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Hossenlopp v. Berryhill

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

February 24, 2017

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



         Angela Hossenlopp ("Plaintiff') seeks review of the decision of the Social Security Commissioner, Nancy Berryhill, denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Social Security Income under the Social Security Act.[2] The Court has reviewed the parties' briefs and the administrative record, including the hearing transcript and medical evidence. For the reasons set forth below, the case is reversed and remanded.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         On July 18, 2013, Plaintiff filed her applications for Social Security benefits alleging that she was disabled as of April 4, 2009 as a result of: "brain tumor, lymphoma, nodule in lung, heart issues, blackouts, bipolar, mediastinal." (Tr. 171-74, 175, 177-82, 207). At the time of Plaintiffs alleged onset date, she was thirty-two years of age. (Tr. 84). The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Plaintiffs claims, and she filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Tr. 110-14, 115-19).

         The SSA granted Plaintiffs request for review, and an ALJ conducted a hearing on September 3, 2014. (Tr. 35-83, 120-27). Plaintiff and her friend Johnah Roberts testified at the hearing. (Tr. 35-83). Ms. Roberts had met Plaintiff approximately four years earlier when Ms. Roberts' friend "took [Plaintiff] in." (Tr. 70). A vocational expert also testified. (Tr. 73-83).

         Plaintiff testified that she worked for about one year sitting with hospice patients, but her employer fired her the previous week. (Tr. 43-45). Plaintiff explained: "I was undependable and I kept getting into it with my clients. I have anger outbursts." (Tr. 45). She submitted to the ALJ a letter from her former employer that stated Plaintiff was late "almost half the time[.]"[4](Tr. 45). When the ALJ asked why Plaintiff was frequently late to work, Ms. Roberts answered, "The smallest things ... aggravates [sic] her. She will - when her ADHD gets her confused and she can't get the medications that she need because she doesn't have Medicaid or anything . . . ." (Tr. 46). Plaintiff explained that, when she has access to medication, "they help, but they don't help 100 percent." (Id.).

         Plaintiff testified that she was seeking Social Security benefits because "[e]very job that I've tried to get, I try and then I get fired or I lose my temper or - [Dr. Boyd] doesn't even want me driving because somebody will cut me off and my instinct in my head says, 'Get out and say something to them, ' so I do and then they get mouthy and then I'll hit the windshield or just -she just said I put myself in danger, but I don't try to. It just happens." (Tr. 52). Plaintiff stated that she did not have a therapist but "whenever I was homeless and I stayed at Salvation Army they gave me a counselor that I could talk to for free."[5] (Tr. 52).

         When the ALJ asked Plaintiff about her chest pains and "nodule, " she explained, . "I haven't gone back [to the doctor] because I haven't - my Medicaid stopped . . . ." (Tr. 56). Plaintiff stated she continued to smoke about a half-pack of cigarettes per day. ('Id.'). Plaintiff testified that she suffered daily headaches, for which she took Naproxen and ibuprofen. (Tr. 60).

         Plaintiff testified that she was 5'8" and weighed 243 pounds. (Id.). Although she was not actively trying to lose weight, she was surprised that her weight was not decreasing because a side effect of her medication was loss of appetite and she only ate "one time a day[.]" (Id.). When the ALJ questioned Plaintiff about her sleep hygiene, she answered, "[W]hen it's time to go to sleep, I can't sleep. I have nightmares of, like, the past when I was younger and being abused and locked in a basement and then I just be up worrying about that and thinking about that and then I'll fall back asleep and have more nightmares and then I just end up staying up and then I'm tired the next day." (Tr. 61).

         Ms. Roberts stated that Plaintiff could lift "[p]robably about 30 to 35 pounds." (Tr. 61). Plaintiff testified that she was able to mow the "small" front yard, but her brother mowed the backyard, because it was larger. (Tr. 62). Plaintiff did not think she could return to school because "with the anger and just, like, the little things that irk me, I don't really think I could sit in the classroom.. .and having to deal with the.. .deficit disorder, the authority problem, I just -1 don't really think I can do it." (Tr. 64).

         In regard to her education, Plaintiff testified "I went to a special school district. I have a learning disability so I kept getting kicked out of school for my behaviors and - my behavior and my mouth, so then they put me in -1 got suspended for 180 days . . . but they let me go to some alternative school in Brentwood, Missouri .... and that's how I graduated[.]" Plaintiff stated she also had difficulties with "flashbacks" and "I just like, kind of like, shut down and, like, do my own things." (Tr. 66). Plaintiff spent time in jail because she stole from a woman whose house she used to clean. (Tr. 64).

         In a decision dated February 3, 2015, the ALJ applied the five-step evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a)[6] and found that Plaintiff "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from April 4, 2009, through the date of this decision[.]" (Tr. 18-28). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of "chest pain possibly related to asthma, feet arthritis [sic], obesity, headaches, and mental impairments sometimes characterized as mood disorder, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ('ADHD'), or personality disorder[.]" (Tr. 21). Additionally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following non-severe impairments: sleep apnea, hypertension, hypothyroidism, and degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 21). In regard to other claimed conditions, the ALJ found that Plaintiffs "brain tumor is not a medically determinable impairment" and, while the record shows Plaintiff received treatment for lymphadenopathy, "a February 2011 scan showed a decrease in the size and number of lymph nodes." (Tr. 21).

         After reviewing Plaintiffs medical records and Plaintiffs and Ms. Roberts'[7] testimony, the ALJ determined that Plaintiffs "statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible[.]" (Tr. 26). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to

perform medium work . . . where the claimant lifts or carries 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, stands or walks for six of eight hours during the workday, and sits for six of eight hours during the Workday. The claimant's work is limited to simple, unskilled (SVP 1 or 2) work, with no public contact work, and no more than occasional and superficial contact with supervisors and co-employees.

(Tr. 23). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not perform past relevant work, but that Plaintiff could perform other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy and was, therefore, not disabled. (Tr. 27-28).

         Plaintiff filed a. request for review of the ALJ's decision with the, .SSA Appeals Council, which denied review on June 19, 2015. (Tr. 1-6, 8). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the SSA's final decision. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         II. Standard of Review

         A court must affirm an ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "Substantial evidence 'is less than a preponderance, but enough so that a reasonable mind might find it adequate to support the conclusion.'" Cruze v. Chater, 85 F.3d 1320, 1323 (8th Cir. 1996) (quoting Boerst v. Shalala, 2 F.3d 249, 250 (8th Cir. 1993)). In determining whether the evidence is substantial, a court considers evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009). However, a court "do[es] not reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ and [it] defer[s] to the ALJ's determinations regarding the credibility of testimony, as long as those determinations are supported by good reason and substantial evidence." Renstrue v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting Gonzales v. Barnhart. 465 F.3d 890, 894 (8th Cir. 2006)).

         "If, after reviewing the record, the court finds it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the ALJ's findings, the court must affirm the ALJ's decision." Partee v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2011) (quoting Goff v. Barnhart. 421 F.3d 785, 789 (8th Cir. 2005)). The Eighth Circuit has repeatedly held that a court should "defer heavily to the findings and conclusions" of the Social Security Administration. Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010); Howard v. Massanari. 255 F.3d577, 581 (8th Cir. 2001).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff claims that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's determination of her RFC because the ALJ failed to properly consider: (1) the severe impairments of obesity and headaches;[8] and (2) the medical opinion evidence concerning Plaintiffs mental limitations. The Commissioner counters that, in formulating the RFC, the ALJ properly considered Plaintiffs severe impairments, credibility, and medical opinion evidence.

         A. Obesity

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred because, despite finding that her obesity was a severe impairment, the ALJ did not factor the resulting limitations into the RFC. In response, the Commissioner asserts that the ALJ properly considered Plaintiffs obesity and its ...

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