United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
G. FLEISSIG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
action is before the Court for judicial review of the final
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that
Plaintiff James Oliver is not disabled and thus not entitled
to disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social
Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. For the reasons
set forth below, Commissioner's decision is affirmed.
born October 6, 1970, was employed as a mechanic and service
advisor in the automotive maintenance industry until early
2014 when, at age 43, radiating low back pain impeded his
ability to stand for long periods. Plaintiff applied for
disability benefits in February 2014. His application was
denied at the initial administrative level, and he thereafter
requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
On April 13, 2016, Plaintiff, represented by counsel,
testified and presented other evidence. The record was later
supplemented with orthopedic and psychological evaluations as
well as interrogatory responses by a vocational expert.
Plaintiff's counsel responded to the vocational
expert's interrogatory responses. Plaintiff's
testimony and the documentary evidence are fairly summarized
in the parties' respective statements of uncontroverted
fact and responses (ECF Nos. 9-1, 14-1-2, 15-1). The Court
adopts the facts as set forth therein.
summarize, Plaintiff had a history of back problems and had
undergone a spinal fusion in 2005. He first sought medical
treatment related to this case in March 2014. An MRI revealed
a total fusion at ¶ 5-S1 and a disc bulge at ¶
4-L5. In June 2014, Plaintiff was examined by a pain
specialist, Dr. Nabil Ahmad, who diagnosed lumbar
post-laminectomy syndrome. In August 2014, Dr. Ahmad issued
an opinion indicating Plaintiff's work limitations as:
less than two hours sitting, standing, or walking; lifting or
carrying less than 10 pounds; no twisting, bending, crouching
or climbing; off task 20% of the work day; and absent more
than three times per month. After a second visit in November
2014, Dr. Ahmad issued another opinion indicating that
Plaintiff was totally unable to work. He opined that
Plaintiff could occasionally lift one pound and carry less
than ten pounds, occasionally bend at the waist, and never
squat or crawl.
continued to see Dr. Ahmad and other pain specialists monthly
or semi-monthly through the time of the administrative
hearing in 2016. During that time, he tried a spinal cord
stimulator, a pain pump, injections, and various medications.
Some treatments provided relief, and his gait, motor
strength, reflexes, and leg-raises were mostly normal. Also
during that time, Plaintiff sought psychotherapy for anxiety
and depression. At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff
testified that he could sit for two hours, stand or walk for
an hour, and lift ten pounds, but he has difficulty
concentrating due to pain and insomnia.
the hearing, Dr. Anne Winkler, a state agency medical
consultant, reviewed Plaintiff's records and opined that
he had lumbar degenerative disc disease but could lift and
carry 20 pounds, sit for six hours a day, stand or walk for
two hours a day, and occasionally climb, stoop, and kneel.
Additionally, Plaintiff underwent a psychological evaluation
by Dr. Thomas Spencer, who identified mood and anxiety
disorders, rated Oliver's Global Assessment of
Functioning as 55-60, and opined that Plaintiff was capable
of performing simple tasks involving minimal social
vocational expert was asked to assume a hypothetical
individual with Plaintiff's profile having a residual
functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work as
defined in 20 C.F.R 404.1567(a), except that the individual
(1) is unable to crawl or to climb ladders, ropes, and
scaffolds; (2) can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and
climb ramps or stairs; (3) must avoid exposure to extreme
vibration, operational control of moving machinery,
unprotected heights, and hazardous machinery; (4) is limited
to occupations involving simple, routine, and repetitive
tasks; and (5) is limited to low-stress jobs requiring only
occasional decision-making and changes in the work setting
with no contact with the public and only casual and
infrequent contact with co-workers. Based on that
hypothetical and information contained in the Dictionary of
Occupational Titles (DOT), the vocational expert opined that
the individual would be able to perform unskilled occupations
such as document preparer, eyeglass polisher, and stuffer.
January 2017, the ALJ issued its decision finding that
Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, with the
aforementioned limitations. In support of this determination,
the ALJ noted the following.
April 2014, Plaintiff visited a neurosurgical specialist, Dr.
Tanya Quinn, who examined Plaintiff and observed normal
strength, reflexes, and gait, all inconsistent with disabling
spinal impairments. Dr. Quinn's opinion did not identify
limitations and thus was not probative in that respect. As
mentioned above, Dr. Ahmad provided opinions after
Plaintiff's visits in August and November 2014, first
indicating limitations and later deeming Plaintiff unable to
work. The ALJ gave little weight to these early opinions
because they were inconsistent with specific observations
from the November visit and later visits throughout 2015 and
early 2016. For example, despite Plaintiff's reported
pain and occasionally abnormal gait, his reflexes, motor
strength, and leg-raises were mostly normal. In August 2015,
Plaintiff had a normal gait and could stand without the
assistance of a cane. In late 2015 and early 2016, Plaintiff
experienced some relief with the pain pump and injections. In
January 2016, an MRI excluded lumbar compression fracture or
misalignment. In sum, Plaintiff's “records var[ied]
in terms of his ongoing level of pain or his motor strength
or sensation loss.” Conversely, the ALJ accorded great
weight to Dr. Winkler's opinion that Plaintiff was able
to work, with limitations, because it was “consistent
with the overall medical and other records.” The ALJ
reasoned that, while Plaintiff's medical condition could
reasonably cause his symptoms, the evidence did not support
the alleged severity and limiting effects that Plaintiff
relying on the opinion of vocational expert Dr. Jennifer
LaRue, considering Plaintiff's RFC and vocational factors
(age, education, work experience), the ALJ found that
Plaintiff could perform certain sedentary, unskilled jobs
listed in the DOT and available in the national economy such
as document preparer, eyeglass polisher, or stuffer.
Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled as
defined under the Social Security Act.
filed a timely request for review by the Appeals Council,
which denied his request in October 2017. Thus Plaintiff has
exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's
decision stands as the final agency action now under review.
In his sole point, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's
determination of his RFC is not supported by substantial
evidence because the ALJ relied entirely on the ...