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Cox v. Saul

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

September 23, 2019

DORIS COX,[1] Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL,[2] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This is an action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying the application of Charles E. Bradley (“Bradley”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. (the “Act”).

         The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 8). Because I find the decision denying benefits was supported by substantial evidence, I will affirm the Commissioner’s denial of Bradley’s application.

         I. Procedural Background

         In January 2015, Bradley applied for DIB and SSI, alleging that he had been unable to work since December 15, 2015. (Tr. 420-21, 425-30). His applications were initially denied. (Tr. 186-90). On June 4, 2015, Bradley filed a Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 195-96). On September 26, 2017, following a hearing, the ALJ found that Bradley was not under a “disability” as defined in the Act. (Tr. 16-31). On November 17, 2017, Bradley filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision with the Social Security Administration’s Appeals Council. (Tr. 416-19), On May 13, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Bradley’s request for review. (Tr. 1-6). The decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

         II. Factual Background

         At the hearing on November 8, 2016, Bradley testified as follows. He lived with his fiancée and their six-year-old son. (Tr. 58). He did not have a driver’s license, because it was suspended for reasons unrelated to his impairments; if he had a current driver’s license, he would not have any problems driving. (Tr. 58). Bradley worked most recently in July 2016 at Fifth Gear, doing a part-time job that involved lots of walking; he resigned from that job. (Tr. 59). He has also worked at Taco Bell for a week in 2014 as a cleaning captain (which involved standing and walking), but he left because he moved. (Tr. 60, 63). He worked at Sonic for a month in 2014, in a job that involved standing and cooking, but he was let go when he was in the hospital and unable to call them. (Tr. 60, 62-63). Bradley also worked in 2014 at a job during the holiday season, but he only made it two weeks because it involved ten-hour days, overnight work, and lots of walking. (Tr. 61).

         Bradley testified that he had lower back pain, neuropathy, and restless leg syndrome that affected his ability to walk. (Tr. 62). Additionally, Bradley had lower back pain and tail bone problems that affected his ability to sit. (Tr. 61). Dr. Miller treated him for his conditions, and Bradley took medications but did not have surgery. (Tr. 61-62). Bradley testified that he could sit for between one-and-a-half and two hours before having to stand. (Tr. 62). He could do that about three times in an eight-hour workday. (Tr. 66). He could stand for about one-and-a-half to two hours at a time, and he could do that about three times in an eight-hour work day. (Tr. 67). He could walk for thirty minutes to an hour before having to stop to stand or sit. (Tr. 62). He had difficulty lifting, because it involves bending over, which hurt his lower back and legs. (Tr. 63). Bradley had numbness and tingling in his feet that was pretty much constant and affected his ability to walk. (Tr. 68). Although he could walk for an hour, it would hurt him to do that. (Tr. 69). He could walk about two to three blocks without pain. (Tr. 69). Bradley also had problems with balance because of his feet; that affected him about four to six times a week and sometimes made him stumble or fall. (Tr. 69-70). He testified that his restless leg syndrome caused his legs to constantly move while he tried to sleep and in the evenings. (Tr. 71). It woke him up at night. (Tr. 72).

         Bradley saw Dr. Kinsella three times for neuropathy in his legs. (Tr. 63). Dr. Kinsella told him that his leg problems were related to severe nerve damage caused by his diabetes. (Tr. 64). Dr. Kinsella recommended Lyrica, which helped, but which had the side effect of making him feel “unbalanced, ” both mentally and physically. (Tr. 64-65). His doctor did not recommend he use a cane or that he take a different medication instead. (Tr. 65).

         Bradley also had neuropathy in his hands, though it was not as bad as in his legs. (Tr. 67). His hands got numb and tingly at least three times every two weeks, from his fingertips to mid- arm. (Tr. 67). It lasted for thirty minutes to two hours; when it happened, he had problems using his hands, writing, and carrying things without dropping them; it also caused pain. (Tr. 68).

         Bradley testified that he also had myopathy, which caused pain that went from his back into his legs. (Tr. 70). That happened every day. (Tr. 70). He took hydrocodone for the pain. (Tr. 71). Bradley testified that he had to lie down for thirty minutes or more every day due to his back or leg pain. (Tr. 75). He used heating pads on his lower back about three to five times weekly, for thirty minutes to an hour. (Tr. 76).

         Bradley was an insulin-dependent diabetic and had been so since he was fourteen years old. (Tr. 67). He checked his blood sugars three to four times daily, and they were usually in the 200s. (Tr. 72). About three to five times a week, Bradley had blood sugars so high that he had symptoms. (Tr. 72-73). When that occurred, he had constant leg pain, lack of appetite, dizziness, and confusion. (Tr. 73). He had to take his insulin, lie down or sit down, and wait it out. (Tr. 73). About three times a week, he had to lie down because of high blood sugar, and he usually fell asleep for an hour to three hours. (Tr. 73). That had been occurring for about two years prior to the hearing. (Tr. 74). Additionally, about two to four times a month, his blood sugar level dropped so low that he had symptoms. (Tr. 74). When that happened, he had to eat some sugar, sit down, and wait about fifteen minutes so that his blood sugar got high enough for him to function. (Tr. 74). During that fifteen minutes, he would be confused, angry, and unable to stand. (Tr. 74). Bradley testified that he was compliant with his diabetic diet and took his insulin and other medications as they were prescribed. (Tr. 74). Bradley drank alcohol about three days a week. (Tr. 82). A couple of doctors have advised him not to drink, but others have not said anything about it. (Tr. 82).

         Bradley saw a psychiatrist, Dr. Prough, once every four months, as well as a counselor once a week over the phone. (Tr. 77). He had depression and anxiety that caused crying spells and thinking too deeply about things. (Tr. 77). He had panic attacks two to six times a month. (Tr. 77).

         On July 18, 2017, the ALJ held a supplemental hearing. (Tr. 96). Bradley testified that in March 2017, his blood sugar dropped to 22, then raised instantly up over the 500s, and he was admitted to the hospital. (Tr. 103). Additionally, in December 2016, he was hospitalized after a motor vehicle accident caused by a low blood sugar episode. (Tr. 105). Bradley testified that around that time he was drinking about a pint of vodka a night, but that he does not drink that much anymore. (Tr. 105).

         With regard to the medical treatment records, the Court accepts the facts as presented in the parties’ respective statements of fact. Briefly, the record shows that Bradley had insulin-dependent diabetes that was sometimes well controlled but often uncontrolled or poorly controlled; that he had several emergency room visits associated with episodes of very high or very low blood sugar, that he sometimes complained of lower back pain that radiated to his legs; that he had restless leg syndrome; and that he had severe diabetic polyneuropathy that caused pain, decreased sensation, and numbness in his feet and legs; and that he had depression and anxiety.

         III. Standard for Determining Disability Under the Act

         To be eligible for benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must prove he or she is disabled. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); Baker v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992). The Social Security Act defines as disabled a person who is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010). The impairment must be “of such severity that he [or she] is not only unable to do his [or her] previous work but cannot, considering his [or her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he [or she] lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him [or her], or whether he [or she] would be hired if he [or she] applied for work.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a); see also McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir. 2011) (discussing the five-step process). At Step One, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in “substantial gainful activity”; if so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment, which is “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant’s] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities”; if the claimant does not have a severe impairment, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Three, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant’s impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “listings”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant has such an impairment, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds with the rest of the five-step process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

         Prior to Step Four, the Commissioner must assess the claimant’s “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), which is “the most a claimant can do despite [his or her] limitations.” Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e), 416.945(a)(1). At Step Four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can return to his or her past relevant work, by comparing the claimant’s RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant’s past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(f); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled; if the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id. At Step Five, the Commissioner considers the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine whether the claimant can make an adjustment to other work in the national economy; if the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the claimant will be found disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 404.1560(c)(2), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g), 416.960(c)(2); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

         Through Step Four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove that he is disabled. Moore, 572 F.3d at 523. At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that, given the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work experience, there are a significant number of other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.; Brock v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1062, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(c)(2), 416.960(c)(2).

         IV. The ALJ’s Decision

         Applying the foregoing five-step analysis, the ALJ here found that Bradley had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 15, 2013, the alleged onset date; that Bradley had the severe impairment of diabetes mellitus with polyneuropathy; and that Bradley did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments ...

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