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Tatro v. Saul

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

January 2, 2020

SOU TERRI L. TATRO, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          PATRICIA L. COHEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Terri Tatro seeks review of the decision by Defendant Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under the Social Security Act. For the reasons set forth below, the case is reversed and remanded.

         I. Procedural History

         In November 2015, Plaintiff, then forty-six years old, filed an application for SSI, alleging that she became disabled on December 19, 2014[2] due to: depression, arthritis, PTSD, and high blood pressure. (Tr. 75, 159-64) The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied her application and, in April 2016, she filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Tr. 87-91, 94). In July 2017, Plaintiff submitted a “dire need” request stating that she was homeless, and the SSA granted Plaintiff's case “special expedited processing.” (Tr. 114-116)

         The ALJ conducted a hearing in March 2018, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. (Tr. 30-74) In a decision dated April 3, 2018, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since November 24, 2015, the date application was filed[.]” (Tr. 12-25) Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the SSA Appeals Council, which denied the request. (Tr. 1-5, 158) 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 she was forty-five years old and had a bachelor's degree in health and human services. (Tr. 56) Since her husband died in January 2015, Plaintiff had not had “a stable place to stay” and “bounc[ed] back and forth” between the homes of two friends. (Tr. 35)

         Plaintiff most recently worked on a “sensory panel” for J. Reckner from 2012 through 2014. (Tr. 40) Plaintiff worked “either an hour a day or three hours a day…four days a week, ” and the job required her to enter a room, “circle around the room and we'd write down if we smelled something or if we didn't smell something and we had to rate how strong the smell is.” (Tr. 40-41) Plaintiff left J. Reckner because her mental and physical conditions were “getting worse, ” she “started getting anxiety issues, ” and “it was very difficult for me” to “walk around the room.” (Tr. 42, 60)

         Plaintiff testified that she received mental health treatment from Linda Hammonds, whom she saw every two months.[3] (Tr. 52) In addition, Plaintiff received counseling from Ms. Schumacher “usually every two weeks, but for the last two months it's been about every week.” (Tr. 52) Plaintiff testified that, despite, taking “a lot” of medication, “I still have hallucinations. I still have lack of concentration. I still have anxiety and depression.” (Tr. 53) When the ALJ asked Plaintiff what, if anything, triggered her anxiety, she answered: “Not anything in particular. I just have to be minding my own business, doing whatever, and I'll just have an onset of anxiety, very overwhelming feeling, overwhelmingness.” (Tr. 54) For example, she recalled “a few times towards the end” of her employment at J. Reckner when she “wanted to just stand up and scream, just scream.” (Id.)

         When asked to describe a typical day, Plaintiff stated: “Well, it takes me forever getting out of bed because of my depression. I'll get up, kind of watch just a little bit of the TV.” (Tr. 54-55) She elaborated: “I'm very sad and I'll cry, cry a lot. I'm just tired, just very tired.” (Tr. 58) Plaintiff had difficulty sleeping at night due to “[r]acing thoughts.” (Tr. 58) Plaintiff estimated that she remained in bed all day three or four times per week. (Tr. 59)

         In regard to her physical impairments, Plaintiff described low back pain, that radiated down her right leg. (Tr. 61) Plaintiff also experienced “numbness and tingling” in her right leg. (Tr. 61) Plaintiff's back pain required her to “reposition myself a lot when sitting, ” alternating between sitting up right, reclining, and walking “around for a few [minutes].” (Tr. 60-62) Plaintiff took gabapentin and Celebrex for pain, and had received injections in her low back, which she stated “are not doing me any good.” (Tr. 59, 63) Plaintiff's doctor would not perform surgery on her back unless she lost weight. (Tr. 47) Plaintiff had also received “some injections” in her right hip and, at her upcoming doctor appointment, would “talk about either another shot or the surgery thing.” (Tr. 47) In regard to her shoulders, Plaintiff stated: “I can barely lift with both, you know, shoulder lift.” (Tr. 46)

         Plaintiff's friend helped her cook and do laundry. (Tr. 37-38) Plaintiff testified that she was able to stand or walk for only “about five minutes” at a time. (Tr. 48) Plaintiff was unable to carry a gallon of milk because it caused “a lot of pressure in the back, ” but she believed she could carry “[m]aybe like a half a gallon….” (Tr. 50-51) Plaintiff walked with a cane, prescribed by her doctor, because her “right hip will give out and I fall.” (Tr. 48-49) Plaintiff wore a brace on her left knee for arthritis. (Tr. 49)

         A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. (Tr. 65-70) The vocational expert classified Plaintiff's past work as “finish inspector, ” which was unskilled, light work. (Tr. 66) The ALJ asked the vocational expert to consider an individual with Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience and the following limitations:

[T]his individual was limited to four hours of standing and walking in a day. They could lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. They could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The remaining posturals are at occasional and assume balance is at occasional. Further assume that this hypothetical individual would be limited to work that is simple and routine and repetitive tasks and work environment free of fast paced quota requirements, involving only simple work-related decisions with few if any work questions, no interaction with the public, and only brief and superficial interaction with coworkers.

(Tr. 66) The vocational expert testified that such an individual could not perform Plaintiff's past relevant work, but would be able to perform sedentary jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy such as, table worker, machine tender, and hand assembler. (Tr. 66-67)

         When Plaintiff's counsel added that the hypothetical individual “was going to be off task up to 20 percent of the work day due to psychiatric problems, ” the vocational expert testified that such individual could not perform the jobs previously identified. (Tr. 69-70) Likewise, if the hypothetical individual “were missing work two days per month on an ongoing basis, they would not be maintained on the job.” (Tr. 70)

         With respect to Plaintiff's medical treatment records, the Court adopts the facts that Plaintiff provided in her statement of material facts and the Commissioner admitted. [ECF Nos. 22, 27-1] The Court addresses specific facts related to the issues Plaintiff raises as needed in the discussion below.

         III. Standard of Determining Disability under the Social Security 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, ...


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