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Allen v. Berryhill

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

May 15, 2017

DOUGLAS R. ALLEN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.



         This action is before this court for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that plaintiff Douglas R. Allen is not disabled and, thus, not entitled to disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. The parties have consented to the exercise of plenary authority by the undersigned United States Magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 636(c). For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is reversed and remanded.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in June 1951 and worked professionally as an airplane pilot. (Tr. 123, 127, 150-61). Plaintiff's insured status under Title II of the Act expired on March 31, 2017. (Tr. 9, 113). He filed his application for DIB in December 2012, alleging a total disability onset date of April 27, 2012.[2] (Tr. 45, 51, 123-24). Plaintiff claims that his irritable bowel syndrome (“IBS”) limits his ability to work. (Tr. 47, 126, 135, 140, 216). His application was denied on February 28, 2013, and he requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 9, 54-58, 61). A hearing was held in September 2014, where plaintiff testified. (Tr. 21-44). By decision dated December 19, 2014, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 6-16). The ALJ determined that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform jobs available in the national economy. Id. On January 14, 2016, the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 1-5). Consequently, the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, he asserts that the ALJ erred in finding that plaintiff's bathroom breaks can be scheduled, failed to articulate the weight given to the opinion of plaintiff's treating specialist and the testimony of plaintiff's wife, produced an improperly vague RFC finding, and relied on unreliable VE testimony. Plaintiff asks that judgment be entered in his favor.

         A. Medical Record and Evidentiary Hearing

         The court adopts plaintiff's unopposed statement of facts (ECF No. 15), as well as defendant's unopposed statement of facts. (ECF No. 20). These facts, taken together, present a fair and accurate summary of the medical record and testimony at the evidentiary hearing. The court will discuss specific facts as they are relevant to the parties' arguments.

         B. ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from the severe impairment of gastroesophageal reflux disease (“GERD”) and that he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. (Tr. 11). The ALJ concluded that plaintiff's GERD did not meet or equal an impairment listed in the Commissioner's regulations. (Tr. 14-15).

         The ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairment left him with the RFC to “perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, ” though “he must have access to restroom facilities during all regularly scheduled breaks.” (Tr. 12). The ALJ considered plaintiff to be

generally credible in his allegations as the medical record shows complaints to his medical providers that are consistent with his allegations. Additionally, the [plaintiff] has a strong work history and at the hearing expressed a sincere regret that he was unable to fly due to his issues. This suggests a positive desire to work and bolsters the [plaintiff's] credibility.

(Tr. 13) (bolding added). Nevertheless, the ALJ also found that the objective medical evidence did not support the severity of his allegations. Although plaintiff complained he “has frequent bowel urgency, makes efforts to know the location of and be near a restroom, and has been unable to make it to a restroom before defecating, ” the ALJ reasoned that “there is no objective medical evidence to support these allegations and [his] medical providers have not indicated his condition prevents him from working.” (Tr. 13).

         The ALJ noted that plaintiff passed his most recent pilot physical in June 2014, has had normal colonoscopies, and has had negative results for other related tests. (Tr. 13-14). The ALJ also noted that his activities of daily living are those associated with an able individual: “caring for pets, tending to personal needs, preparing meals, driving, shopping in stores, using a computer, attending church weekly, and biking 10 to 15 miles several times a week.” (Tr. 14). The ALJ did not discuss the weight given to any of the medical sources.

         Because plaintiff's previous work as a pilot would not give him ready access to a restroom during breaks, the ALJ concluded plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work. (Tr. 14).[3] However, considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) to find there were jobs in significant numbers in the national economy ...

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