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Hall v. Berryhill

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

March 6, 2017

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



         This cause is on appeal from an adverse ruling of the Social Security Administration. The suit involves Applications for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, and Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Act. The matter is fully briefed, and for the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

         I. Procedural History

         On October 10, 2012, Plaintiff Christina Louise Hall ("Plaintiff") filed Applications for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq., and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et. seq. (Tr. 157-69)[3] Plaintiff claimed that her disability began on September 1, 2102, as a result of bulging discs, diabetes, neuropathy, and depression. On initial consideration, the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's claims for benefits. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which was held on April 15, 2014. Plaintiff testified and was represented by counsel. Vocational expert Delores Gonzalez and Angela Kyper, Plaintiff's best friend, also testified at the hearing. (Tr. 20-60, 142-44) Thereafter, on June 11, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claims for benefits. (Tr. 7-16) The Appeals Council found no basis for changing the ALJ's decision and denied Plaintiff's request for review on September 24, 2015. (Tr. 1-5)

         Plaintiff filed the instant action on November 25, 2015. Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies and the matter is properly before this Court. Plaintiff has been represented by counsel throughout all relevant proceedings.

         In her brief to this Court, Plaintiff raises one issue - the ALJ committed reversible error when the ALJ posed an allegedly improperly formulated hypothetical question to the vocational expert. The Commissioner filed a detailed brief in opposition contending that the ALJ's decision is based upon substantial evidence.

         As explained below, the Court has considered the entire record in this matter. Because the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence, it will be affirmed. The undersigned will first summarize the decision of the ALJ and the administrative record. Next, the undersigned will address the issue Plaintiff raises in this Court.

         II. Decision of the ALJ

         On June 11, 2014, the ALJ issued an adverse decision denying Plaintiff's request for DIB and SSI benefits. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on September 1, 2012, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 12) The ALJ acknowledged that the administrative framework required him to follow a five-step, sequential process in evaluating Plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 11-12) At step one, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since September 1, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 12) At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments during the relevant time period: degenerative disc disease, a history of right rotator cuff tear and repair, diabetic neuropathy, a major depressive disorder, and a post-traumatic stress disorder. (Tr. 12)

         After summarizing Plaintiff's medical records, the ALJ concluded that she did not have an impairment or combination thereof that met or medically equaled an impairment of listing-level severity.[4] (Tr. 12-13)

         In making his Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") determination, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the capacity to perform sedentary work to the extent the following nonexertional capabilities and limitations are included:

a sit/stand option every thirty minutes and has been unable to: operate foot controls; reach overhead; crouch, kneel, crawl or climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; stoop or climb stairs or ramps more than occasionally; feel more than occasionally; have concentrated exposure to heat or cold; or have any exposure to hazardous heights, hazardous machinery or extreme vibration. The work must also permit elevation of the feet to a height of one foot, and the tasks had to be simple in nature and performed in a low-stress environment (“low stress” being defined as requiring no more than occasional workplace changes, involving no interaction with the public, and involving only casual contact with co-workers).

(Tr. 13)

         When assessing Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ made an adverse credibility finding. In particular, the ALJ found Plaintiff's “activities of daily living ... indicate a good ability to stand, walk, sit, handle objects, concentrate, finish tasks and otherwise function.” (Tr. 15) The ALJ noted that Plaintiff had a wide range of daily activities including independent living, tending to her personal needs, performing household chores, preparing meals, caring for an elderly woman, caring for pets, helping her grandmother, driving, traveling by walking, shopping, attending church, and making jewelry and flower arrangements. (Tr. 12-13, 15) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff exaggerated her symptoms and complaints. For instance, there was no support in the record for her testimony that a doctor recommend her “to elevate her legs above heart level two to three times a day for thirty-minutes at a time.” (Tr. 15) Instead, the medical records noted edema was not a symptom. The ALJ found the record did not support Plaintiff's need to use a motorized scooter when shopping, and this testimony was inconsistent with a function report wherein Plaintiff admitted having the ability to travel by walking. (Tr. 13, 15, 194, 197) The ALJ also noted that although Plaintiff testified that she experiences pain daily, she admitted that analgesics reduced the level to a three on a scale of one to ten.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. Based on testimony from the vocational expert, the ALJ further concluded that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there was work existing in significant numbers in the national economy she could perform, including an addresser. (Tr. 15-16)

         III. Evidence Before the ALJ

         The administrative record in this matter includes voluminous medical records. Although the Court has carefully considered all of the evidence in the administrative record in determining whether the Commissioner's adverse decision is supported by substantial evidence, only the records most relevant to the ALJ's decision and the issue raised by Plaintiff on this appeal are specifically discussed. The following is a summary of pertinent portions of the record.

         A. The Hearing Before the ALJ

         The ALJ conducted a hearing on April 15, 2014. Plaintiff was present and represented by an attorney. Also present was a Vocational Expert Delores Gonzalez (“VE”) and Angela Kyper.

         1.Plaintiff's ...

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