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Conder v. Saul

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

September 11, 2019

GARY CONDER, [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [2] Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          PATRICIA L. COHEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Gary Conder seeks review of the decision of the Social Security Commissioner Andrew M. Saul denying his application for period of disability and disability benefits under the Social Security Act (“Act”). The Court[3] has reviewed the parties' briefs and the entire administrative record, including the hearing transcript and the medical evidence. For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms Defendant's denial of Plaintiff's application.

         I. Procedural History

         On February 6, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits, alleging disability beginning October 3, 2014. (Tr. 109-12) Plaintiff complained of osteoarthritis and gout. (Tr. 49) The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Plaintiff's claims, and he filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 49-63, 66- 67) On January 24, 2017, the ALJ conducted a hearing at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. (Tr. 28-48)

         In a decision dated May 5, 2017 (Tr. 19-27), the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from October 3, 2014, through the date of this decision[.]” (Tr. 26) Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the SSA Appeals Council, which denied review on February 23, 2018. (Tr. 1-6) Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the SSA's final decision. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         II. Evidence Before the ALJ

         A. Testimony

         Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified at the administrative hearing on January 24, 2017. (Tr. 28) The ALJ began by examining Plaintiff who testified that he was forty-eight years old and lived with his wife and two teenage sons. (Tr. 35-36) He graduated from high school and had no college, job, or vocational training. (Id.) Plaintiff last worked as an auto mechanic in October 2014. (Tr. 36, 44-45)

         When the ALJ asked Plaintiff to describe “what it is that prevents you from getting a job and keeping a job, ” Plaintiff responded, “[w]ell I can't carry any kind of weight on my feet and my feet and my joints are so swoled [sic] up, my big toes are so swoled [sic] up . . . and [my] hands hurt all the time.” (Tr. 37) He stated, “I walk a little, you know if I'm on my feet [fifteen] minutes, that's causing me problems for the next day, you know. I don't walk much.” (Tr. 38) With regard to his feet, Plaintiff stated he has arthritis in his big toe on both feet and “can't put any substantial weight on that toe, ” which is “about as big as a lemon.” (Tr. 37) He stated that his toes had “no bending ability” and that when he had to “tip-toe [while working on cars] … that's where all the pain really got really bad.” (Tr. 40)

         According to Plaintiff, his doctor ordered x-rays and diagnosed him with “rheumat[oid] arthritis.” (Tr. 39) His treatment included “special shoes, ” insoles, and “arthritis medicine and pain medicine, ” which “seem[ed] to [help] a little.” (Tr. 37-38)

         With respect to his hands, Plaintiff explained: “They're always hurting when I move them or any kind of repetition … I just can't do the wrench work.” (Tr. 37, 39) Plaintiff is unable to drive because of the pain in his wrists, and feels pain when he opens doors or tries to “grab something to pull.” (Tr. 36, 41) Additionally, Plaintiff stated his fingers are becoming increasingly stiff and he is not able to “really straighten them out.” (Tr. 40)

         Plaintiff also “tore” his right shoulder and “can't lift anything.” (Id.) Plaintiff has difficulty reaching overhead. (Tr. 41) For example, Plaintiff testified that he could not raise a car hood “because of the pain.” (Id.)

         Although Plaintiff attended religious services, he no longer hunted or went shopping, and was unable to stand enough to do dishes or climb stairs. (Tr. 38-43) Walking and standing caused “the same kind of pain.” (Tr. 39) Plaintiff testified that sitting did not make his pain worse but it was “just a pain all day.” (Id.) He testified that the pain started “really getting bad” in 2012. (Tr. 41-42)

         The ALJ examined the vocational expert, who identified Plaintiff's past work as an auto mechanic. (Tr. 44-45) The ALJ asked the vocational expert to consider a hypothetical individual with the same age, educational background, and work history as Plaintiff who could:

occasionally lift twenty pounds, frequently ten. Walk or stand two hours out of an eight-hour day. Sit for six hours out of an eight-hour day. He should never climb, never crouch, and never crawl. He'[d] be limited to frequent handling, fingering, and feeling. He'd be limited to no overhead reaching and handling with the right upper extremity. He['d] need[] to avoid unprotected heights and hazardous moving machinery.

(Id. at 45.) The vocational expert testified that such an individual could not perform Plaintiff's past work but could work as an addresser, document preparer, or callout operator, which are characterized as sedentary jobs. (Id.) The ALJ asked the vocational expert to reconsider this individual with the modification that he “may be able to walk or stand two hours out of an eight-hour day but [it] would be fifteen minutes at a time. And he would be limited to occasional handling, feeling, and fingering.” (Id.) The vocational expert testified that those limitations would eliminate all jobs in the national economy. (Tr. 45-46)

         The ALJ also asked if the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) specifically addressed “overhead reaching and handling.” (Tr. 46) The vocational expert testified that it did not. Id. However, the vocational expert testified that, in his experience, the three jobs he listed did not require any overhead reaching and handling. Id. The vocational expert stated that he based his conclusions on “[forty-two] years of experience working with clients and employers.” Id.

         B. Relevant Medical Records

         Plaintiff's primary care physician, Dr. Timothy McPherson, D.O., examined Plaintiff numerous times between June 2014 and January 2017. (Tr. 230-41, 271-305) In January 2015, Plaintiff reported “difficulty standing on his feet because of his pain in both great toes.” (Tr. 231) Plaintiff identified his pain level at a “nine” and told Dr. McPherson he was not taking any medication because over-the-counter medication had not helped. (Id.) Dr. McPherson observed that Plaintiff had “normal gait and station” and “no contractures, malalignment, crepitus, or pain with motion” but “tenderness and bony deformities (bilateral great toes… bilateral hands with swelling and deformities consistent with osteoarthritis) … and normal movement in all extremities.” (Tr. 232) Dr. McPherson described Plaintiff's ambulation as “limited” and prescribed Zorvolex for his pain. (Tr. 231-32)

         Plaintiff visited Dr. Barry Burchett, M.D., for a consultative orthopedic examination in May 2015. (Tr. 247-254) Plaintiff's chief complaint was pain in his toes and his hands. (Tr. 248) Dr. Burchett reviewed records from Plaintiff's visits with Dr. McPherson and previous lab work, and he performed an independent analysis. (Tr. 248) Dr. Burchett stated that Plaintiff had taken “multiple blood tests, which have been negative for various rheumatoid arthritis tests and gout.” (Id.) Dr. Burchett wrote that Plaintiff “ambulates with an awkward gait, but without any specific limp. He has noticed that the toes are stiff as he walks. The claimant does not require the use of a handheld assistive device. The claimant appears stable at station and comfortable in the supine and sitting positions.” (Tr. 249) Plaintiff was able to walk on his heels and his toes, performed tandem gait well, and had “mild difficulty” standing on the right foot. (Tr. 250-51)

         Dr. Burchett examined Plaintiff's hands and wrote:

There is no atrophy, redness, warmth, or tenderness. The hands can be fully extended. A fist can be made with both hands. All fingers can oppose … The claimant can write. A coin can be picked up with either hand without difficulty. Range of motion of the joints of the fingers of both hands is normal. There is slight to mild generalized swelling about the index fingers bilaterally.

(Tr. 250) Dr. Burchett reported his impression as “multiple locations of osteoarthritis, ” and stated in his summary that Plaintiff had “polyarthralgias, particularly in his great toes and ...


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