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Stahlhuth v. Saul

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

October 21, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.



         Plaintiff Jeremy Stahlhuth seeks review of the decision by Defendant Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under the Social Security Act. Because the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the decision to deny benefits, the Court affirms the denial of Plaintiff's application.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         In October 2014, Plaintiff, who was born May 13, 1975, filed an application for SSI alleging he became disabled on October 19, 2014 due to a back injury and depression. (Tr. 88, 161-67) The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's claims, and he filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Tr. 98-105)

         In November 2016, the ALJ conducted a hearing at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. (Tr. 62-87) In a decision dated July 6, 2017, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had “not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since October 26, 2014, the date the application was filed.” (Tr. 45-52) Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the SSA Appeals Council, which denied review. (Tr. 1-6, 159-60) 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

         Plaintiff testified that he was forty-one years old, had a GED, and last worked as machinist for an aerospace company in November 2011. (Tr. 67, 69-70) Plaintiff lived with his wife and two children, ages seventeen and twelve. (Tr. 68)

         Plaintiff testified that he experienced pain in his neck, left arm, and left hand. (Tr. 81) Plaintiff testified that he underwent a cervical fusion that “didn't take” and he continued to have “very minimal mobility” in his neck. (Tr. 73) In addition, Plaintiff sustained nerve damage, which affected his left hand.[2] (Tr. 75) Plaintiff explained that the “first three fingers on my left-hand side are always asleep” and his “hand clenches up in the mornings.” (Id.) He also had numbness in certain “spots in my back” and certain areas of his face. (Tr. 81) Plaintiff was currently taking hydrocodone, chlorthalidone, and tizandine, and he stated that his medications did not cause any side effects. (Tr. 76) Plaintiff was going to begin physical therapy for his left hand later that month and, if “that doesn't improve they want to do surgery on my hand, and then if that doesn't improve going to go through the neck again….” (Tr. 82)

         Plaintiff testified that he was able to stand twenty to thirty minutes before having to recline, and he could sit “an hour or two.” (Id.) Plaintiff could not lift a gallon of milk with his left hand, which was “dropping things constantly[.]” (Tr. 77) On a typical day, Plaintiff would “warm up my hands, usually I go down the stairs, make something to eat, sit on the…recliner…that's pretty much it until I pick up my son.” (Tr. 78) Plaintiff loaded the dish washer, but did not sweep, vacuum, or do laundry. (Tr. 78-79) He was able to climb up and down stairs holding the railing. (Tr. 79) Plaintiff did not go to the grocery store but he went to church on Sundays. (Tr. 78) Although Plaintiff was able to drive, he did not like to drive long distances because he had “a fear of driving….I get real anxious, and stuff like that. So it's more like mentally, nothing physical.” (Tr. 69)

         Plaintiff began receiving mental health care at Family Care because he was “having depression issues being home all the time. I think it was more like cabin fever.” (Tr. 79) He attributed his period of “pretty dark depression” to his injury. (Tr. 80) Plaintiff learned “meditation practices and things of that nature, ” which helped. (Tr. 80) Plaintiff no longer had difficulty sleeping and he stated that his depression was “better now, now I'm going to [my son's] games.” (Tr. 80)

         A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. (Tr. 83-87) The ALJ asked the vocational expert to consider a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience and the following limitations:

This individual can lift up to 10 pounds occasionally, stand/walk for about two hours, and sit for up to six hours in an eight-hour work day with no breaks. This individual can occasionally climb ramps or stairs but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. This individual can occasionally stoop, kneel, and crouch, but never crawl. This individual should avoid unprotected heights and exposure to hazardous machinery.

(Tr. 85) The vocational expert stated that the hypothetical individual could not perform Plaintiff's past relevant work but could perform sedentary, unskilled positions that existed in the national economy, such as the jobs of hand packer and production worker assembler. (Id.) When the ALJ added the limitation to “occasionally handle objects…using the left hand, ” the vocational expert stated “that precludes all sedentary unskilled work.” (Tr. 85-86) The vocational expert explained: “[I]t's my opinion based on job analyses and professional experience that in these assembly type positions particularly at the sedentary level, it requires frequent bilateral use of the hands and fingers.” (Id.)

         With respect to Plaintiff's medical treatment records, the Court adopts the facts as provided by the parties in their respective statements of facts and responses. [ECF Nos. 28, 29-1, 29-2] The Court will address specific facts related to the issues raised by Plaintiff as needed in the discussion below.

         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. 42 U.S.C. § 423 (a)(1); Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001). The Act defines disability as “the inability to do 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 not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); See also 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). The impairment must be “of such severity that [the claimant] is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy ....” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; see also McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 511 (8th Cir. 2011). Those steps require a claimant to show that he or she: (1) is not engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits his or her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities or (3) has an impairment which meets or exceeds one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R., Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) is unable to return to his or her past relevant work; and (5) the impairments prevent him or her from doing any other work. Id.

         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. §§ 416.920(e), 416.945(a)(1). Through step four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove that he or she 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).

         IV. ALJ Decision

         Applying the foregoing five-step analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff: (1) had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 26, 2014; (2) had the severe impairments of “C7 fracture with facet subluxation causing lateral C6-7 foraminal stenosis with left arm radiculopathy, spinal fusion with instrumentation, and obesity” and the non-severe impairments of diabetes and depression; and (3) did not have an impairment or combination of impairments ...

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