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Anderson v. Saul

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

September 26, 2019

SARA BETH ANDERSON, No. Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Joseph M. Hood Senior U.S. District Judge.

         Plaintiff, Sarah Beth Anderson (“Anderson”), brings this matter under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of an administrative decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security. The Court, having reviewed the record and the cross motions for summary judgment filed by the parties, [DE 11, 13], will AFFIRM the Commissioner’s decision as no legal error occurred and the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision is supported by substantial evidence.

         I. STANDARD FOR DETERMINING DISABILITY

         Under the Social Security Act, a disability is defined as “inability to engage in 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 of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         To evaluate a claim of disability for Title II disability insurance benefit claims, an ALJ conducts a five-step analysis. Compare 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (disability insurance benefit claim) with 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (claims for supplemental security income).[2] In determining disability, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) uses a five-step analysis. See Jones v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 336 F.3d 469, 474 (6th Cir. 2003). Step One considers whether the claimant is still performing substantial gainful activity; Step Two, whether any of the claimant’s impairments are “severe”; Step Three, whether the impairments meet or equal a listing in the Listing of Impairments; Step Four, whether the claimant can still perform past relevant work; and, if necessary, Step Five, whether significant numbers of other jobs exist in the national economy which the claimant can perform. As to the last step, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the Commissioner. Id.; see also Preslar v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 14 F.3d 1107, 1110 (6th Cir. 1994).

         II. PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL HISTORY

         In June 2015, Anderson applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”), alleging disability as of April 2015. [TR 209-215; TR 216-224]. Anderson alleged disability due to physical and mental impairments. [TR 10; TR 12; 209-224].

         Anderson’s applications for SSI and DIB were denied initially on August 31, 2015. [TR 134-137]. Her applications were also denied on reconsideration on December 16, 2015. [TR 140-42]. Subsequently, Anderson appeared at an administrative hearing before ALJ Susan Brock. [TR 38-75]. Anderson was represented by an attorney at the hearing. [Id.].

         The ALJ issued a decision on April 11, 2017, denying Anderson’s claims and finding she was not disabled. [TR 23]. The Appeals Council denied review. [TR 1-3]. This appeal followed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). [DE 1]. Consistent with the Court’s Standing Scheduling Order, [DE 10], the parties have submitted cross motions for summary judgment, which are ripe for review. [DE 11, 13].

         Anderson alleges onset of disability at age 26. Anderson engaged in past relevant work as a sales associate, a CNA, a daycare worker, and a nursery worker. [TR 269].

         At the hearing, Anderson reported that she stopped working in April 25th of 2015 due to a bone bruise on her left ankle. [TR 44]. She ultimately quit in June. [TR 44]. In particular she reported that the injury “caused me to be off of work for a while and the longer that I was off, I just started thinking more and more about what to do with going back to work or just going for the disability.” [TR 44]. She reported that this injury healed in August of that 2015. [TR 44].

         Anderson also reports that two other problems that primarily impact her ability to work. First, she reports that she suffers from undifferentiated connective tissue disease. [TR 49]. Anderson explained that this causes her a lot of joint pain and swelling. [Id.]. She also claims this has caused her problems with her breathing and requires her to have an emergency inhaler. [TR 50].

         Second, she testified that she suffers from fibromyalgia. [TR 49]. This causes Anderson to experience back pain and sciatic nerve pain. [TR 49]. Anderson also claims that her fibromyalgia causes her to go numb on her right side once or twice per week, up to three to four hours at a time. [TR 50].

         Anderson testified that she could not do any bending, that exercising is difficult, although stretching relieves some of her back pain. [TR 51]. She also claims that she went to physical therapy for the back pain to do traction for the back pain. [TR 51]. This involved massaging. [TR 51]. However, after she quit physical therapy, the back pain returned. [TR 51]. Anderson testified that she has joint pain in her fingers, elbows, ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders. [TR 52].

         As to her Sjogren’s, Anderson testified she lost all of her teeth. [TR 53]. She got dentures that do not comfortably fit. [TR 53]. Anderson believes that her lack of teeth affects her ability to work in customer service because she cannot present herself “in a nice way.” [TR 53]. She also says she cannot speak effectively while wearing her dentures. [TR 54]. Anderson next testified that her Raynaud’s constricts blood flow causing her to lose feeling in her fingers, especially in her extremities. [TR 55]. This is exacerbated by extreme temperatures, which, Anderson testified, she tries to avoid. [TR 56].

         Anderson further testified that she suffers from UTIs on a frequent basis. [TR 53]. Anderson reports that her frequent UTIs cause her to get dizzy, have “vertigo, ” and pass out. [TR 57]. Anderson testified that she gets at least one (1) UTI per month. Andersons states that her monthly UTI episodes cause her to use the restroom frequently, from every thirty (30) minutes to an hour. [TR 58].

         Next, Anderson testified as to her depression. [TR 58]. Anderson reported taking depression medication for eight (8) years. [TR 58]. Anderson claims she no longer likes to be around people like she used to, does not like getting out of the bed, and do not like leaving her home. [TR 59]. Although her doctor has allegedly suggested she go to counseling, Anderson has not gone. [TR 58].

         Finally, Anderson testified that she had asthma, requiring her to use a nebulizer during some months of the year. [TR 65]. Anderson reported that she typically has to use the nebulizer at nighttime, and that the treatment takes approximately 20-25 minutes. [TR 65-66].

         A vocational expert, Jane Hall, also testified at the hearing. The vocational expert explained that Anderson had worked as a nurse’s aide, a salesperson/cashier, and a babysitter. [TR 71]. The ALJ posed hypotheticals to the vocational expert. [TR 71-75].

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 11, 2017. [TR 10-23]. At Step One, the ALJ determined that Anderson has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 26, 2015. [TR 12]. At Step Two, the ALJ found that Anderson suffered from the following severe impairments: obesity, connective tissue disease, fibromyalgia, Raynaud’s, Sjogren’s, lumbago with sciatica, and asthma. [TR 12]. However, the ALJ found that recurrent UTI, acute bronchitis/pharyngitis, bone bruise left ankle/heel, vitamin D deficiency, hypertension, ovarian cyst, depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder were non-severe. [TR 13]. The ALJ found that Anderson’s medically determinable mental impairments of depression and anxiety were non-severe. [TR 13].

         Thus, at Step Three, the ALJ found that none of those impairments or combination or impairment met or medically equaled the severity of any of the listed impairments. [TR 14]. In reaching this conclusion, ALJ considered Listings 4.12; 12.04; 12.06; 1.06; 14.06; 14.04; and 14.10; but found that Anderson had not satisfied the requisite severity.

         Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). [TR 14]. Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform the following tasks:

Light work...except for work requiring more than frequent climbing of ramps or stairs, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling; frequent handling, fingering, and feeling; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; frequent exposure to extreme heat, cold, and wetness, no more than occasional exposure to unprotected heights and hazardous machinery; frequent exposure to dust, pollen, mites, allergens, poor ventilation, and other pulmonary irritants. Claimant can perform simple routine tasks where workplace changes are occasional and gradually introduced.

[Id.].

         At step four, the ALJ discussed Sjogren’s autoimmune disease, Raynaud’s disease, fibromyalgia, and asthma. [TR 15]. The ALJ also discussed Anderson’s prior treatments for urinary tract infection, abdominal upset, widespread pain, knee pain, Raynaud’s, ankle sprain, low back pain, depression and anxiety while reviewing the medical evidence. [TR 14-21]. Ultimately, the ALJ found that the objective medical evidence did not support Anderson’s assessment of the severity of her symptoms. [TR 15].

         The ALJ then concluded, at Step Four, that Anderson is unable to perform any past relevant work as a sales associate, certified nursing aide, day care provider, or sales associate cashier. [TR 21]. The ALJ based this determination upon, among other things, the vocational experts testimony that the these jobs are precluded by the residual functional capacity assessment. [Id.].

         However, the ALJ determined that given Anderson’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Anderson] can perform[].” [TR 22]. Again, the ALJ based her conclusion, in part, on the testimony of the VE that Plaintiff could be able to perform the requirements of occupations such as stock clerk (240, 000 jobs nationally) office clerk (190, 000 jobs nationally), and receptionist ...


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