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Earnest v. Saul

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

September 23, 2019

TRUDY R. EARNEST, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This action is before this Court for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that Plaintiff Trudy Earnest was not disabled, and thus not entitled to supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner will be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.


         The Court adopts the statement of facts set forth in Plaintiff’s Statement of Uncontroverted Facts (ECF No. 16) and Defendant’s Statement of Additional Facts (ECF No. 23-2).[2] Together, these statements provide a fair description of the record before the Court. Specific facts will be discussed as needed to address the parties’ arguments.

         Plaintiff, who was born in 1971, filed her application for SSI in April 2013, claiming that she became disabled on July 1, 2007, due to fibromyalgia, allodynia, hyperalgesia, chronic pain, sacroiliac joint pain, sciatica pain and spasms, degenerative disc disease, arthritis, high RH factor, severe musculoskeletal pain, tingling and numbness in feet, shooting pain down legs, and chronic pain in joints. Plaintiff later amended her alleged onset date to March 12, 2013.[3]

         Plaintiff’s application was denied at the administrative level, and she thereafter requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On April 29, 2015, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”). On August 2, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform certain jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy and was thus not disabled under the Act. Upon judicial review, this Court remanded the case for further consideration and development of the record with respect to Plaintiff’s treating sources for functional assessments as to how her impairments affect her ability to engage in specific work-related activities. Earnest v. Berryhill, 2:16-CV-00061-CDP, 2017 WL 2535674, at *1 (E.D. Mo. June 12, 2017). The Court also directed the ALJ to base the reassessed RFC on some medical evidence in the record and include a discussion and description of how the evidence supports each RFC conclusion. Id. at *11.

         Upon remand, a supplemental administrative hearing was held on December 6, 2017, at which Petitioner, a consulting medical expert, and another VE testified. By decision dated April 30, 2018, the ALJ[4] found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work as defined by the Commissioner’s regulations, except for the following limitations:

the claimant must have a sit/stand option allowing for a change in position every thirty to sixty minutes for a few minutes at a time while remaining at the work station with no loss in production. The claimant can never climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, vibration, and work hazards such as unprotected heights and being around dangerous moving machinery. The claimant can occasionally reach overhead and can occasionally operate foot controls. The claimant can understand, remember and carry out simple instructions consistent with unskilled work, in a job with no strict production quotas and the claimant would not be subject to the demands of fast-paced production work; i.e. work by shift, not by hour. The claimant can perform simple decision-making related to basic work functions. The claimant can tolerate only minor, infrequent changes within the workplace and must avoid work involving intense or extensive interpersonal interaction, handling complaints or dissatisfied customers, or close proximity to co-workers. The claimant can tolerate occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors, but no contact with the general public.

Tr. 520.

         The ALJ next found that Plaintiff could perform certain light unskilled jobs listed in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) (e.g., marker, office helper, and mail clerk), which the VE had testified that a hypothetical person with Plaintiff’s RFC and vocational factors (age, education, work experience) could perform and that were available in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act.[5]

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence on the whole record because the ALJ failed to follow the instructions on remand. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to contact Plaintiff’s treating sources for functional assessments and erroneously discredited Plaintiff’s complaints of pain. Thus, Plaintiff contends that the RFC is not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.

         The ALJ’s Decision (Tr. 515-529)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disk disease of the cervical spine with remove history of repair surgery, fibromyalgia, obesity, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. However, the ALJ found that none of these impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of impairments listed in the Commissioner’s regulations.[6]

         In applying “paragraph B” criteria, as defined in the Commissioner’s regulations for evaluating the severity of medical impairments, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had only mild limitations in understanding, remembering, or applying information, and adapting or managing herself. The ALJ further found moderate limitations in interacting with others and in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace. As such, the ALJ found that the paragraph B criteria were not satisfied.

         In applying “paragraph C” criteria, the ALJ found that, despite Plaintiff’s mental health issues, there was no evidence of marginal adjustment in that Plaintiff had not been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons, had not required emergent treatment, and was able to function outside her home without substantial psychosocial supports.

         In determining Plaintiff’s RFC and limitations, [7] the ALJ reviewed the following evidence. In December 2017, Plaintiff testified that her conditions have left her in a state of chronic pain, and she therefore has difficulties with all physical activities. She testified that she can only walk a short distance but will experience pain the entire time. For example, Plaintiff testified that she can walk around the grocery store when the electric chairs are not available, and she is able to walk to her mailbox. Plaintiff’s daughter and aunt help Plaintiff with the housework. Plaintiff stated that she can sit without discomfort for ten minutes and stand without discomfort for twelve minutes. She also claims that she can lift two to three pounds, and bending, squatting, or stooping aggravate her pain.

         Plaintiff also testified that she still experiences issues with her surgically repaired cervical spine, and she acknowledges that all of her conditions are exacerbated by her obesity. Plaintiff stated that because of her physical impairments, she experiences depression and anxiety, which then affect her ability to focus and concentrate and prevent her from performing work-related activities.

         Petitioner also testified that she sees her primary care physician, Jeffrey Wells, M.D., at the Hannibal Free Clinic, and he prescribes pain medication (hydrocodone) and Savella, which treats fibromyalgia. Plaintiff is uninsured, which is why she treats at the free clinic. At the time of the December 6, 2017 hearing, Plaintiff testified that ...

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