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Woodruff v. Berryhill

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

September 25, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Defendant.



         This action is before this Court for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that Plaintiff Heida M. Woodruff was not disabled, and, thus, not entitled to Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1385. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner shall be affirmed.


         Plaintiff, who was born on August 16, 1982, filed her application for benefits on May 28, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of September 1, 2012, due to fibromyalgia, depression, and swelling of feet and legs. Tr. 46. After Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial administrative level, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). A hearing was held on December 2, 2014, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified.[2] By decision dated January 16, 2015, the ALJ found that under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of sedentary work. Accordingly, the ALJ applied Rule 201.18 of the Medical- Vocational Guidelines, which directed a finding of not disabled under the Act. Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration was denied on March 23, 2016. Plaintiff has thus exhausted all administrative remedies and the ALJ's decision stands as the final agency action now under review.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred when he found that Plaintiff's mental impairments caused no more than a minimal or mild limitation in Plaintiff's ability to perform basic mental work activities and activities of daily living, and when the ALJ failed to obtain the testimony of a vocational expert regarding Plaintiff's non-exertional limitations. Plaintiff asks that the Court reverse the Commissioner's decision and remand the case with directions to award Plaintiff benefits, or with directions for further proceedings.

         Medical Record

         The Court adopts Plaintiff's unopposed Statement of Facts (ECF No. 22), along with Defendant's unopposed Statement of Additional Facts (Doc. No. 27-2). Together, these statements provide a fair description of the medical record. Specific facts will be discussed as needed to address the parties' arguments.

         ALJ's Decision (Tr. 13-22)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity, fibromyalgia, and neutrophilia, but determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that equaled the severity of a deemed-disabling impairment listed in the Commissioner's regulations. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to lift, carry, push, or pull up to ten pounds occasionally; stand and/or walk for two hours in an eight-hour day; and sit for six hours in an eight-hour day.

         In arriving at this RFC, the ALJ reviewed Plaintiff's hearing testimony and the record evidence as to Plaintiff's physical and psychological conditions. The ALJ stated that Plaintiff was obese and that the effects of Plaintiff's obesity were considered when determining Plaintiff's RFC. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's iron deficiency anemia and sleep apnea were non-severe impairments because they did not have a significant effect on her ability to perform basic work-related activities.

         Turning to Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ determined that based on Plaintiff's minimal treatment history and variable clinical signs and findings, Plaintiff's mental impairments did not cause more than minimal limitation in her ability to perform basic mental work activities or activities of daily living. The ALJ cited Plaintiff's ability to engage in substantial gainful activity, at least sporadically, through 2012, as well as Plaintiff's lack of any recent history of individual therapy or inpatient psychological treatment. The ALJ also relied on Plaintiff's testimony that she could follow instructions; manage her finances; cook simple meals daily and full meals occasionally; shop monthly for a few hours at a time; perform personal care independently; read to her young children; perform some household chores; attend school conferences; and use a computer to access Facebook. The ALJ stated that Plaintiff generally exhibited an intact memory, despite a variable mood.

         The ALJ then explained the weight he afforded opinion evidence in the record. He assigned “great weight” to the non-examining State agency psychologist's opinion that Plaintiff's impairments were non-severe because it was consistent with Plaintiff's conservative treatment history and her wide-range of activities of daily living, which indicated that she could interact with others and complete tasks with no more than occasional irritability. Tr. 17.

         The ALJ gave “no weight” to the opinion to Osamede Edokpolo, M.D., Plaintiff's psychiatrist, that Plaintiff had a marked affective lability impairing interpersonal relationships; that she had a limited ability to function in a work environment; that Plaintiff was unlikely to think through her decisions secondary to impulsivity; and that her ability to perform work-like activities would be precluded at least 10 percent of the workday. The ALJ determined that the opinion was not controlling because Dr. Edokpolo did not begin treating Plaintiff until January 27, 2014, had apparently treated Plaintiff only one time, and his opinions were generally based on Plaintiff's subjective allegations, which were inconsistent with Dr. Edokpolo's clinical signs and findings.

         The ALJ also considered the opinion of Saulat Mushtag, M.D., Plaintiff's rheumatologist, who opined that Plaintiff could occasionally lift 10 pounds and stand, sit, or walk up to three hours per day. The ALJ assigned some weight to the opinion because it was consistent with Plaintiff's report that she could lift 10 pounds comfortably. However, the ALJ explained that the opinion was not entitled to controlling or significant weight because Dr. Mushtag's determination that Plaintiff would be limited ...

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