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Strother v. Berryhill

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

September 20, 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 Beverly Strother is not disabled and, thus, not entitled to either disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., or supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. §§ 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 on January 30, 1968. (Tr. 69, 162). She protectively filed an application for DIB on August 29, 2013, and for SSI on September 19, 2013, alleging a May 14, 2013 onset date.[2] (Tr. 162, 169). Plaintiff claimed she was disabled due to back pain, pain in both knees, and central disc extrusion. (Tr. 214). Plaintiff's applications were denied, and she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Tr. 69-88, 100, 108-12). A hearing was held in May 2015, at which plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (Tr. 34-68). By decision dated June 12, 2015, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 11-28). The ALJ determined that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision, submitting additional evidence in the form of a letter, four pages of medical records, and two medical opinions. (Tr. 4). On June 14, 2016, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request. (Tr. 1-3). Consequently, the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, she asserts that the ALJ mischaracterized the evidence, improperly evaluated her mental impairments, improperly used her activities of daily living to discredit her complaints, and failed to consider the opinions of her treating physicians. (Doc. 21).

         A. Medical Record and Evidentiary Hearing

         The court adopts the parties' unopposed statements of facts (Docs. 21, 26). The court will discuss specific items of evidence as they relate to the parties' arguments.

         B. ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ found that plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2017. (Tr. 13). He also found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date and suffered from the severe impairments of:

central disc extrusion at C3-C4; osteoarthritis of the wrists, hands, and knees; ulnar neuropathy, causalgia[3] of lower limbs; degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; scoliosis of the cervical, lumbar, and thoracolumbar spine; bilateral venous valvular incompetence without deep vein thrombosis; nasal valve collapse/trauma with sinusitis/rhinitis; depression; and post-traumatic stress disorder.

(Tr. 13). However, the ALJ concluded that none of these impairments, individually or in combination, met or equaled an impairment listed in the Commissioner's regulations. (Tr. 14-16).

         With respect to plaintiff's mental impairment, the ALJ found that the “paragraph B” and “paragraph C” criteria were not met, because plaintiff had only mild restrictions in activities of daily living; moderate difficulties in social functioning and with regard to concentration, persistence, or pace; and no extended episodes of decompensation. (Tr. 15-16).

         The ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairments left her with the RFC to:

perform a range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), in that she can lift and/or carry ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently; can stand/walk two hours in an eight-hour workday; and sit six hours in an eight-hour workday. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She can never use her arms for reaching overhead. She can frequently reach in all other directions, handle, finger, and feel. She should never work at unprotected heights or with moving mechanical parts, but can have occasional exposure to vibration. She must avoid all exposure to humidity, wetness, extreme temperatures, dust, odors, fumes, and pulmonary irritants. She can perform simple, routine tasks. She can have frequent interaction with supervisors and coworkers, and have occasional interaction with the general public.

(Tr. 16-17). In making this determination, the ALJ considered all of plaintiff's symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms were reasonably consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence. (Tr. 17-26).

         The ALJ reasoned that the objective medical evidence did not substantiate plaintiff's allegations. (Tr. 17-26). Specifically, the ALJ observed that the record revealed largely normal physical findings, with “minimal” degeneration of the spine and “mild” scoliosis, but no evidence of any other abnormality in the bones, joint spaces, or soft tissues. (Tr. 20). The ALJ noted that the objective medical findings by plaintiff's treating physicians “did not include significant deficits in strength, neurological function, range of motion, posture, sensation, reflexes, pulses, or gait, lasting twelve months in duration.” (Tr. 23). The ALJ further noted that the objective medical findings did not include significant deficits in plaintiff's ability to squat, stand, walk, sit, lift, carry, bend, or stoop for a period of at least twelve months. (Tr. 23). Plaintiff's treatment records never documented a finding precluding prolonged standing or walking. (Tr. 24). As for plaintiff's nasal valve and sinus impairments, plaintiff was advised that cigarette smoking exacerbated her symptoms, although she continued to smoke cigarettes daily. (Tr. 24). The ALJ emphasized that plaintiff's treatment was conservative. (Tr. 23-24). The ALJ also gave “little weight” to the opinion of plaintiff's chiropractor, Barry Wiese, D.C., because he was not an acceptable medical source. (Tr. 21).

         As to plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ noted that plaintiff met with her counselor for only three months. (Tr. 23). The ALJ determined that the counselor's findings of marked or extreme limitation in functioning were “grossly inconsistent with the overall normal mental status examination findings within the record, including the lack of noted findings within [the counselor's] own progress notes.” (Tr. 23). For this reason, the ALJ gave “little weight” to the opinion of plaintiff's counselor, Geannette Walls, LCSW. (Tr. 23). Plaintiff also consulted with Patricia Shaw, Ph.D., a psychologist, who did not assign plaintiff any specific work-related limitations. (Tr. 21). The ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Shaw's assessment because she was not a treating source and met with plaintiff only once. Plaintiff received a third evaluation from Jay L Liss, M.D., a psychiatrist, who also met with plaintiff only once for the purpose of a workers' compensation claim. For these reasons, the ALJ also gave Dr. Liss's opinion little weight.

         Finally, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a VE to find that there were unskilled, sedentary final assembler optical, semiconductor bonder, and taper circuit layout jobs in significant numbers in the national economy that a person with plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience could perform. (Tr. 26-27). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 27).


         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ mischaracterized the evidence, improperly evaluated her mental impairment, improperly evaluated her activities of daily living, and improperly discounted the ...

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