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Martin v. Berryhill

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

August 23, 2017

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



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

         I. Background and Procedural History

         On May 21, 2013 and June 6, 2013, Plaintiff completed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income.[3] (Tr. 285-91, 292-97). These claims were based on the following medical conditions with an alleged onset date of October 24, 2012: degenerative bone disease, back injury, arthritis, hernia, seizures, sinus problems, posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and borderline personality disorder. (Tr. 313-14). The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Plaintiff's claims on October 30, 2013, and Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Tr. 217-18, 359). The SSA granted the request and held a hearing on May 7, 2014. (Tr. 129-80, 227).

         In his July 24, 2014 decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from October 24, 2012, through the date of this decision[.]” (Tr. 124). Subsequent to the ALJ's decision, Plaintiff presented to the SSA Appeals Council several medical records from examinations that occurred after the ALJ issued his decision. (Tr. 8-105). The Appeals Council reviewed the records and concluded that the new information did not pertain to the relevant time period. (Id. at 2). Therefore, the Appeals Council found the post-ALJ decision evidence did “not affect the decision about whether [she was] disabled beginning on or before July 24, 2014, ” and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Id.). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the Commissioner's final decision. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         II. The Administrative Proceeding

         A. Testimony at Hearing

         On May 7, 2014, Plaintiff appeared with counsel at an administrative hearing. (Tr. 129). Plaintiff testified that she was fifty-two years old, five feet five inches tall, 160 pounds, and right-handed. (Tr. 134-35). She further testified that she left high school after completing her junior year, but later earned a GED and a certificate in “secretarial and business.” (Tr. 136). Plaintiff stated she most recently worked at a cash register and stocked shelves at a store. (Id.). She had been performing this work between eighteen and thirty hours per week “for a couple months, ” before she sustained a work-related injury on October 24, 2012. She had not looked for any work since sustaining the work-related injury. (Tr. 137-38). Plaintiff testified that, prior to working at the store, she was periodically employed with cleaning companies over a span of thirty years. (Id.).

         Plaintiff stated that she suffered from a seizure disorder, high blood pressure, arthritis and cramps in the right hand, “a little” arthritis in the left hand, lumbar back pain stemming from degenerative bone deterioration, “sinosis [PHONETIC], psychotic [PHONETIC] nerve damage, [and] bulging discs.” (Tr. 138-39). She also suffered: migraine headaches, which lasted half a day and occurred four to five times per month; pain in her neck, shoulders, and hands; lower back pain that felt like someone was “breaking my back or punching me”; and leg pain when walking. (Tr. 164-66). Plaintiff estimated that she could lift less than four pounds, walk for one ten-minute period per day, stand for one ten-minute period per day, and sit in a chair for ten to fifteen minutes per day. (Tr. 167-68). Plaintiff testified she did not drive because she did not have a license and her seizure disorder prevented it, but if she did, she would have problems steering a car and controlling the foot pedals. (Tr. 135, 168-69).

         Plaintiff testified that she had a referral for, but had not yet seen, a pain management specialist for her back. (Tr. 142). The only specialist Plaintiff had seen for her back injury was at a Concentra Clinic about one year prior to the hearing. (Tr. 142-43). Plaintiff stated this visit was arranged “through worker's comp[ensation]” after the October 2012 work-related injury. (Id.). The doctor performed an MRI, and Plaintiff completed several months of physical therapy, which Plaintiff stated did not help the pain. (Tr. 144). Plaintiff also saw a general practitioner approximately every two months who prescribed her medications, checked her blood pressure, and referred her to the pain management specialist. (Tr. 141-42). None of Plaintiff's doctors placed restrictions on her activities. (Tr. 146).

         At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was taking medication for high blood pressure, “Pantropozol [PHONETIC] sodium, Norvac [PHONETIC], Proloprosine [PHONETIC], ” Tramadol, and Amotrax.” (Tr. 147-48). Plaintiff testified that she began taking Amotrax after her last seizure to help prevent migraines. (Id.). Plaintiff stated the medications caused her to suffer constant fatigue, nausea, and “shakes[.]” (Tr. 149). Plaintiff also testified that she had not used marijuana or cocaine since the age of twenty, but had occasionally taken a friend's prescription pills about one year prior to the hearing. (Tr. 170-72).

         On a typical day, Plaintiff awakened between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., ate, took her medications, and spent the rest of her morning in bed. (Tr. 150-51). After lunch, Plaintiff usually returned to her bed, where she read or watched television until her boyfriend returned from work around 6:00 p.m. (Tr. 155). The two ate dinner, and Plaintiff tried to sit in a chair as long as possible before her back pain forced her back to bed. (Tr.155-56). Some days, Plaintiff's boyfriend dropped her off at her mother's house on his way to work, and she would visit with her mother and watch television until her boyfriend picked her up around 6:00 p.m. (Tr. 154).

         Plaintiff testified that washing dishes was difficult because her hand hurt “really bad and start[ed] cramping.” (Tr. 151). She stated she could manage small loads of laundry by herself, vacuum with her left hand, and go to the grocery store with someone else and lean on the cart. (Id.). Plaintiff's exercise regimen consisted of yoga and stretching. (Tr. 158). Plaintiff also testified that she was able to take five-minute showers, wash her hair, and dress herself sitting on the bed. (Tr. 156).

         A vocational expert, Tim Shaner, also testified at the hearing. (Tr. 176). Mr. Shaner stated that both of Plaintiff's past jobs, cleaner and cashier, were classified as unskilled, and “light exertion, both generally and as performed.” (Tr. 177). The ALJ asked Mr. Shaner to consider a hypothetical individual:

limited to light work that can be learned in 30 days or less. Only frequently climb ramps and stairs. Occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, or balance. Must avoid concentrated exposure to loud noise, vibration, and hazards.

(Id.). Mr. Shaner testified that such an individual would be able to perform both of Plaintiff's past jobs. (Id.). When the ALJ added to the hypothetical “only occasional contact with the general public, ” “no more than occasional changes in the work environment, ” and no “strict production pace rate[, ]” Mr. Shaner ruled out the job of cashier. (Tr.177-78).

         B. Relevant Medical Records

         Dr. Asif Qaisrani, a psychiatrist, treated Plaintiff from July 2011 until July 2012. (Tr. 385-98). In July 2011, Dr. Qaisrani noted that Plaintiff was a “questionably reliable” historian. (Tr. 391). Dr. Qaisrani diagnosed Plaintiff with cocaine dependence in remission, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, and a chronic backache. (Tr. 393). At an appointment with Dr. Qaisrani in September 2011, Plaintiff ...

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