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West v. Berryhill

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

September 26, 2017

MARCIA T. WEST, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This is an action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying the application of Plaintiff Marcia West (“Plaintiff”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. (the “Act”). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 8). Because I find an error in the ALJ's analysis of Plaintiff's past relevant work, I will reverse the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application and remand the case for further proceedings.

         I. Factual Background[2]

         A. Plaintiff's Testimony and Medical Opinion Evidence

         Plaintiff was fifty-nine years old on the date of the hearing before the ALJ. (Tr. 68). Plaintiff testified that she has chronic pain in her lower back and left leg; daily numbness and tingling; and depression (Tr. 76, 79-81, 83, 85). She cannot sit, stand, or walk for more than ten or fifteen minutes before needing to move or take a break. (Tr. 80-81). Plaintiff does not do chores around the house or grocery shopping because she cannot stand or walk for that long. (Tr. 82). She requires the use of a walker and assistance to shower. (Tr. 76, 82). She estimates that she falls at least once a week. (Tr. 81). Plaintiff testified that she does not drive and only leaves home for doctor appointments. (Tr. 79, 82). She reported that her memory is “very bad, ” requiring her to write everything down. (Tr. 80, 83).

         The record contains opinion evidence from several sources regarding Plaintiff's physical and mental abilities. (Tr. 137-38, 345-48, 354-57, 497-505, 755-59). This evidence includes an opinion from a consultative examiner, Dennis A. Velez, M.D. (Tr. 497-505). On May 21, 2013, Dr. Velez conducted a physical examination of Plaintiff. (Tr. 497-98, 502). He identified Plaintiff's complaints, including back pain, pain in left leg, and difficulty going up and down stairs, bending, or squatting. (Tr. 499). Dr. Velez noted that Plaintiff demonstrated tenderness to palpation in the lumbosacral spine and residual sensory disturbance, but exhibited normal motor strength and range of motion. (Tr. 503). Dr. Velez diagnosed Plaintiff with possible lumbar spondylosis with residual left lower extremity numbness. (Tr. 503). Dr. Velez concluded Plaintiff would not have any limitations in sitting, standing or walking, except for walking at a normal pace; Plaintiff would not have any manipulative, verbal, or written communication problems; and Plaintiff would be able to lift and carry at the waist level. (Tr. 503).

         B. Vocational Evidence

         At the hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff reported that she had worked in the past for about three years as a “receptionist and assistant administrator” at Humanitri. (Tr. 70). She described her duties as answering the phone and filing. (Tr. 71). She testified that she was not seated the majority of the day, but was up and down during the day, doing filing and whatever her boss needed her to do. (Tr. 71). In her Work History Report, Plaintiff reported that in her job at Humanitri from 2009 to 2011, she answered phones, did light typing, coordinated supervised prison transportation, and did monthly reports. (Tr. 268-69). She reported that she stood for four hours a day, sat for four hours a day, walked, and lifted less than 10 pounds. (Tr. 269).

         Plaintiff also testified at the hearing that she had previously worked at Queen of Peace as a residential aide/case manager who monitored recovering addicts, a job in which she was on her feet the majority of the day. (Tr. 72-73).

         At the hearing, the vocational expert stated that Plaintiff had worked in the past as a social service aide (Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) No. 195.367-034, skilled, light exertional level); an administrative clerk (DOT No. 219.362-010, skilled, light exertional level); and a receptionist (DOT number 237.367-038, a semi-skilled, sedentary exertional level). (Tr. 88). When the ALJ described a hypothetical individual with all of Plaintiff's limitations to the vocational expert, the vocational expert testified that such a person could perform Plaintiff's past work as a receptionist, as generally performed. (Tr. 88-89).[3] The vocational expert also stated that he was “not sure she was complete when she described what she did as a receptionist.” (Tr. 89).

         II. Procedural Background

         On February 26, 2013, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging that she had been unable to work since November 10, 2007. (Tr. 191-196). Her application was initially denied. (Tr. 141-45). On June 26, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Tr. 148-49). On January 15, 2015, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to November 3, 2010. (Tr. 224). After a hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on February 9, 2015. (Tr. 8-21). Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision with the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council on March 13, 2015, but the Appeals Council declined to review the case on May 7, 2016. (Tr. 1-7). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

         III. Standard for Determining Disability Under the Act

         To be eligible for benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must prove he or she is disabled. Pearsall v. Massanari,274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); Baker v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992). The Social Security Act defines as disabled a person who is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010). The impairment must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national ...

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