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Hendricks v. Colvin

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

January 18, 2017

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 Charles Hendricks, Jr., is not disabled and, thus, not entitled to disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. The parties have consented to the exercise of plenary authority by the undersigned United States Magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 636(c). For the reasons set forth below, the final decision of the Commissioner is reversed and the case is remanded to the Commissioner..

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on August 24, 1974. (Tr. 205). He protectively filed his application for DIB on April 12, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of January 26, 2013. (Tr. 11, 205). Plaintiff claimed that the following conditions limited his ability to work: “bipolar, neuropathy, glaucoma, gout, pain syndrome, ” and diabetes. (Tr. 240). Plaintiff's application was denied on September 6, 2013, and he requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 11, 149-55). A video hearing was held in August 2014, where plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. (Tr. 34-77). By decision dated October 23, 2014, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 8-21). The ALJ determined that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform jobs available in the national economy. (Tr. 13-21). On December 18, 2015, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 1-6). Consequently, the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, in that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical opinions and failed to perform a proper credibility analysis of plaintiff's testimony. Specifically, plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in discounting the opinions of treating and consulting examiners Nurse Horn, Nurse Hampton, and Dr. Rau, while giving the opinion of non-examining consultant Dr. Brandhorst some weight. (Tr. 18-19). He also argues that if the ALJ properly assessed the relative weight given to the opinions, there was insufficient evidence in the record from which the ALJ could determine plaintiff's RFC. Finally, plaintiff claims the ALJ's analysis of plaintiff's credibility improperly ignored the Polaski factors, including plaintiff's work history. See Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320 (8th Cir. 1984). Plaintiff asks that the ALJ's decision be reversed and the case remanded for a new administrative hearing.

         A. Medical Record and Evidentiary Hearing

         The court adopts plaintiff's unopposed statement of facts (ECF No. 12), as well as defendant's unopposed statement of facts. (ECF No. 17). These facts, taken together, present a fair and accurate summary of the medical record and testimony at the evidentiary hearing. The court will discuss specific facts as they relate to the parties' arguments.

         B. ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of January 26, 2014. (Tr. 13). He also found that plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of lumbar facet syndrome, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, cardiomyopathy, congestive heart failure, peripheral neuropathy, arthralgia, fibromyalgia, venous insufficiencies, dyslipidemia, obstructive sleep apnea, morbid obesity, and bipolar disorder. Id. The ALJ concluded that none of these impairments, individually or in combination, met or equaled an impairment listed in the Commissioner's list of presumptively disabling impairments. (Tr. 14-15). With respect to plaintiff's mental impairment, the ALJ found that the “paragraph B” criteria were not met, because plaintiff had only mild restrictions in activities of daily living; moderate restrictions in social functioning and with regard to concentration, persistence, or pace; and no extended episodes of decompensation. Id.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments left him with the RFC to “perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b), ” except that he cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, although he can occasionally climb ramps or stairs. (Tr. 16). The ALJ also found that plaintiff's mental RFC was limited to “only simple tasks that do not involve more than occasional interaction with the general public, supervisors and coworkers.” Id. The ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, but that plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms “were not entirely credible.” Id.

         The ALJ reasoned that plaintiff's medical records, conservative treatment history, and good response to medication supported limitations only to the extent described in the RFC. Id. Specifically, the ALJ described plaintiff's hearing testimony, noting that he testified he can lift 20 pounds comfortably, can stand for 20 minutes, cannot sit for long periods, gets frustrated easily when interacting with other people, can walk up to a mile per day on a treadmill and is able to do light chores, needs his wife to accompany him to the grocery store, and has difficulty concentrating. Id. The ALJ noted that plaintiff's physical examinations consistently show benign or normal findings and his heart and sleeping problems were successfully treated. Id. at 16-17. The ALJ also considered plaintiff's activities of daily living “suggest he is capable of more than he alleges.” Id. at 17. Plaintiff stated in his functional report that he does the dishes, cleans the house, prepares meals, sweeps, vacuums, and does outdoor chores like trimming and edging. (Tr. 17, 250-60). Finally, the ALJ pointed out that plaintiff's mental condition “does have brief exacerbations, but overall, his condition is relatively stable with medication.” (Tr. 18). He observed that plaintiff's bipolar disorder affects his ability to perform basic work activities to the extent described in the RFC, but plaintiff's ability to do household chores, use a computer, read the news, and care for his cats belie the severity of his alleged limitations. (Tr. 18, 250-60).

         In terms of the medical opinions in the record, the ALJ explained that he gave “some weight” to state agency psychological consultant Dr. Scott Brandhorst, Psy.D. because his opinion was “consistent with the objective medical evidence, the claimant's course of treatment and the claimant's documented good response to treatment.” Id. In the state disability determination explanation, the consultant noted that while plaintiff complained of mental health issues, mental status exams produced few abnormalities. (Tr. 18, 99-115). The ALJ found the consultants' limitations to be consistent with plaintiff's history of normal findings and conservative treatment. (Tr. 18). He gave it only “some weight” because the consultants opined plaintiff needed “moderate social limits” without further explanation. (Tr. 18, 99-115).

         The ALJ gave Dr. Debra Rau's opinion “little weight” because it was not supported by the medical evidence. (Tr. 18). Dr. Rau opined that plaintiff's mental condition would seriously interfere with plaintiff's ability to concentrate, interact with others, and understand and remember instructions. (Tr. 409-12). The ALJ found that this did not comport with the medical evidence, plaintiff's conservative treatment history, and his good response to treatment. (Tr. 18). Specifically, plaintiff reported he has no problem following written instruction, and plaintiff's mental status exams showed normal findings with only moderate anxiety. (Tr. 18-19, 250-60, 350-64, 405). Occasional bouts of poor judgment or obsessive behavior were treated conservatively with medication and counseling, and plaintiff was able to do simple arithmetic without difficulty. Id. The ALJ further found that Dr. Rau's opinion was inconsistent with her own examination. During plaintiff's interview with Dr. Rau, she noted he was alert, made normal movements, made good eye contact, had no specific short-term memory difficulties, had fairly-organized thought processes, and was able to follow simple instructions. (Tr. 19, 409, 12). She assigned him a Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score[1] of 52, which suggests only moderate restrictions. Id.

         The ALJ also gave the opinions from the nurse practitioners little weight because he did not find them supported by the medical evidence. (Tr. 19). The ALJ found Nurse Wanda Horn's opinion, indicating plaintiff had marked and extreme mental limitations, to be inconsistent with plaintiff's treatment records. (Tr. 19, 308-9). The ALJ found Nurse Leigh Hampton's opinion, indicating plaintiff had mostly moderate and marked limitations, to be inconsistent with plaintiff's treatment records showing only minor abnormalities on examination and conservative treatment with medication. (Tr. 19, 350-64, 405). The ALJ also noted that it did not appear that Nurse Hampton ever treated plaintiff ...

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