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Harper v. Berryhill

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

February 22, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff Robert Harper brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405 seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying his claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. Because the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, I will affirm the decision.

         I. Procedural History

         On July 26, 2012, the Social Security Administration denied Harper's January 2012 application for DIB, in which he claimed he became disabled on March 1, 2011, because of blocked arteries, back pain, high cholesterol, and possible cancer. He later amended his alleged onset date to December 19, 2011. At Harper's request, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on March 31, 2014, at which Harper testified. Vocational and medical experts later answered interrogatories put to them by the ALJ. On August 26, 2014, the ALJ denied Harper's claim for benefits, finding that Harper could perform work as it exists in significant numbers in the national economy. On October 7, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Harper's request for review of the ALJ's decision. The ALJ's decision is thus the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         In this action for judicial review, Harper claims that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, arguing specifically that the ALJ improperly found his subjective complaints not to be credible and failed to include all of his limitations in the hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert. Harper requests that the matter be reversed and remanded for further evaluation.

         For the reasons that follow, the ALJ did not err in his decision.

         II. Evidence Before the ALJ

         A. Harper's Testimony

         At the hearing on March 31, 2014, Harper testified in response to questions posed by the ALJ and counsel.

         At the time of the hearing, Harper was forty-five years of age. He lives alone in a small house with a pet. He completed the eighth grade and never obtained his GED. (Tr. 33-34.)

         Harper's Work History Report shows that Harper worked from 1992 to 1998 at A/U Max and in 2001 at Fabcon. He worked with plumbing companies from May 2003 to September 2009 and stopped working in November 2009 because he was laid off. (Tr. 141, 163.) Harper testified that he cannot currently work because of problems with his legs and hips and because of the inconsistent nature of his good and bad days. (Tr. 36.)

         Harper testified that he went to the hospital in December 2011 with suspected appendicitis but learned that he had clogged arteries. He was placed on medication, given restrictions, and was told that he needed surgery. (Tr. 34-35.)

         Harper testified that he experiences pain in his legs and hips every day. The pain worsens with hills, stairs, extensive walking, excessive sitting, and standing. He uses a heating pad for pain two or three times a week for up to an hour and a half each time. Sometimes the pain is so severe that he must sit on the couch for two days with a heating pad. He takes no pain medication. (Tr. 36-37, 39.)

         Harper testified that he experiences no symptoms of depression or anxiety and gets along with people, depending “[o]n the person.” (Tr. 40-41.)

         Harper testified that his exertional abilities change from day to day, but he can usually stand for about one hour before needing to sit. He can walk on a flat surface for about twenty minutes. He can sit for half an hour to an hour but is generally limited because of medication side effects, including bleeding and hemorrhoids. (Tr. 37-39.)

         As to his daily activities, Harper testified that he is able to go grocery shopping and drives to and from the grocery store, which is about a twenty-minute drive each way. After unloading groceries, he is on the couch for about an hour and a half. Harper does all of his household chores “for the most part, ” but not regularly. His cousin mows his lawn. He watches television during the day and occasionally visits a friend or relative. Harper testified that he leaves the house twice a week to go grocery shopping or visit with family. (Tr. 40-42.)

         B. Medical Treatment Records

         From June to September 2010, Harper received treatment in the form of physical therapy, steroid injection, and medication management for low back pain radiating down the right leg, with associated numbness in the foot. (Tr. 238-40, 336-45.) In May 2011, he visited his treating physician, Dr. George P. Stachecki for an insect bite. He had no other complaints. (Tr. 332-35.)

         On December 19, 2011, Harper was admitted to the emergency room at SSM St. Joseph Hospital West with complaints of abdominal pain and vomiting. He denied shortness of breath or chest pain. He showed no signs of depression, and his affect and judgment were normal. Physical examination showed tenderness and pain about the lumbar back, but he had full range of motion. It was noted that Harper took no prescription medication. A CT scan showed moderate atherosclerosis with extensive thrombus formation involving the abdominal aorta. Moderately large perfusion defects were noted about the spleen and right kidney, and a small cyst was noted in the dome of the liver. Harper was diagnosed with right lower quadrant abdominal pain, renal infarction, splenic infarct, and atherosclerosis of the aorta and was admitted to St. Louis University Hospital that same date. (Tr. 248-59, 264.) Testing performed at SLU Hospital showed Harper to be at low cardiac risk, preoperatively. He was started on Coumadin and discharged on December 24 with the understanding that he would return at a later date for surgery. (Tr. 265-67.)

         Harper visited Dr. Stachecki on December 30 for follow up, who noted that Harper would be undergoing surgery the following month. Harper currently felt well. Harper's blood pressure was under good control and Harper reported that he had significantly cut back on his cigarette smoking. (Tr. 328-31.)

         Harper returned to Dr. Stachecki on January 11, 2012, who noted that surgery was scheduled later in the month. Dr. Stachecki noted that Harper had cut back on his cigarette smoking, but he had poor compliance with exercise and diet. Harper complained of mild back pain but denied any other joint pain. Dr. Stachecki prescribed medication for high cholesterol and instructed Harper to continue with Coumadin. (Tr. 320-24.)

         Harper underwent an oncology consultation on January 24 for polycythemia.[2] Dr. Caron Rigden noted Harper's medical history, including a report that he began experiencing bilateral leg pain with walking in March 2011. Dr. Rigden noted Harper's diagnosis from December 2011 with recommended surgery, but Harper reported being uninsured and unable to make the required up-front payment for surgery. He also reported that Dr. Stachecki was currently looking for another surgical provider. Harper's current medications were noted to be Warfarin, Pravastatin, Pepcid, and aspirin. Harper reported being a heavy smoker in the past - up to two-and-a-half packs per day - but that he was now down to less than a pack a day. Harper reported having no musculoskeletal pain, joint swelling, or muscle aches; and he reported having no anxiety, depression, or sleep disturbances. Upon review of laboratory results and imaging studies, Dr. Rigden opined that Harper's polycythemia may be secondary to tobacco use, and she encouraged Harper to quit smoking. Dr. Rigden ordered more testing and instructed Harper to return in a few weeks for reassessment. (Tr. 383-84.)

         Harper went to the emergency room at St. Peter's Hospital on January 28 with complaints of sudden onset of hematuria. Physical examination showed tenderness about the abdomen on the right but was otherwise unremarkable. Harper had no musculoskeletal tenderness, and range of motion was normal. He was discharged that same date in good condition with instruction to follow up with Dr. Stachecki to check Coumadin levels. ...

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