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Oliver v. Berryhill

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

February 27, 2019

JAMES OLIVER, JR., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         This 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.


         Plaintiff, 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.

         To 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         After 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 interaction.

         The 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.

         ALJ's Decision

         In 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.

         In 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 claimed.

         Finally, 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.

         Plaintiff 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 ...

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