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Nash v. Berryhill

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

August 15, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Larry Nash seeks review of the decision of Social Security Commissioner, Nancy Berryhill, denying his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under the Social Security Act.[2] The Court has reviewed the parties' briefs and the entire administrative record, including the hearing transcript and medical evidence. For the reasons set forth below, the case is reversed and remanded.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         On March 1, 2012 and August 14, 2012, Plaintiff filed applications for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits.[3] (Tr. 36-39, 200, 421-27). In his applications, Plaintiff alleged he was disabled as of November 24, 2008 as a result of: diabetes; neuropathy in legs; hypertriglyceridemia; hypertension; chronic back, neck, and knee injuries; foot injuries; arthritis; sleep apnea; obesity; and depression. (Tr. 200-12, 251). 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. 251-55). After holding a hearing, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff benefits on May 17, 2013. (Tr. 197-212). Plaintiff reapplied for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on June 18, 2013. (Tr. 474-82, 483-89).

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the SSA Appeals Council, which vacated the decision and remanded the case to a different ALJ. (Tr. 218-21). In accordance with the Appeals Council's order, the ALJ consolidated Plaintiff's June 2013 applications for benefits with the present case and held a hearing on May 27, 2014. (Tr. 117-65, 220). At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that he was fifty-one years of age, five feet eleven inches tall, and 350 pounds. (Tr. 122-23). Plaintiff had a high school diploma and had completed a two-week truck driver training. (Tr. 125). Plaintiff stated he received food stamps and Medicaid, and his mother paid his other expenses. (Tr. 124-25).

         When the ALJ asked Plaintiff why he believed himself disabled, Plaintiff answered:

Because I have neuropathy severely in my hands, in my feet. My feet and my legs I can only stand for maybe 15 minutes at a time. And when I sit down after 20 minutes my feet and legs go completely numb. And I have to get up and walk around a little bit to get feeling back in my feet and legs. And the worse thing that's happening now is it spread to my hands. When I wake up in the morning I can't feel my hands at all. And during the day . . . my hands go numb many times a day.

(Tr. 125-26). Later, Plaintiff explained: “[I]f I wake up in the morning and somebody calls I can't even - I can't even use the phone because it takes 10 minutes for my hands to not be numb. I've had people call me, wake me up, and I can't even push the buttons on the phone to even make it work.” (Tr. 137). Plaintiff testified that his hands went numb “probably 50 to 100 times a day.” (Tr. 147).

         In regard to the neuropathy in his feet and legs, Plaintiff stated: “I don't feel my feet at all. I have no feeling in my feet except for pain and it goes all the way up to my knees.” (Tr. 138). Plaintiff rated his foot pain a seven on a ten-point scale. (Tr. 141). Plaintiff's doctor recommended he use a cane because he had “fallen lots.” (Tr. 149). Plaintiff explained: “[I]f I sit down for more than 10 minutes my feet and legs go numb. And then when I try to get up to do something probably the first 12 steps I'm just - have no balance.” Plaintiff estimated that he could sit for twenty minutes, stand “[b]arely 15 minutes, ” and lift twenty pounds. (Id.). Plaintiff also suffered constant pain in his lower back, which he rated an eight on a ten-point scale. (Tr. 140-41).

         Plaintiff stated that his most recent employment was as a truck driver for a two-year period ending in 2008. (Tr. 126-27). Prior to that, he worked approximately ten years as a machine operator for Briggs & Stratton. (Tr. 127-28). After Plaintiff's previous employer terminated him on November 24, 2008, he did not obtain another job because he “can't drive anymore because I'm diabetic insulin.” (Tr. 127).

         Plaintiff testified that, on a typical day, he awoke around 11:00 a.m., prepared something to eat, checked his blood sugar, and took his medication. (Tr. 128). Plaintiff watched television and movies, “surf[ed] around on the net a little bit, ” and talked on the telephone with his mother and two adult daughters. (Tr. 129-30). Plaintiff napped “a couple hours” every day because his medications and sleep apnea made him tired. (Tr. 145). Plaintiff was able to take care of his dog and dress himself, but was having more difficulty “putting my shoes on and stuff like that, ” and he could get in and out of the shower but had fallen “a few times.” (Tr. 131, 148). Plaintiff drove to doctor appointments, his mother's house, church, and the grocery store. (Tr. 132, 134). Plaintiff was able to cook and do laundry, but his mother cleaned his floors and did his dishes “because I can't stand up long enough to do them.” (Tr. 132-33). Plaintiff was no longer able to play the drums in a band, but occasionally played the drums at his church services. (Tr. 142, 150). When he played the drums at church, he usually played four songs, with breaks in between, for a total of “[m]aybe 10 minutes.” (Tr. 150).

         Plaintiff stopped drinking alcohol and using “street drugs” fourteen years ago. (Tr. 134). Plaintiff joined Weight Watchers and walked “around where I live” to try to lose weight. (Tr. 135). Plaintiff last walked about half to three-quarters of a mile about three weeks before and “it really hurt me.” (Tr. 142-43). Plaintiff estimated he could walk three or four city blocks before needing to sit down for ten minutes. (Tr. 143).

         Plaintiff believed his medications helped his symptoms, but they made him dizzy and tired. (Tr.135). Because of his history of drug abuse, Plaintiff had resisted taking prescription pain medications, but he recently began taking Tramadol for lower back pain. (Tr. 135-36). Plaintiff's diabetes was “not totally under control.” (Tr. 137). Plaintiff's primary care physician prescribed Prozac for his depression, and the Prozac was “finally starting to help.” (Tr. 138-39).

         A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. (Tr. 151-65). The ALJ asked the vocational expert to consider a hypothetical individual with the following RFC:

[T]he individual is limited to light work. The individual may occasionally climb ramps or stairs, must never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, may occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The individual is limited to no use of foot pedals or pushing and pulling with the lower extremities. The individual must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold, vibration, and have no exposure to hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights, and no commercial driving. The individual is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive work as defined in the DOT as SVP levels 1 and 2, and is able to make simple, work-related decisions.

(Tr. 153). The vocational expert stated that such individual could not perform Plaintiff's past work, but could perform the jobs of plastic product inspector, hand packager, or ring marker. (Tr. 153-55). When asked to consider the same hypothetical individual but limited to sedentary work, he stated that such person could assemble optical goods and hand package pharmaceutical supplies. (Tr. 157). However, if such individual were “off task approximately 20 percent due to the combined effects of medical impairments and medications, ” he could not maintain employment. (Tr. 158). Additionally, a limitation to infrequent hand manipulation would preclude the hypothetical individual from performing all of the jobs identified by the vocational expert. (Tr. 159).

         In a decision dated July 14, 2014, the ALJ applied the five-step evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920[4] and found that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from November 24, 2008, through the date of this decision[.]” (Tr. 9-24). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus with neuropathy; obstructive sleep apnea; obesity; adjustment disorder; and depression. (Tr. 11). The ALJ found that Plaintiff's back pain was “not [a] medically determinable impairment.” (Tr. 12).

         After reviewing Plaintiff's testimony and medical records, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects” of his impairments were “not entirely credible.” (Tr. 19). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except for the following nonexertional limitations that reduce the claimant's capacity for light work: can only occasionally climb ramps or stairs; can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; can only occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl; can never use foot pedals; can never push or pull with the lower extremities; must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold, and vibration; must have no exposure to hazards, such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights; must not require commercial driving; limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks as defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) as specific vocational preparation (“SVP”) levels one and two; and can only make simple work-related decisions.

(Tr. 15, 19). The ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work as a machine operator or truck driver, but could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 22-23).

         Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the SSA Appeals Council, which denied review on October 19, 2015. (Tr. 1-3, 5). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the ...

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