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Scott v. Berryhill

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

June 20, 2017

RALPH E. SCOTT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          PATRICIA L. COHEN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Ralph Scott seeks review of the decision of the Social Security Commissioner, Nancy Berryhill, denying his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under the Social Security Act.[2] Because the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the decision to deny benefits, the Court affirms the denial of Plaintiff's applications.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         On July 3, 2012 and July 10, 2012, Plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income alleging he was disabled as of October 15, 2011[3] as a result of severe back problems, five ruptured discs, and nerve pain. (Tr. 142-49, 74). The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Plaintiff's claims, and he filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Tr. 65-73, 95).

         The SSA granted Plaintiff's request for review, and an ALJ conducted a hearing on May 5, 2014. (Tr. 33-64). At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that he was thirty-two years of age, had a ninth grade education, and earned his GED at age seventeen. (Tr. 39). Plaintiff lived with his wife and four children, ages six, seven, ten, and eleven. (Tr. 48).

         Plaintiff testified that he originally injured his neck working at a sawmill.[4] (Tr. 42). Several years later, he received “outpatient epidural shots.” (Id.). Although Plaintiff denied having any surgeries, Plaintiff's counsel directed the ALJ's attention to a medical record reflecting that Plaintiff underwent a percutaneous discectomy on April 14, 2010. (Tr. 52-53).

         Plaintiff testified that his most recent employment was as a cook and delivery driver at a pizza restaurant for about three months. (Id.). Plaintiff stated that he could not perform his job because “I couldn't stand on my feet to do the cooking job.” (Tr. 39). He explained that the pain was “severe” and “[i]t would go down my right leg, and I'd have cramps in my left shoulder that would prevent me from leaning into the oven.” (Tr. 40). On days that the pain was “more severe, unbearable, ” he would stay home and “relax.” (Id.). Plaintiff stated that lying down “would relieve the pressure…in my neck. But then I would start getting cramped up in my legs. So I would have to get up and move around.” (Id.). Approximately every half hour, Plaintiff would “lay down for about 30, 45 minutes at a time. . . . [t]hroughout the day, all day.” (Tr. 41). Plaintiff testified that, by the time of the hearing, this was a daily pattern. (Id.).

         Plaintiff explained that the pain in his neck was “pretty much a constant cramp, where . . . the movements are real limited” and the pain “goes down to my left arm . . . into the thumb and the pinky finger.” (Tr. 42). Plaintiff had difficulty gripping with his left hand and could only “do stuff with that arm” for thirty to forty-five minutes before needing to rest for forty-five minutes to an hour. (Tr. 42-43). Plaintiff could not straighten his left arm “all the way out” because there was “a pinched nerve that shoots pain down through my neck.” (Tr. 43).

         When the ALJ questioned Plaintiff about his back pain, Plaintiff stated that he had “a couple of ruptured discs and pinched nerves in the lower lumbar and the cervical spine” and the pain “radiates down the center of my back, down to my right hip, and down to the right leg.” (Tr. 44). Plaintiff's right leg was “pretty much always cramped up” and “if it gets too cramped or sore, it'll start going numb.” (Id.). Plaintiff took hydrocodone four times per day, which made him “lightheaded” and prevented him from driving “too much.” (Tr. 44-45). Plaintiff also took Flexeril and gabapentin. (Tr. 45). Despite the Flexeril, Plaintiff continued to experience muscle spasms in his right leg which lasted “from a minute or two to 30, 40 minutes” and occurred every night. (Tr. 45). Plaintiff's primary care physician, Dr. Maynard, prescribed his pain medications. (Tr. 48). He did not have an orthopedist. (Id.).

         Plaintiff testified that he was able to lift about ten pounds and could only walk twenty to thirty minutes and stand or sit for thirty to forty-five minutes. (Tr. 45-46). Plaintiff stated that he typically alternated between sitting in his recliner, lying on the couch, and walking around, explaining, “[m]oving around is just to get one pain to stop until another one starts to aggravate.” (Tr. 47). Plaintiff drove his car “[m]aybe once a week to pick the kids up from school.” (Tr. 49). Plaintiff tried to help his wife with household chores that did not require “too much bending over, ” such as folding laundry and rinsing dishes. (Tr. 50-51). On nights when Plaintiff's wife worked, “she'll have something already cooked and in the oven. And I just - I'll go turn the oven on to reheat it.” (Tr. 51). Plaintiff did not shop for groceries or do yard work. (Id.). He “used to have a little woodworking shop, but I can't get in there anymore.” (Id.).

         A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. (Tr. 56-63). The ALJ asked the vocational expert to consider a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff's work history who was limited to light work, except the individual can only stand and walk two hours of an eight-hour workday, would also need to be able to alternate positions every 45 minutes for a brief position change while continuing to work, would need to have no overhead reaching. . . no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and only occasional stooping and crouching; and no more than moderate exposure to work hazards such as moving machinery and unprotected heights. And no more than occasional gripping and fingering of the left non-dominant hand. (Tr. 59). The vocational expert stated that such an individual could not perform Plaintiff's past relevant work and “would be limited to sedentary, unskilled occupations.” (Tr. 60). The vocational expert opined that “there's only a handful of occupations that fall within that criteria, ” including surveillance system monitor and credit checker. (Tr. 60). When the ALJ expanded the hypothetical to allow “no more than frequent gripping and fingering with the nondominant hand, ” the vocational expert testified that the hypothetical individual could perform the additional jobs of document preparer, eyeglass polisher, and patcher. (Tr. 60-61). However, if the individual required a fifteen-minute break “every day on a consistent basis, ” he would be precluded from all unskilled, competitive employment. (Tr. 61).

         In a decision dated August 6, 2014, the ALJ applied the five-step evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920[5] and found that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from October 15, 2011 through the date of this decision[.]” (Tr. 21-28). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “history of displaced L4-5 dis[c] without myelopathy requiring decompression with residual lumbar radiculopathy; history of dis[c] protrusion C6-7[.]” (Tr. 23).

         After reviewing Plaintiff's testimony and medical records and finding that he was “not entirely credible, ” the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

perform light work (lift or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently) . . . except: He can only stand and walk two hours of an 8 hour work day and would need to be able to alternate positions every 45 minutes for a brief position change while continuing to work at the work station. He can perform no overhead reaching and no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can occasionally stoop and crouch. He can have no more than moderate exposure to work hazards such as moving machinery and unprotected heights. He can perform no more than frequent gripping of the left non-dominant hand.

(Tr. 24). Finally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work but could perform other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 26-27).

         Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the SSA Appeals Council, which denied review on December 7, 2015. (Tr. 1-5). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the SSA's final decision. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         II. Standard of Review

         A court must affirm an ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence ‘is less than a preponderance, but enough so that a reasonable mind might find it adequate to support the conclusion.'” Cruze v. Chater, 85 F.3d 1320, 1323 (8th Cir. 1996) (quoting Boerst v. Shalala, 2 F.3d 249, 250 (8th Cir. 1993)). In determining whether the evidence is substantial, a court considers evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009). However, a court “do[es] not reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ and [it] defer[s] to the ALJ's determinations regarding the credibility of testimony, as long as those determinations are supported by good reason and substantial evidence.” Renstrue v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting Gonzales v. Barnhart, 465 F.3d 890, 894 (8th Cir. 2006)).

         “If, after reviewing the record, the court finds it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the ALJ's findings, the court must affirm the ALJ's decision.” Partee v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2011) (quoting Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 789 (8th Cir. 2005)). The Eighth Circuit has repeatedly held that a court should “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions” of the Social Security Administration. Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010); Howard v. Massanari, 255 F.3d 577, 581 (8th Cir. 2001).

         III. ...


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