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Anderson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

February 9, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Danny C. Reeves United States District Judge.

         This matter is pending for consideration of the cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff Cheryl Anderson and Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security. [Record Nos. 10, 12] Anderson contends that the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) assigned to her case erred by denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). [Record No. 10] She asks the Court to reverse the ALJ's decision and to award her benefits or remand the case for a new hearing. [Record No. 10-1, p. 13] The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. [Record No. 12] For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the Commissioner's motion and deny the relief sought by Anderson.


         Anderson filed applications for DIB under Title II and SSI under Title XVI of the Social Security Act on October 25, 2013. [Administrative Transcript, “Tr., ” 216, 220] Anderson alleged that her disability began on October 22, 2012; however, she later amended the alleged onset date to January 3, 2013. [Tr. 57-58, 216, 220] Her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. [Tr. 144-51, 158-72] Thereafter, an administrative hearing was held before ALJ Christopher C. Sheppard. [Tr. 55-99] The ALJ issued a written decision denying the claims. [Tr. 38-47] Anderson then sought review by the Appeals Council which was denied. [Tr. 1-7] Anderson has exhausted her administrative remedies and her case is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         Anderson was fifty years old at the time her disability allegedly began, and fifty-three years old at the time of the administrative hearing. [Tr. 60, 216] She is approximately five feet tall and weighs 229 pounds. [Tr. 45, 64, 241] Her height and weight have not changed significantly since early 2012. [See id.] Anderson has a high school education and was employed for over twenty years as an injection molding inspector at a car manufacturer. [Tr. 60-61, 252] She testified that her position required being in constant motion and doing a lot of bending, twisting, and lifting. [Tr. 61] The vocational expert classified her former position as unskilled with a medium level of exertion. [Tr. 45, 87-90]

         Anderson was involved in a car accident on October 22, 2012, and sustained right lumbar transverse process factures. [Tr. 44, 66, 337, 340, 342] She testified that she has suffered from back pain since the accident and was unable to return to work due to the pain. [Tr. 62-66, 260-64] Treatment notes from Dr. Robert Knetsche, a neurosurgeon, similarly indicate that Anderson's back pain prevented her from returning to work. [Tr. 370, 376] Anderson received physical therapy and injection therapy following the accident and reported improvement with working out in the pool and joint injection therapy. [TR. 44, 67, 370-72, 390-91, 419-38] An MRI from January 16, 2013, revealed mild degenerative disc disease at ¶ 2/3 and an MRI from February 13, 2013, revealed minimal degenerative disc disease at ¶ 2/3 with no significant central stenosis or neural foraminal narrowing. [Tr. 44, 347-48, 350-51] An electromyogram/nerve conduction velocity (“EMG/NCV”) study similarly showed no signs of nerve pathology. [Tr. 44, 380, 384]

         Anderson stated that, in addition to her physical injuries, the accident has taken an emotional toll, causing her to become anxious and depressed. [Tr. 69, 259, 264] Dr. Jennifer Fishkoff performed a psychological consultative examination on February 28, 2014, which indicated that Anderson suffers from depression, pain, and anxiety, and that her mental stamina is weakened as a result of her pain and medications. [Tr. 473-78] According to Fishkoff, Anderson's psychiatric problems also moderately impair her ability to understand, retain, and follow instructions, tolerate frustration, and sustain attention to perform simple and repetitive tasks. [Tr. 478] Anderson intermittently sought mental health treatment throughout 2014 and 2015 and has not required emergent or inpatient treatment. [Tr. 45] She testified that she has had anxiety attacks less frequently recently, and the therapeutic treatment she is receiving seems to be helping. [Tr. 45, 69, 557, 595, 688]

         State agency physician Donna Sadler, M.D., reviewed the relevant record and completed a Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) assessment on July 17, 2014. [Tr. 129-31] Sadler's RFC assessment indicates that Anderson can occasionally lift and carry 50 pounds, frequently lift and carry 25 pounds, and can stand or walk (with normal breaks) for a total of 6 hours in an 8 hour workday. [Tr. 129] Based on this RFC, Anderson would be capable of performing work at the medium exertion level. [Tr. 131]

         Anderson's primary care physician, Dr. David Overstreet, also completed an RFC form on November 13, 2015, indicating more severe limitations than Sadler listed. [Tr. 599-605] Overstreet stated that Anderson's pain is frequently severe enough to interfere with her attention and concentration. [Tr. 601] He indicated that she can sit for 30 minutes, stand for 15 minutes, and walk for 20 minutes continuously and without a change in position. [Tr. 601-02] He further indicated that she can stand and walk for less than 2 hours and sit for about 4 hours in an 8 hour workday, and that she can lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally, 20 pounds infrequently, and can never carry 50 pounds or more. [Tr. 602] Overstreet further stated that he would expect Anderson to be absent from work 5 or more days per month due to her pain. [Tr. 605] Overstreet similarly stated in his treatment notes from April 8, 2013, that Anderson was unable to stand for any length of time. [Tr. 447]

         Anderson testified during the administrative hearing that she has lived with her mother for her entire life. [Tr. 69] She helps with laundry, doing dishes, and dusting, but has to take breaks when her back begins to hurt. [Tr. 71, 73] Anderson drives to the grocery store once or twice per week, and occasionally travels to visit family. [Tr. 72, 75, 77] She recently traveled to South Carolina and, at one point, indicated that she may move to Florida. [Tr. 45, 77, 688] Anderson enjoys reading, coloring, and Sudoku puzzles, but sometimes has difficulty following a conversation or a television program when she is stressed or in pain. [Tr. 73-74, 82-84] She spends much of her day in a recliner which elevates her legs and takes pressure off of her back. [Tr. 82-84] She walks outside for exercise, usually for around 30 minutes, but she has to stop if pain flares up, which happens more frequently in the winter. [Tr. 73-74] Anderson thought that she could lift or carry about 10 to 15 pounds but could not do so constantly for an 8 hour work day, that she could stand for about 30 minutes at a time, and that she could sit for about 30 to 40 minutes at a time. [Tr. 78-79, 84]

         ALJ Sheppard issued a decision on March 4, 2016, concluding that Anderson was not disabled during the relevant time period. [Tr. 47] He found that Anderson has the following severe impairments: obesity, degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, and affective disorder. [Tr. 40] However, he determined that Anderson did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [Tr. 41]

         ALJ Sheppard concluded that Anderson has the RFC to perform light work. [Tr. 43] More specifically, the ALJ found that she can lift, carry, push, and pull 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally, can sit for 6 hours in an 8 hour workday if she alternates to standing for 1 to 3 minutes after every 45 minutes of sitting, and can stand or walk for 6 hours in an 8 hour workday so long as she does not continuously stand or walk for more than 45 minutes at a time. [Id.] She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, never climb ladders and scaffolds, occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, and cannot work around unprotected heights. [Id.] She can understand, remember, and carry out instructions to perform simple, routine tasks and can use judgment and deal with changes in a work setting to make simple work-related decisions. [Id.]

         Based on this RFC and the testimony provided by Anderson and the vocational expert, ALJ Sheppard concluded that Anderson was unable to perform her past relevant work. [Tr. 45] However, based on the vocational expert's testimony, he found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Anderson could have performed, such as small products assembly, cashier, and grading or ...

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