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Lane v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri

February 27, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.



         This is an action under Title 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying the application of Stephanie Lane (“Plaintiff”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. Plaintiff has filed a brief in support of the Complaint (ECF 15), Defendant has filed a brief in support of the Answer (ECF 22), and Plaintiff filed a reply brief (ECF 23).


         Plaintiff filed her application for DIB and SSI under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on March 28, 2014 (Tr. 19). Plaintiff was initially denied relief on April 24, 2014, and she filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on June 20, 2014 (Tr. 93-96, 98-99). After a hearing, in a decision dated July 28, 2016, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled (Tr. 19-32). Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision on August 2, 2016 (Tr. 148). On July 13, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-3). Plaintiff appealed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri on September 12, 2017 (ECF 1). The ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.


         The ALJ determined Plaintiff meets the insured status requirement of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2014, and Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 28, 2009, the alleged onset of her disability (Tr. 21). The ALJ found Plaintiff has the severe impairments of obesity and degenerative disc disease with fusion (Tr. 21). Additionally, the ALJ found Plaintiff has non-severe impairments including diabetes, hypertension, headaches, and neurogenic syncope[1] which do not have more than a minimal effect on Plaintiff's ability to work (Tr. 21). These non-severe impairments were considered by the ALJ when determining Plaintiff's Residual Functioning Capacity (“RFC”) (Tr. 21-22). The ALJ found no impairment or combination of impairments which meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 22).

         The ALJ conducted a hearing with Plaintiff, her counsel, and a vocational expert on February 17, 2016 (Tr. 39). At the beginning of the hearing, Plaintiff's counsel indicated there were additional records from Dr. Kevin Rutz and Mercy Medical Center which were unlikely to add anything to the proceeding, and the ALJ decided the record would be held open for thirty days to allow for the receipt and consideration of those records (Tr. 41).

         In her testimony before the ALJ on February 17, 2016, Plaintiff testified she had worked as a designer and lead engineer at Children's Factory Inc. for approximately 14 years, with her employment ending there in 2009 (Tr. 46). Plaintiff then testified she was terminated for “job abandonment” which Plaintiff attributed to absences related to her pregnancy (Tr. 46-47).

         Sometime around 2009, Plaintiff received unemployment benefits and cashed out her existing retirement account to help pay medical bills (Tr. 47-49).

         Plaintiff testified she had back surgery in 2004 to fuse C6 and C7 in her spine, and then had an additional surgery to correct a disc protrusion[2] below her earlier fusion, but the surgery “didn't fix it[, i]t just moved it to another location” (Tr. 46, 53-54). In addition to surgery, Plaintiff takes medication for migraine headaches and visits a chiropractor and massage therapist to help ease her pain in the short-term (Tr. 57-58, 63). She also performs traction[3] approximately three times a day for 10 minutes to help with pain relief, usually once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once before bed (Tr. 62-63). Plaintiff also testified she has seen her chiropractor and a massage therapist since she was 19 years (Tr. 58-59). Further, Plaintiff possesses a driver's license which does not contain any restrictions (Tr. 49-50).

         Plaintiff testified she lives with her husband, three school-aged children, who are eighteen, six, and four, as well as two dogs (Tr. 42). Her six year old child has been diagnosed with ADHD (Tr. 43). She further testified her husband is a utility grade three worker at a factory making approximately $15 an hour, plus overtime, working a fixed shift from 11 P.M. to 7 A.M. (Tr. 43, 49). Plaintiff testified her husband has to carry items up and down the stairs such as large loads of laundry, because her pain prevents her from being able to do so (Tr. 45). She testified her parents live next door and often assist her with tasks such as cooking, because she is only able to prepare small, simple meals on her own (Tr. 50). Plaintiff noted she is only able to wash a small amount of dishes in short 10-15 minute increments and requires someone else to wash the pots, pans, and other “awkward” dishes (Tr. 51). Trips to the grocery store require her husband's assistance for anything more than small items, because she is unable to push the cart (Tr. 45). When it comes to taking care of her children, Plaintiff testified she is unable to pick up her 4 year old, who is 42 pounds, and someone else has to give the children their baths, because she is unable to bend down (Tr. 52). Plaintiff noted even simple activities, such as watching TV, require her to take a break after about 30 minutes to move around (Tr. 61).

         The vocational expert, Jennifer DeShay, testified Plaintiff's prior job is classified as an Industrial Designer under the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (Tr. 67). Plaintiff's counsel contends Plaintiff's physical issues limit her to simple, routine tasks, and require unscheduled disruptions of her work schedule (Tr. 70). The vocational expert testified the defendant cannot perform any of her past work; however, she is able to work in positions classified as “light”[4]including as a counter clerk-photo, furniture rental consultant, and usher (Tr. 68-69). The vocational expert also noted those positions do not have a sit/stand option when combined with the need to be classified as “light” (Tr. 69-70).

         After considering the entire record, including Plaintiff's testimony, the ALJ determined Plaintiff has the Residual Functioning Capacity (“RFC”) to preform light work except she is limited to frequently reaching, handling, and fingering (Tr. 22). The ALJ further concluded Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work[5] (Tr. 30). The ALJ found there are jobs which exist in significant numbers in the national economy which Plaintiff can perform, including counter clerk, furniture real estate consultant, or usher (Tr. 31).

         The ALJ found no impairment or combination of impairments which meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 22). Plaintiff appeals arguing the ALJ failed to consider Plaintiff's need for leave to attend appointments and excessive breaks for stretching when determining Plaintiff's RFC, and the ALJ failed to properly consider medical opinion evidence from Plaintiff's chiropractor and massage therapist (ECF 15 at 2).


         Under the Social Security Act, the Commissioner must follow a five-step process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920, 404.1529. “If a claimant fails to meet the criteria at any step in the evaluation of disability, the process ends and the claimant is determined to be not disabled.” Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 790 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 590-91 (8th Cir. 2004)). In this sequential analysis, first the claimant cannot be engaged in “substantial gainful activity” to qualify for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(b), 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant must have a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(c), 404.1520(c). The Social Security Act defines “severe impairment” as “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. . . .” Id. “‘The sequential evaluation process may be terminated at step two only when the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments would have no more than a minimal impact on [his or] her ability to work.'” Page v. Astrue, 484 F.3d 1040, 1043 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting Caviness v. Massanari, 250 F.3d 603, 605 (8th Cir. 2001), citing Nguyen v. Chater, 75 F.3d 429, 430-31 (8th Cir. 1996)).

         Third, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has an impairment which meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 404.1520(d). If the claimant has one of, or the medical equivalent of, these impairments, then the claimant is per se disabled without consideration of the claimant's age, education, or work history. Id.

         Fourth, the impairment must prevent the claimant from doing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(f), 404.1520(f). The burden rests with the claimant at this fourth step to establish his or her RFC. Steed v. Astrue, 524 F.3d 872, 874 n.3 (8th Cir. 2008) (“Through step four of this analysis, the claimant has the burden of showing that she is disabled.”). The ALJ will review a claimant's ...

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