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George v. Berryhill

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

July 18, 2017

JOHN W. GEORGE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CATHERINE D. PERRY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff John W. George brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405 seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying his claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. Because the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, I will affirm the decision.

         Procedural History

         On September 10, 2013, the Social Security Administration denied George's July 2013 application for DIB, in which he claimed he became disabled on January 1, 2012, because of rheumatoid arthritis and vision problems. At George's request, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on April 20, 2015, at which George and a vocational expert testified. On May 28, 2015, the ALJ denied George's claim for benefits, concluding that the vocational expert's opinion supported a finding that George could perform work as it exists in significant numbers in the national economy. On May 16, 2016, after considering additional evidence, the Appeals Council denied George's request for review of the ALJ's decision. The ALJ's decision is thus the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         In this action for judicial review, George first requests that the matter be remanded so that the ALJ may consider in the first instance the additional evidence that he submitted to and was considered by the Appeals Council. George claims that the ALJ's consideration of this evidence would result in a finding of disability. George also claims that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, arguing that the ALJ's failure to specifically identify his functional restrictions resulted in a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment that was too vague to provide a basis to find that he could perform work. George requests that the matter be reversed and remanded for further evaluation. For the reasons that follow, the ALJ did not err in her determination.

         Evidence Before the ALJ

         A. George's Testimony

         At the hearing on April 20, 2015, George testified in response to questions posed by the ALJ and counsel.

         At the time of the hearing, George was fifty-three years old. He is a high school graduate and lives alone. (Tr. 29, 36.)

         George worked for eighteen years as a groundskeeper and general maintenance man at Strathalbyn Farms. (Tr. 30-31.) He then worked at BDM Household for five years as a groundskeeper and maintenance man. This job ended in November 2010 when his employer laid off all of its employees. George filed for unemployment benefits at that time and has not worked since. (Tr. 29, 31-32.) George received unemployment benefits during the first quarter of 2012 but none thereafter. (Tr. 126.)

         George was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2009 and currently takes eight tablets of Methotrexate each week for the condition. He sees his primary care physician and a rheumatologist for treatment. (Tr. 33-35.) George testified that he generally experiences pain in his wrists with the condition and occasionally drops things. He was instructed by his rheumatologist to wear wrist splints, but he wraps his wrists in ace bandages instead because he likes to do woodworking and sanding. George experiences pain with this activity, however, and must take a break after twenty or thirty minutes. George also testified that he experiences double vision when his arthritis flares up. (Tr. 35-36, 40.)

         George testified that during minor flare ups of his condition, he experiences pain and exhaustion - primarily exhaustion. His hands also get warm and “turn in.” The minor flare ups are unpredictable in frequency but can last up to two days. George usually sits or lies down during these episodes. With major flare ups, George testified that he can barely move. He can do nothing around the house and is unable to even turn a doorknob. He takes prednisone during these episodes. George testified that he experiences a major flare up every other month, and that they are severe enough that he has to go to the hospital. (Tr. 37-40.)

         As to his daily activities, George testified that he wakes in the morning and does household chores such as laundry or the dishes. He then goes to his mother's house to let her dog outside. George does his own grocery shopping. His hobbies include model trains and woodworking. He builds boxes and tables. He uses a table saw for his woodworking, but testified that it is very difficult for him now. (Tr. 36-37.) He wears shoes with Velcro to accommodate his hand pain. He no longer uses his cast iron skillet because it is too heavy to pick up. (Tr. 40-41.)

         B. Vocational Expert Testimony

         Dale Thomas, a vocational expert, testified at the hearing in response to questions posed by the ALJ.

         The ALJ asked Mr. Thomas to assume an individual of George's age, education, and work experience who was limited to work at the “light exertional level” and who could “occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, and crouch. He should never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, or crawl. He would be limited to frequent handling and fingering with his bilateral upper extremities, and he can have only occasional exposure to extremes of cold.” (Tr. 42.) Mr. Thomas testified that such a person could not perform any of George's past work but could perform unskilled light work as a bench assembler, housecleaner, and courier. The ALJ then asked Mr. Thomas to assume the same individual but that he was limited to occasional handling and fingering. Mr. Thomas testified that such a person could perform light unskilled work as a counter clerk. The ALJ then asked Mr. Thomas to assume the individual would need two breaks each day in addition to normal breaks for unskilled work. Mr. Thomas testified that no jobs in the unskilled labor force would be available. (Tr. 43-44.)

         C. Medical Evidence

         George underwent testing in June 2009 in response to complaints of joint pain and swelling. All test results were essentially normal except for a high rheumatoid factor. George was referred to Dr. Sona Kamat, a rheumatologist, for appropriate medication. (Tr. 218-22.)

         George visited Dr. Kamat on January 10, 2011, and complained of occasional achy, dull pain in both hands. It was noted that George took Methotrexate for rheumatoid arthritis and that he obtained benefit from it. Dr. Kamat considered George's condition to be mild in severity. George reported that he had experienced joint pain a few months prior, but the pain resolved. Physical examination showed George's right wrist to be ...


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