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Walther v. Berryhill

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

March 30, 2018

KARIN E. WALTHER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CATHERINE D. PERRY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Karin Walther brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. Because the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, I will reverse the decision and remand for further proceedings.

         Procedural History

         On May 9, 2013, the Social Security Administration denied Walther's January 22, 2013 application for DIB, in which she claimed she became disabled on January 1, 2013, because of degenerative disc disease, arthritis, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, severe headaches and depression. At Walther's request, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on January 12, 2015, at which Walther testified. At that hearing, the ALJ granted Walther's request for consultative exams with a neurologist and psychologist. On August 5, 2015, a second hearing was held before the ALJ at which a vocational expert testified. On August 24, 2015, the ALJ denied Walther's claim for benefits, finding the vocational expert's testimony to support a finding that Walther could perform work as it exists in significant numbers in the national economy. On August 3, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Walther's request for review of the ALJ's decision. The ALJ's decision is thus the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Evidence Before the ALJ

         Walther testified at the first hearing held before the ALJ on January 12, 2015. She was represented by counsel. Upon questioning by the ALJ, Walther stated that she was 44 and lived with her husband. Walther described the previous positions she had worked at, including as a receptionist and administrative clerk, a secretary, an administrative assistant, and a sales representative. Walther listed the medications she was taking and testified that she suffered from migraines, fibromyalgia, asthma, spasmodic dysphonia, and anxiety attacks. The record of the hearing reflects that throughout her testimony, Walther switched between sitting and standing. When questioned by her counsel, Walther explained that she had to do things in short intervals with frequent breaks and that she could only sustain an activity for ten minutes. Walther testified that she had to alternate between sitting and moving/walking to relieve her pain. (Tr. 44-66).

         On August 5, 2015, a second hearing was held before the ALJ at which a vocational expert testified. At the outset of questioning, the ALJ confirmed that the vocational expert understood that if she gave an opinion that conflicted with information contained in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), she was to advise the ALJ of that conflict and the basis of her opinion (Tr. 78).

         During the hearing, the ALJ presented the vocational expert with a hypothetical scenario. Specifically, the ALJ asked the vocational expert to consider a hypothetical claimant of Walther's age, education, and past work, who was “capable of work at a range of light, ” which the ALJ defined as having the lifting requirements for “light” level exertional work, standing for two hours, walking for two hours, and sitting for four hours during the eight-hour work day. The ALJ also limited the claimant to never climbing ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffold, and only occasionally balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. The claimant was further limited to frequent use of upper extremities for handling, fingering, and feeling, and frequent use of lower extremities to operate foot controls. The ALJ restricted the hypothetical claimant from exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery; to only occasional exposure to atmospheric conditions, including fumes and odors; to only occasional exposure to humidity and wetness; and to only “moderate” noise levels, as classified in the Selective Characteristics of Occupations Defined.[2] Finally, the ALJ limited the claimant to simple, routine tasks, in a stress-free work environment, which the ALJ defined as requiring only occasional work place changes with only occasional contact with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public. (Tr. 80).

         Based on this list of limitations, the vocational expert opined that the hypothetical claimant could not perform Walther's past jobs, but there was still other work available in the national economy. The vocational expert testified that the hypothetical claimant could perform jobs such as document preparer, press clippings cutter and paster, and tube operator. The vocational expert stated all three jobs had a sedentary exertional level. When asked by the ALJ if her testimony was consistent with the DOT, the vocational expert answered “yes.” (Tr. 80-81).

         Decision of the ALJ

         In a decision dated August 24, 2015, the ALJ found that Walther was insured through June 30, 2016. The ALJ determined Walther had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2013, the alleged onset date. The ALJ concluded that Walther had severe impairments including degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, migraines, affective mood disorder, and anxiety disorder.

         However, the ALJ determined Walther did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 22-24).

         After considering the entire record, the ALJ determined Walther had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary[3] work, as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) with the following limitations:

The claimant [Walther] is able to stand for 2 hours, walk for 2 hours, and sit for 4 hours; the claimant can never climb ramps and stairs, ladders, ropes or scaffolds; the claimant can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; the claimant can frequently use her upper extremities for handling, fingering, and feeling; the claimant can frequently use her lower extremities to operate foot controls; the claimant can have no exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery; the claimant can have occasional exposure to atmospheric conditions, humidity, wetness, etc.; the claimant will need to work in an environment where the noise would be classified as moderate in Selected Characteristics of Occupations companion to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles; the claimant is capable of performing ...

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