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Staggs v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London

October 2, 2018

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



         This matter is pending for consideration of cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff Cathy Jean Staggs (“Staggs” or the “Claimant”) and Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner.”) [Record Nos. 1');">11');">1, 1');">13] Staggs argues that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) assigned to her case erred in concluding that she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Specifically, she asserts that the ALJ did not properly evaluate her subjective complaints and that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence.

         Staggs asks the Court to direct the Commissioner to award her benefits or, alternatively, remand this matter to the Commissioner for further consideration. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ properly evaluated the evidence and that his decision should be affirmed because it is supported by substantial evidence. The Commissioner's motion will be granted and Staggs' motion will be denied for the reasons that follow.


         Staggs filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Act on April 24, 201');">15. [Administrative Transcript; hereafter, “Tr., ” 204] Staggs requested a hearing before an ALJ after the application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. [Tr. 1');">11');">15, 1');">122, 1');">129] She appeared before ALJ Jonathan Leiner for an administrative hearing in March 201');">17. [Tr. 27-70] ALJ Leiner denied benefits in a written decision on August 31');">1, 201');">17. [Tr. 1');">10-22] The Appeals Council affirmed the ALJ's decision in March 201');">18. [Tr. 1');">1-5] Therefore, the Claimant has exhausted her administrative remedies and the matter is ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         Staggs was fifty-three-years-old at the time of her application for benefits. [See Tr. 70, 204.] She completed the eighth grade and has a general equivalency diploma (“GED”). [Tr. 345] Staggs worked at Advance Auto Parts in Williamsburg, Kentucky, from 1');">1999 until 201');">14. [Tr. 255-56, 345] She sustained an injury when she fell from a ladder at work in March 201');">13. [Tr. 1');">184-86, 240] Staggs eventually returned to work after the fall, but alleges that she became unable to work on May 3, 201');">14, due to lingering problems with her neck, back, and the left side of her body. [Tr. 35-36]

         Staggs testified during the administrative hearing that low back pain was her worst problem and that it radiated down to her left knee. [Tr. 37-38] She reported that she could only sit, stand, or walk for about ten minutes at a time. [Tr. 44-45, 47] Staggs also stated that she was unable to climb a flight of stairs and that she could not lift a gallon of milk and carry it a short distance. [Tr. 48]

         Staggs lived with her boyfriend and one of her adult children, as well as her nine-year-old grandson. [Tr. 49] She reported that she sometimes tried to fold clothes, but she was mostly unable to perform any housework [Tr. 49-51');">1, 242-44] Staggs also stated that she required a cane to walk, and needed assistance stepping into the tub and bathing her lower body. [Tr. 52]

         David Grant, APRN, at Ho Physicians Services, treated Staggs for low back pain from 201');">13 through 201');">15. [Tr. 237, 320-25; 409-46] Grant noted that Staggs had reduced range of motion in the lumbar spine and some tenderness in the low back area. However, treatment was conservative and was limited to pharmacologic management. See Id. Grant issued a statement on November 4, 201');">14, indicating that Staggs had “unstable gait” and could perform “no long periods of standing or sitting . . . no climbing, pulling, pushing, ” and could not lift items weighing more than five pounds. [Tr. 41');">13]

         Staggs has undergone multiple diagnostic imaging tests. She received an x-ray of her lumbar spine at the Jellico Community Hospital in May 201');">14. [Tr. 296] The x-ray was unremarkable, aside from mild degenerative changes at the L5-S1');">1 level. Id. An MRI of the lumbar spine was performed in December 201');">14. [Tr. 31');">11');">1] The results were normal for Staggs' age with the exception of L5-S1');">1, which had a “mild central protrusion with associated annular tear and minimal extrusion component.” Id. An MRI of Staggs's cervical spine was performed in July 201');">13. [Tr. 297] The MRI reflected a mild diffuse disc bulge at the C6-C7 level, resulting in mild bilateral neural foraminal narrowing. Id. Staggs's left foot was x-rayed in November 201');">13 due to complaints of foot pain. [Tr. 298] This x-ray revealed a heel spur, but was otherwise normal. Id.

         Magdy El-Kalliny, M.D., and Alisha Tarter, PA-C, treated Staggs for low back pain at the Lake Cumberland Neurosurgical Clinic in late 201');">14 and early 201');">15. Staggs advised these providers that her pain rated nine to ten out of ten, and radiated down her entire leg. [Tr. 307, 309] Dr. El-Kalliny recommended epidural steroid injections and advised Staggs to lose weight. [Tr. 308] He also recommended that she not lift, push, or pull more than five pounds based on the disc bulge and annular tear seen on the lumbar MRI. Id. El-Kalliny planned to follow-up with Staggs in ten months, but there is no indication that this follow-up visit occurred. Id.

         William Waltrip, M.D., performed a consultative examination on June 29, 201');">15. [Tr. 31');">13] Staggs informed Dr. Waltrip about her fall in 201');">13 and the resulting problems with her back and left lower extremity. Id. She also reported that she injured her left ankle and left shoulder in 201');">14. [Tr. 31');">13-1');">14]

         Although Staggs could not squat or walk heel-to-toe and tandem, there was no loss of motor strength or fine touch. [Tr. 31');">15] Dr. Waltrip determined that Staggs would have difficulty walking more than a few steps without use of her cane, but that she should be able to lift objects of at least 20 pounds without limitation. [Tr. 31');">16] Waltrip found that Staggs could raise both arms well above shoulder level-to 1');">150 degrees. [Tr. 31');">17] While she had some limitation of flexion and extension of her lumbar spine, she had no motor dysfunction, sensory loss, or ...

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