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Fears v. Berryhill

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

February 28, 2017

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



         Patricia Fears (“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 February 14, 2013, Plaintiff, then age fifty-three, filed her applications for Social Security benefits alleging that she was disabled as of December 31, 2012 as a result of “stress, anxiety, learning disability; arthritis in knees.” (Tr. 91, 190-96, 197-202). The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Plaintiff's claims, and she filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Tr. 124-28, 130-31).

         The SSA granted Plaintiff's request for review, and an ALJ conducted a hearing on March 17, 2014. (Tr. 31-70). At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that, after being homeless for about one and a half years, she obtained housing through the Missouri Department of Mental Health, Division of Developmental Disabilities. (Tr. 34). Plaintiff stated that she most recently worked about three to three and a half hours per day for a woman “down the street.” (Tr. 40-41). Plaintiff quit because the woman “was mad at the world or something - got mad at everybody. Start screaming.” (Tr. 42).

         The ALJ noted that Plaintiff's work history reflected “self-employment 2006 to 2011. Cleaning.” (Tr. 42). When he inquired about the types of places she cleaned, asking, “was it in offices, was it in restaurants?, ” she answered, “Hallways and stuff. Mainly a lot of hallways, just hallways.” (Tr. 43). According to Plaintiff, that employer let her go and hired “a guy with a license.” (Id.). Plaintiff never had a driver's license because she “tried it, but I never could pass [the test].” (Tr. 44). When Plaintiff took the driver's test, someone assisted her with the reading, “but they just kept going so fast that - I just walked out the door.” (Id.). Plaintiff also had experience cleaning tables at a restaurant, but could not work a register. (Tr. 45). Plaintiff had never worked a full-time job and required help reading. (Tr. 44, 61).

         In regard to her medications, Plaintiff testified that she took “anxiety medicine for anxiety and depression. And my asthma medicine and Seroquel, ” and “[a]spirins and stuff for my knees.” (Tr. 46). Plaintiff testified that the medication she was taking for her mental health helped and she visited a therapist at Grace Hill every three months. (Tr. 47-48).

         When the ALJ asked Plaintiff what she did on a typical day, she answered, “I sit outside on my steps.” (Tr. 50). She testified that her son took her to the grocery store and she did laundry at a friend's house down the street. (Tr. 51). Plaintiff's case worker drove her to the hearing and also assisted her with paperwork. (Tr. 52, 53). Another case manager, named Elizabeth, helped Plaintiff with “housing and stuff for my housing” and “paperwork and stuff also.” (Tr. 54).

         In regard to social interaction, Plaintiff testified that “a church lady friend….comes around, ” and Loving Care Church provided her with “coats, clothes, shoes” and “help[ed] out a little bit with food and stuff, bread, potatoes, rice.” (Tr. 55). One of Plaintiff's sons had died, but her two surviving sons visited her about once a month. (Tr. 56). Plaintiff lived alone, and she cleaned her bathroom two or three times per week. (Tr. 56, 65). When the ALJ asked Plaintiff whether she raised her children “on [her] own, ” she answered only: “I had a lot of problems raising them in poverty, you know, it was hard.” (Tr. 65).

         During the hearing, Plaintiff's counsel observed that Plaintiff had “been looking off to the side at the wall the entire time” rather than at the judge. Plaintiff explained, “I've never experienced any of this stuff before.” (Tr. 54). She later acknowledged “getting annoyed with [his] questions.” (Tr. 57).

         Plaintiff testified that she did not remember her childhood. (Id.). When Plaintiff's counsel asked the highest grade she completed, she replied, without answering the question, “Little [Humboldt] it's special school - special education.” (Tr. 57). In an effort to present evidence relating to Plaintiff's education, Plaintiff's counsel asked what age she dropped out of school, and Plaintiff answered, “I think I was 16, I had a kid.” (Tr. 58). Because Plaintiff's applications for benefits and testimony suggested that, at age sixteen, she was only in eighth or ninth grade, Plaintiff's counsel asked how many times she was “held back.” (Id.). Plaintiff asked “What do you mean held back?, ” and he clarified, “How many times did you repeat a grade?” (Id.). Plaintiff answered, “Yea, never happen[ed], I don't remember that.” (Id.).

         A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. (Tr. 59-64). The ALJ asked the VE to consider a hypothetical individual with limited education who was approaching advanced age and was limited to light work and work that was “low stress, ” meaning “with only occasional decision making or occasional changes in the work setting, ” and work that “requires no interaction with the public and occasional interaction with coworkers.” (Tr. 61-62). The VE testified that such person would be capable of performing Plaintiff's past relevant work as a cleaner, as well as the positions of hand packer, production worker, and housekeeper. (Tr. 62). However, if such individual were to miss three or more days of work per month, “the individual would soon be terminated.” (Id.). Likewise, if the individual were limited to no contact with the public or coworkers, there would be no work available. (Tr. 63). Finally, the VE testified that, if the individual, “even when limited to the simple and routine tasks[, ]… make[s] errors and require[s] supervisory intervention an additional five times per work day for the purpose of redirection, repeating instructions, how to fill out forms, et cetera, ” she would be terminated. (Tr. 63-64).

         At the close of evidence, the ALJ noted that the medical evidence was “not particularly persuasive” and inquired what counsel “would ask me to do to further develop this case.” (Tr. 64). Plaintiff's counsel requested a psychological evaluation with IQ testing, and the ALJ responded, “Frankly, counsel, I consider the IQ testing a waste of time.” (Tr. 64-65). The ALJ explained:

Again I not only have to have low IQ, I have to have deficits in adaptive functioning, she's practically 55 years of age. She's worked off and on, she's - you now, I just don't have any reason to believe she's mentally retarded. I mean, there's just no evidence of it. I don't have any doubt she's mentally disabled I know without doubt maybe she's a low IQ, but I don't have ...

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