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Escandon v. Saul

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

September 27, 2019

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


          Joseph M. Hood United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Cassie Ann Escandon brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to challenge Defendant Commissioner’s final decision denying Plaintiff’s applications for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. [DE 2]. The specific matters currently before the Court include Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 11] and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 13]. Both matters are now ripe for decision, and for the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 11] will be denied, and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 13] will be granted. Accordingly, the Court will affirm the Commissioner’s decision, as it is supported by substantial evidence.


         On September 24, 2015, Plaintiff filed both a Title II application for disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income, alleging her disability began on September 10, 2013. [Tr. 92-93, 220-26, 227-35; 250]. At the time of Plaintiff’s alleged disability onset date, she was 48 years old. [Tr. 66]. Plaintiff completed the ninth (9th) grade, and her past relevant work was as a gas station attendant and hotel clerk/housekeeper. [Tr. 251]. In Plaintiff’s application materials, she initially alleged she was unable to work due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), a heart problem, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arthritis, degenerative disc disease in the back and neck, numbness in arms and legs, bad nerves, and neuropathy. [Tr. 66, 79, 250].

         On March 16, 2013, Plaintiff was diagnosed with right shoulder bursitis. [Tr. 680]. On August 28, 2013, Plaintiff was admitted to the hospital for COPD exacerbation and bilateral pneumonia. [Tr. 384-87]. Plaintiff’s November 20, 2013 pulmonary function examination found mild COPD. [Tr. 442]. Plaintiff’s chest x-rays from July 5, 2014 to June 10, 2015 showed findings compatible with COPD. [Tr. 477, 480, 493, 494, 1001-02]. On December 5, 2016, Plaintiff was again diagnosed with COPD exacerbation. [Tr. 1186].

         On November 29, 2014, Plaintiff was admitted to the hospital and initially diagnosed with chest pain with typical and atypical features, uncontrolled hypertension, chronic pain, moderately controlled diabetes, and depression. [Tr. 445-47]. On November 30, 2014, after adjusting Plaintiff’s medications, Plaintiff was discharged and diagnosed with chest pain, controlled hypertension, and controlled diabetes. [Tr. 445-47]. Both May 12, 2014 and March 19, 2015, x-rays of Plaintiff’s lumbar spine showed a mild degree of diffuse lumbar spondylosis, which Plaintiff’s orthopedist, Kirpal S. Sidhu, M.D., treated with medication. [Tr. 485, 490, 1091-96, 1097, 1098-1104].

         In addition to Plaintiff’s recurring issues with her shoulder, COPD, diabetes, and back, Plaintiff continued seeking treatment related to her coronary artery disease, which included the insertion of stents in both July 2014 and July 2016. [Tr. 945, 1296-98]. Plaintiff’s April 2015, echocardiograph report showed there was a “normal left ventricular size and function with no segmental wall motion abnormalities” and “[e]jection fraction [was] estimated at 65%.” [Tr. 632-33]. Plaintiff’s subsequent July 2016 echocardiograph report showed “[n]ormal left ventricular size and function with mild anteroseptol hypokinesia, ” “[e]jection fraction estimated at:60%, ” and “[g]rade I diastolic dysfunction.” [Tr. 1294]. As of February 11, 2017, Plaintiff’s cardiologist, Srinivasa Appakondu, M.D., was continuing to treat Plaintiff’s heart conditions medically, suspected Plaintiff’s “bilateral lower extremity leg pain [was] secondary to venous insufficiency, ” and ordered a venous ultrasound, the results of which are not found in the record. [Tr. 1274].

         Plaintiff also sought treatment related to her mental health. However, on May 8, 2014, Plaintiff reported that since October 2013, the month after her alleged onset date, she had not been on any medication for depression or anxiety. At that time, complaining of “irritability and short temper” and describing her mood as “‘ not good, ’” she expressed an interest in being on medication again and claimed her symptoms had worsened since October 2013. [Tr. 959-60].

         On January 17, 2016, state agency psychological consultant Lea Perritt, Ph.D., opined that Plaintiff’s affective and anxiety disorders were not severe, and Plaintiff’s restriction of activities of daily living, difficulties in maintaining social functioning, and difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace were all mild. [Tr. 73-74]. On April 25, 2016, state agency psychological consultant Dan Vandivier, Ph.D., opined that Plaintiff’s affective and anxiety disorders were not severe, but while Dr. Vandivier found Plaintiff’s restriction of activities of daily living to be mild, he also found Plaintiff to have moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning and concentration, persistence, or pace. [Tr. 102-03]. Dr. Vandivier further opined Plaintiff was not significantly limited at doing the following: understanding, remembering, and carrying out very short and simple instructions; performing activities within a schedule, maintaining regular attendance, and being punctual within customary tolerances; sustaining an ordinary routine without special supervision; working in coordination with or in proximity to others without being distracted by them; making simple work-related decisions; completing a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms; performing at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods; asking simple questions or requesting assistance; accepting instructions and responding appropriately to criticism from supervisors; being aware of normal hazards and taking appropriate precautions; and traveling to an unfamiliar place or using public transportation. [Tr. 106-08, 124-26]. However, Dr. Vandivier found Plaintiff moderately limited at doing the following: understanding, remembering, and carrying out detailed instructions; maintaining attention and concentration for extended periods; interacting appropriately with the general public; responding appropriately to changes in the work setting; and setting realistic goals or making plans independently of others. [Tr. 106-08; 124-26]. Despite reporting a depressed and anxious mood and auditory hallucinations, such as hearing music, at times, Plaintiff’s medical records, from February 9, 2016 to October 26, 2016, show she had a clear and coherent thought process, no hallucinations, no delusions, no abnormal thought content, and no suicidal or homicidal ideation. [Tr. 1078-89, 1105-06, 1109-11, 1113-19, 1121-23, 1124-44].

         On December 28, 2015, at the behest of the Kentucky Disability Determination Services, William R. Rigby, Ph.D., conducted a consultative examination of Plaintiff. [Tr. 1042-46]. Dr. Rigby noted the following about Plaintiff: she “drove herself to the exam;” her gait was normal; she “became very uncomfortable and anxious during the session and her neck turned a bright red;” her mood appeared “mildly depressed;” she had “[i]ntact concentration and attention;” and she had “intact short-term and long-term memory.” [Tr. 1043-44]. Dr. Rigby diagnosed Plaintiff with posttraumatic stress disorder, depressive disorder, diabetes, cardiac problems, degenerative disc disease, and “COPD by claimant report” and assessed her to have a Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score of sixty (60), indicating Plaintiff’s symptoms were moderate. [Tr. 1046]; see also [Tr. 36]. Dr. Rigby opined, “The claimant has mild impairment to understand, retain, and follow simple instructions and mild impairment to sustain concentration and persistence to complete tasks in normal time.” [Tr. 1046]. Dr. Rigby further opined, “The claimant has marked impairment to maintain social interactions with supervisors, friends, and the public and marked impairment to adapt and respond to the pressures of normal day-to-day work activity.” [Tr. 1046].

         On May 18, 2016, Donna Sadler, M.D., a state agency medical consultant, provided an opinion on Plaintiff’s Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). [Tr. 104-06, 122-24]. Dr. Sadler found Plaintiff had the following exertional limitations: occasionally lift or carry twenty (20) pounds; frequently lift or carry ten (10) pounds; and sit, stand, or walk six (6) hours in an eight (8) hour workday. [Tr. 104, 122]. Dr. Sadler also found Plaintiff could occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and frequently stoop and crawl. [Tr. 105, 123]. Dr. Sadler further found Plaintiff should avoid all exposure to hazards, such as machinery and heights, and avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold or heat, wetness, humidity, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation. [Tr. 105, 123].

         Plaintiff’s disability claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. [Tr. 92, 93, 130, 131]. On June 29, 2017, the ALJ held a hearing. [Tr. 46-65]. At the time of the hearing [Tr. 46-65], Plaintiff was fifty-two (52) years old. As will be discussed further herein, Plaintiff testified at the hearing. [Tr. 50-59].

         In addition to Plaintiff, vocational expert (“VE”) Betty Hale testified. [Tr. 61-64]. VE Hale testified that a hypothetical person of Plaintiff’s age, with Plaintiff’s education, work experience, and limitations, could not perform Plaintiff’s past relevant work. [Tr. 62-63]. However, VE Hale testified that a person such as Plaintiff could perform unskilled work as a small products assembler, inspector/packager, grader, or sorter. [Tr. 63]. VE Hale further testified that her testimony was consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”), where applicable, as the DOT does not contain sit/stand restrictions. [Tr. 64].

         On September 14, 2017, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) reviewed the evidence of record and denied Plaintiff’s application. [Tr. 26-45]. In denying Plaintiff’s application, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “obesity, degenerative disc disease, neuropathy, [COPD] with tobacco abuse, coronary artery disease with history of stenting, history right shoulder bursitis, anxiety, and depression.” [Tr. 32 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c))]. Despite the ALJ finding Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, the ALJ also found Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b), with the following physical limitations: occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; no climbing of ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; occasional reaching overhead with right upper extremity; occasional exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold, humidity, and pulmonary irritants; and no exposure to unprotected heights or dangerous moving machinery. [Tr. 34]. The ALJ found Plaintiff’s mental limitations to be as follows: can understand and remember simple instructions; can sustain the attention and concentration necessary to complete simple tasks with regular breaks every two hours; can occasionally interact with supervisors and coworkers; cannot interact with the public; and can adapt to routine work conditions and occasional workplace changes that are gradually introduced. [Tr. 34].

         The ALJ, accepting the vocational expert’s testimony, found Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a gas station attendant, which is classified as light but performed at medium, and hotel housekeeper, which is classified as light but performed at heavy. [Tr. 38]. However, again accepting the vocational expert’s testimony, the ALJ determined there are other jobs Plaintiff could perform in the national economy, such as a small products assembler and inspector and hand packager, which are classified as light and unskilled, and Plaintiff was, therefore, found to not be disabled. [Tr. 39]. On May 9, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s September 14, 2017 decision [Tr. 26-45], which rendered the decision [Tr. 26-45] final. [Tr. 1-6].

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, on July 5, 2018, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff sought review through an action in this Court. [DE 2]. On September 25, 2018, Defendant filed an Answer [DE 9] contending, “Paragraph 6 of Plaintiff’s Complaint states legal conclusions to which no responsive pleading is required, ” and “Plaintiff’s Complaint represents a Prayer for Relief to which no responsive pleading is required.” [DE 9, at 2]. To the extent that the Court deems a response to Paragraph 6 of the Complaint [DE 2] necessary or the Prayer for Relief is deemed to allege facts to which a response is required, “the Defendant denies the allegations.” Id. Pursuant to the Court’s September 26, 2018, Standing Scheduling Order [DE 10], Plaintiff was directed to “move for summary judgment or judgment on the pleadings within sixty (60) days.” [DE 10, at 2].

         As will be discussed further herein, on November 20, 2018, Plaintiff filed the present Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 11], with an accompanying Memorandum in Support [DE 11-1], arguing, in summary, that the ALJ erred by failing to support his finding that Plaintiff was not disabled with substantial evidence and by failing to properly evaluate Plaintiff’s subjective complaints of pain. [DE 11-1, at 2]. Responding to Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 11], on December 20, 2018, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [DE 13] contending the ALJ’s decision [Tr. 26-45] should be affirmed because the ALJ’s decision [Tr. 26-45] was supported by substantial evidence, and Plaintiff’s subjective complaints were not supported by the record. [DE 13, at 8-13].


         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a reviewing court “must affirm the Commissioner’s conclusions absent a determination that the Commissioner has failed to apply the correct legal standard or has made findings of fact unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.” Longworth v. Comm’r Soc. Sec., 402 F.3d 591, 595 (6th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). The scope of judicial review is limited to the record itself, and the reviewing court “may not try the case de novo, nor ...

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