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Smith v. Berryhill

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

March 22, 2017

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



         This is an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of Defendant's final decision denying Plaintiffs applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act. For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. Procedural History

         On March 9, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging disability beginning March 15, 2010 due to bipolar and tendonitis in hands and arms. (Tr. 184, 281-289) The application was denied, and Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALT"). (Tr. 152, 184-88, 192) On September 13, 2012, Plaintiff testified before an ALJ. (Tr. 53-102) On October 11, 2012, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability from March 15, 2010, through the date of the decision. (Tr. 157-71) Plaintiff then filed a request for review, and on November 13, 2013, the Appeals Council granted Plaintiffs request for review and remanded the case to the ALJ for additional proceedings. (Tr. 177-78) On February 10, 2014, the ALJ held a supplemental hearing, and on April 17, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 29-47, 103-45) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review on September 22, 2015. (Tr. 1-4) Thus, the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         II. Evidence Before the ALJ

         At the second hearing before the ALJ, held on February 10, 2014, Plaintiff was represented by counsel. She testified that she had a GED plus additional vocational training in home health, office machines, collections, and administrative. While unemployed, Plaintiff looked for jobs in the areas of customer service, collections, and fast food preparation. Plaintiff previously worked for Clean Uniform, but she was let go because there were no light duty jobs available. Plaintiff testified that the machines broke her down and caused issues in her arms and shoulder and her whole body. Plaintiff denied ever being self-employed. She had gone through rehab for drugs in 1991 and 1993. (Tr. 105-111)

         Upon questioning from Plaintiffs attorney, Plaintiff stated she currently worked at McDonald's as a fast food worker. She worked five hours a day, five days a week, cleaning and taking orders. Plaintiff experienced some problems at work, including fighting with one of the workers. She had to switch restaurants as a result. Plaintiff had worked at the current location for 4 Vi months. Plaintiff took a cab to work. She returned to work in order to pay for psychiatric treatment and medication. When Plaintiff was at home alone, she heard voices and saw shadows. The voices told her to hurt herself. Plaintiff saw Dr. Partap[2] for mental health treatment. She had been seeing Dr. Partap for two years. Plaintiff stated that she took her medication consistently but acknowledged she did not take medications for a year due to lack of funds. When Plaintiff took her medication regularly, she still had some symptoms, but the medicines suppressed her thoughts. While she saw improvement, she would become aggravated with people and go from zero to 100. She continued to have problems sleeping and recently began taking a new sleep prescription. Plaintiff testified that her energy level was normal during the day, but sometimes the medication made her sleepy. (Tr. 111-17)

         Plaintiff stated that she experienced neck and back pain from either a herniated or bulging disc. Plaintiff testified that if she sat too long, she would feel pain from her neck down into her back on the right side. Her current job required Plaintiff to stand for five hours without a break. She stated, however, that she had to force herself to stand longer than three hours. Plaintiff also had spasms in her right and left shoulder, and the pain went into her back. In addition, Plaintiff experienced pain when using her arms and hands. She previously saw Dr. Padda for pain management. Plaintiffs current primary care physician ("PCP") was Dr. Ghani, and her prior PCP was Dr. Buck. Plaintiffs attorney indicated that Plaintiff would submit updated medical records. With regard to her hands and arms, Plaintiff testified that she had neuropathy which affected the bottom of her feet and her hands. The top of her hands hurt, and she had difficulty grasping and holding things. Plaintiff was unable to lift and carry anything heavy. She testified that she could lift 10 to 15 pounds. Plaintiff also had arthritis in her knees. She previously received injections. If Plaintiff stood too long, her knees would swell. Plaintiff was able to do some housework such as fixing the bed and washing a few dishes. Her husband did the vacuuming, mopping, grocery shopping, and cooking. Plaintiff stated that she was unable to squeeze a mop or lift grocery bags. She went to church but did not visit with friends or family. (Tr. 117-25)

         While at home, Plaintiff talked with her husband when she was not sleeping or eating. Plaintiff worked from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. When she returned home, she went back to bed until 4:30 p.m. Plaintiff stated that she was tired, and the medicine made her sleepy. On the weekends she spent time with her husband. Plaintiff testified that she was able to get along with people at the new work location. However, she has experienced some conflicts with current employees. Plaintiff stated that she had medical insurance through her husband's work. He had been employed for over 20 years. Plaintiff was able to see a counselor through her husband's insurance. (Tr. 125-29)

         A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. Plaintiff answered questions about her past job duties. The ALJ then asked the VE to assume an individual functionally limited to light exertional work. Due to alleged mental impairments, she was limited to unskilled work that did not include more than infrequent handling of customer complaints. In addition, the person should avoid ropes, ladders, scaffolding, and hazardous heights. She could frequently do push and pull with her upper extremities. With these limitations, the individual could not perform any of Plaintiff s past relevant work. However, she could work as a marker, assembler of small products, and motel cleaner. (Tr. 129-41)

         Plaintiffs attorney also questioned the VE and limited the individual to only occasionally use her right upper extremity. Further, she could not deal with the public, and interaction with co-workers would be seldom. She could not handle close supervision, and the work would need to be low stress with no aggressive production pace. The person was limited to no changes in the work routine; no more than simple, routine changes; and no decision making. In light of these limitations, the VE testified that the person could still work as a marker and small products assembler. If the individual were limited to only occasional stooping and bending, and no kneeling or crawling, the marker and assembler jobs remained. Finally, if the person had to change positions and required a sit/stand option, the individual could perform the marker and assembler positions. (Tr. 141-44)

         In a Function Report - Adult, Plaintiff described her daily activities as not doing much because of her aching arms and numb fingers. She would wake up; brush her teeth; bathe; make coffee; sometimes cook breakfast; and look for jobs on the internet. She took her pain medication and napped for about 2 to 3 hours. Plaintiff would try to tidy up, and then cook something to eat. She had good days and some bad days when she did not want to be a bother. Plaintiff was able prepare meals twice a week; do a little laundry and ironing; clean; and mop. She could shop for necessities such as toiletries and a little food. She enjoyed reading and watching TV. Plaintiff had problems getting along with others. She reported that her conditions affected her ability to lift, squat, bend, stand, reach, walk, sit, kneel, stair climb, see, remember, concentrate, understand, follow instructions, use hands, and get along with others. (Tr. 377-84)

         Plaintiffs husband also completed a Function Report-Adult - Third Party. He stated that Plaintiff could cook simple meals and dust the house. She tried to help with housework but was in severe pain most days. Plaintiff became angry very easily, and she had trouble with many functional abilities due to back and shoulder pain, knee pain, and swelling of hands and feet. (Tr. 391-98)

         III. Medical Evidence

         Although Plaintiff testified to physical impairments including back and shoulder pain, knee pain, and pain and swelling in her hands and feet, Plaintiff only disputes the ALJ's findings with respect to her psychological impairments. Therefore, the Court will set forth the medical evidence regarding her mental health treatment.

         Plaintiff began treatment with Mohinder Partap, M.D., at Psych Care Consultants on April 29, 2011. Her diagnosis was schizophrenia, paranoid type. (Tr. 505-07) On June 3, 2011, Plaintiff reported some relief in hallucinations and paranoia with medication. Plaintiffs husband noted improvement in Plaintiffs attitude, and Dr. Partap was pleased with her improvement. However, on July 5, 2011, Plaintiff denied improvement. Plaintiffs auditory and visual hallucinations were down by 15% on August 2, 2011, but Plaintiff reported being irritable. Dr. Partap noted Plaintiff was coherent and rational, and her medication dosages were increased. Her hallucinations were subsiding on September 6, 2011, but Plaintiff stopped taking her medications due to drowsiness. In November 2011, Plaintiff reported improved hallucinations, but she heard footsteps and saw dark shadows in her house. She was depressed and tearful. On December 27, 2011, Plaintiff stated that she heard voices telling her to cut her wrist, and she had visual hallucinations of dark shadows. Plaintiff declined hospitalization or IOP. (Tr. 580-81)

         Plaintiff reported that she could not afford the medications during an appointment with Dr. Partap on January 5, 2012. Dr. Partap provided medication samples. On February 15, 2012, Plaintiffs sister reported that she did not see any improvement. Dr. Partap noted that Plaintiffs appearance, attitude, and affect were good. On March 15, 2012, Plaintiff reported visual and auditory hallucinations. She had delusions of someone behind her and tactile hallucinations of being touched on the shoulder. On April 17, 2012, Dr. Partap noted that Plaintiff had been taking her medications only 50% of the time until recently. Plaintiff was improved, with hallucinations down by 25%. Her appearance, attitude, and affect were good. Dr. Partap noted Plaintiff was lively. (Tr. 578-79)

         On April 24, 2012, Dr. Partap completed an Assessment for Social Security Disability Claim. Dr. Partap described Plaintiffs psychiatric history as "[a]uditory hallucinations consisting of her name, voices telling her to hurt people and visual hallucinations of Jesus, demons and dead relatives for last 12 years. Stabbed old lady friend in 1996 and beat a coworker in 2009. Paranoid around people." (Tr. 576) Dr. Partap noted that Plaintiff reported that treatment relieved 25% of hallucinations and delusions. ...

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