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Dickerson v. Berryhill

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

March 16, 2018

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

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          SHIRLEY PADMORE MENSAH UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         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 (the “Commissioner”), denying the application of Plaintiff Linda C. Dickerson (“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. 10). Because I find reversible error in the Commissioner's assessment of the credibility of Plaintiff's subjective complaints, I will reverse and remand the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         On November 29, 2012, Plaintiff applied for DIB and a period of disability, alleging that she had been unable to work since November 9, 2012. (Tr. 310-11). On December 6, 2012, she applied for SSI, again alleging that she had been unable to work since November 9, 2012. (Tr. 312-16). She alleged disability based on herniated discs, swelling in her feet and legs, arthritis in her spine and foot, pain, fatigue, and depression. (Tr. 358). Her applications were initially denied. (Tr. 126, 138, 144-49). On March 11, 2013, Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 142-43). On August 19, 2015, following two hearings, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a “disability” as defined in the Act. (Tr. 7-26). On October 15, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision with the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. (Tr. 6). On September 6, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the case. (Tr. 1-5). 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.

         At the time of the first hearing before the ALJ, on October 27, 2014, Plaintiff testified that she was 53 years old, was 5'4” tall, and weighed 250 pounds. (Tr. 32). She had worked in the past doing housekeeping and laundry at a nursing home for 25 years, which involved lifting 50 to 75 pounds at a time. (Tr. 33-34). She also worked as a home health aide for her boyfriend, helping him dress, bathe, shower, and do other tasks. (Tr. 35). Plaintiff testified that she stopped doing both jobs in 2012 because she had problems with leg swelling that made her unable to walk or work. (Tr. 33-35). Plaintiff also testified that she has hypertension that makes her legs swell every night and that sometimes the swelling causes her to be unable to walk without a walker; that she has daily headaches, that she sleeps all the time from her medicines, that her shoulders hurt and she cannot lift more than a gallon of milk without pain; that she is diabetic and has high blood pressure; that she has back pain and lies around a lot to deal with it; and that she has depression and cries every week or so for a day or two. (Tr. 35-43). She takes care of her boyfriend's granddaughter and plays computer games during the day, though she cannot sit at the computer for very long. (Tr. 49-51). At the supplemental hearing on June 24, 2015, Plaintiff testified that she has tried to lose weight and has not been successful, that if she pushes herself and walks too far then her legs start swelling and she is down for several days, that she elevates her feet for about six hours between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., and that her legs swell even when she is on diuretics. (Tr. 102-04).

         With regard to Plaintiff's medical records, the Court accepts the facts as provided in Plaintiff's statement of facts and Defendant's response. The Court will address specific facts relevant to the issues presented by the parties' briefs, as needed, in the discussion section below.

         II. 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 [or she] is not only unable to do his [or her] previous work but cannot, considering his [or her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he [or she] lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him [or her], or whether he would be hired if he [or she] applied for work.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a); see also McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir. 2011) (discussing the five-step process). At Step One, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in “substantial gainful activity”; if so, then he or she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment, which is “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities”; if the claimant does not have a severe impairment, he or she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Three, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “listings”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant has such an impairment, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds with the rest of the five-step process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

         Prior to Step Four, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), which is “the most a claimant can do despite [his or her] limitations.” Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). At Step Four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can return to his or her past relevant work, by comparing the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(f); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work, he or she is not disabled; if the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id. At Step Five, the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine whether the claimant can make an adjustment to other work in the national economy; if the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the claimant will be found disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

         Through Step Four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove that he or she is disabled. Moore, 572 F.3d at 523. At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that, given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience, there are a significant number of other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.; Brock v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1062, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012).

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         Applying the foregoing five-step analysis, the ALJ here found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2017; that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 9, 2012, the alleged onset date; and that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, hypertension, osteoarthritis of the right shoulder, diabetes, and morbid obesity. (Tr. 12-13). The ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 14). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following RFC:

[Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except she can lift up to 50 pounds occasionally but only lift/carry 10 pounds frequently. She can stand/walk 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday 3 hours at a time and sit 8 hours of an 8-hour workday 4 hours at a time. She is limited to frequent reaching with the right upper extremity and frequent bilateral operation of foot controls. She is limited to occasional climbing and crawling and frequent balancing, stooping, kneeling, ...

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