterested parties, and “more importantly, ” the statements were not consistent with the observations of medical professionals and Plaintiff's reported daily activities. (Tr. 31.) The ALJ believed that Plaintiff's reported daily activities, including those noted on her Function Report and the additional activities she testified to at the hearing (going shopping with a motorized cart, reading, watching television, socializing with friends and family, and driving short distances) were insistent with Plaintiff's ...


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