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Lee v. Berryhill

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

June 19, 2017

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 Elsa Annette Lee is not disabled and, thus, not entitled to disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) or supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34, 1381-1385. 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 affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1969 and has work experience as a fast food cook and home attendant. (Tr. 26, 97, 99-100, 118). She filed her application for DIB and SSI in June 2013, alleging a total disability onset date of February 15, 2011.[2] (Tr. 97-98, 332, 337- 44). Plaintiff claimed that fibromyalgia, arthritis, migraine headaches, and degenerative disc disease in her neck limited her ability to work. (Tr. 117). Her applications were denied in September 2013, and she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 40-46, 355-56). A hearing was held on December 5, 2014, where plaintiff testified. (Tr. 357-92). By decision dated March 12, 2015, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 13-27). The ALJ determined that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform jobs available in the national economy. Id. On April 5, 2016, the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 7-12). Consequently, the ALJ's decision stands as the final, judicially reviewable decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, she asserts that the ALJ (1) failed to give proper weight to a treating physician's opinion and (2) failed to identify proper medical evidence to support the determination of plaintiff's RFC.

         A. Medical Record and Evidentiary Hearing

         The court adopts the parties' unopposed statements of facts (Docs. 16 and 21). 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 meets the insured status requirements of the Act and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. (Tr. 18). He found that plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of fibromyalgia, migraines, cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, mild bilateral wrist neuropathy, and obesity. (Tr. 18). The ALJ concluded that plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal an impairment listed in the Commissioner's regulations. (Tr. 18-20).

         The ALJ accounted for plaintiff's complaints and, in considering the medical evidence, determined that plaintiff's impairment left her with the RFC to “perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), ” with the following exceptions:

[S]he can lift and/or carry 10 pounds occasionally and 5 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk 15 minutes at a time up to 2 hours total, and sit 45 minutes at a time up to 6 hours total in an 8-hour workday. She cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds or crawl, but can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, and crouch. She can frequently reach, handle, and finger. She must avoid work environments with extreme heat or cold and hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights.

(Tr. 21).

         The ALJ found that the objective medical evidence did not support the severity of plaintiff's allegations. (Tr. 22). Although plaintiff complained she has pain, headaches, fatigue, and limited mobility, the ALJ determined that “the medical evidence of record suggests some limitations, but not enough to preclude all work within the [RFC].” (Tr. 22). He noted normal or mild medical exams and imaging. (Tr. 22-23). He also noted improvement of symptoms with treatment, and that plaintiff reported no side effects to medications at the time of the hearing. (Tr. 23-24). The ALJ also observed that plaintiff's work history and activities of daily living supported the finding that she remains capable of other work. (Tr. 24). In particular he emphasized plaintiff's hearing testimony about working through pain and headaches in 2010 and 2011, continuing to keep active with a variety of chores, and continuing to take care of her 12-year-old daughter. (Tr. 24).

         The ALJ gave partial weight to the Medical Source Statement (“MSS”) opinion of plaintiff's family practitioner, David Dale, D.O. (Tr. 25). He gave greater weight to Dr. Dale's findings that plaintiff could lift or carry 10 pounds occasionally, stand or walk 15 minutes at a time up to 2 hours, and sit 45 minutes at a time in an 8-hour day, as these findings corresponded with plaintiff's medical exams, improved symptoms with treatment, and varied activities of daily living. (Tr. 25). The ALJ gave little weight, however, to Dr. Dale's findings that plaintiff could only sit up to 2 hours in an 8-hour workday and needed to lie down or recline every 15-45 minutes, because Dr. Dale did not cite any specific exam findings in support, the limitations appeared to be based on plaintiff's subjective complaints, and the limitations were inconsistent with plaintiff's reported activities of daily living. (Tr. 25). The ALJ also gave little weight to Dr. Dale's conclusion that plaintiff was permanently unable to work, because such a statement regards disability, which is an issue reserved to the Commissioner. (Tr. 25). He found the statement was also unsupported by any objective findings. (Tr. 25).

         The ALJ gave great weight to the opinion of the state agency psychological consultant, who found that plaintiff's anxiety and affective disorder caused only mild limitations in plaintiff's activities of daily living; concentration, persistence, or pace; and social functioning. (Tr. 25). The ALJ found this to correspond with plaintiff's mental status examinations, conservative mental health treatment, and reported activities of daily living. (Tr. 25).

         Based on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that plaintiff would be unable to perform her past relevant work as either a fast food cook or a home attendant because both of these occupations required medium strength. (Tr. 26, 164-71). However, considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ relied on VE testimony to find there were jobs in significant numbers in the national economy that a ...

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