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Hargis v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

August 29, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.

          Magistrate Judge Newbern



         Pending before the court in this Social Security action is Plaintiff Cynthia Ann Hargis's motion for judgment on the administrative record (Doc. No. 15), to which the Commissioner of Social Security has responded (Doc. No. 16). Hargis has filed a reply. (Doc. No. 17.) Upon consideration of these filings and the administrative record (Doc. No. 11), [2] and for the reasons given below, the court will DENY Hargis's motion for judgment and AFFIRM the decision of the Commissioner.

         I. Statement of the Case

          Hargis filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on October 5, 2009, alleging disability onset as of September 15, 2008, due to severe depression and spinal stenosis. (Tr. 235.)

         Tennessee Disability Determination Services denied Hargis's claims upon initial review and again following her request for reconsideration. Hargis subsequently requested de novo review of her case by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The ALJ heard the case on January 25, 2012, when Hargis appeared with counsel and gave testimony. (Tr. 45-82.) A vocational expert also testified. At the conclusion of the hearing, the ALJ took the matter under advisement until April 3, 2012, when she issued a written decision finding Hargis not disabled. (Tr. 14-36.)

         That decision contains the following enumerated findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013.
2. The claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 15, 2008, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: Degenerative Disc Disease, lumbar spine; Degenerative Joint Disease; Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease; Major Depressive Disorder versus Bipolar Disorder; Obesity; Anxiety Disorder; Borderline Personality Disorder; Polysubstance Abuse, in remission (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), including the ability to lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, sit for about six hours, stand for about six hours, and walk for about six hours--each with normal breaks--during the course of an eight-hour work day, except as follows: From a mental perspective, the claimant is limited to jobs allowing for the ability to understand short and simple instructions, but she can appropriately interact with others, is able to adapt to work-related change, and is able to make simple work-related decisions.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
7. The claimant was born on September 18, 1958 and was 50 years old, which is defined as an individual closely approaching advanced age, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
8. The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from September 15, 2008, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

(Tr. 16, 18-19, 22, 33-35.)

         On August 1, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Hargis's request for review of the ALJ's decision, rendering that decision final. (Tr. 1-3.) This civil action seeking review was timely filed on October 4, 2013. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Review of the Record

         The following summary of the evidence is taken from Hargis's motion for judgment on the record:

Plaintiff Cynthia Ann Hargis was born on September 18, 1958, and was with[in] a week of 50 years old on her alleged disability onset date, October 5, 2009. Tr. 34. As such, she was an individual closely approaching advanced age under the regulations.
In January 2008, Ms. Hargis was treated by Dr. James Seeley related to her back pain, as well as neck pain, arm pain and leg pain. Tr. 1005, 1008. She also reported shortness of breath, chest pain, cough, wheezes, nausea, vomiting, tiredness, weakness, joint pain or swelling, numbness, and dizziness, as well as a history of broken leg, knee surgery, and dog bite to her hand. Id. X-rays of her lumbar spine revealed lumbar spondylosis and facet arthropathy at ¶ 4-5 and L5-S1. Tr. 1007. She was also noted to have decreased strength/tone/range of motion and positive straight leg raise testing. Tr. 1006. Dr. Seeley also treated her regarding pulmonary and/or respiratory difficulties, and x-rays of her chest noted spondylosis of the thoracic spine. Tr. 998. By June 2008, she continued to report persistent back pain which was exacerbated by range of motion, and objective examination again noted decreased strength/tone/range of motion and positive straight leg raise testing. Tr. 988-992.
An MRI of her lumbar spine from June 2008 revealed mild disc desiccation at ¶ 4-5 with bilateral facet arthropathy at ¶ 4-5 and L5-S1, as well as mild right foraminal stenosis at ¶ 4-5 and mild left foraminal stenosis at ¶ 5-S1. Tr. 286. She then underwent physical therapy for her persistent back pain with radiation to her lower extremities. Tr. 288-300. She reported pain rated as a five out of ten at rest, increased to eight or nine at times, worse with bending, sitting, standing, walking, or lying for long periods, progressively worsening during the day, and with varying lower extremity symptoms increased to moderately severe at times. Tr. 298-299. Nonetheless, she continued to suffer from persistent back pain and lower extremity symptoms despite her treatment and physical therapy. Tr. 288- 300. She was also advised on multiple occasions to avoid flexion (such as bending, stooping and/or leaning forward). Id. An MRI of her lumbar spine from December 2008 again revealed facet joint arthropathy at ¶ 4-5 and L5-S1, as well as mild disc desiccation at ¶ 4-5. Tr. 285.
Dr. Seeley's treatment notes throughout this period also show Ms. Hargis' persistent difficulties with her back pain and lower extremity symptoms with decreased strength/tone/range of motion and positive straight leg raise testing despite treatment and medications. Tr. 962-986. These treatment notes also show her diagnosis of lumbar radiculopathy and disc displacement, and she was noted to have limited range of motion of the thoracic spine with tenderness, as well as bilateral rhonchi and wheezes in February 2009. Id.; see Tr. 968.
X-rays of Ms. Hargis' thoracic spine from March 2009 revealed mild focal T8-9 spondylosis with a small bridging osteophyte anteriorly and laterally. Tr. 973. X-rays of her cervical spine from August 2009 revealed no specific abnormality, although C6 and C7 were obscured. Tr. 972.
In [April] 2009, Ms. Hargis presented for a consultative medical examination with Dr. Roy Johnson. Tr. 323-325. Dr. Johnson's objective medical examination revealed tenderness of the lumbar spine with significantly decreased range of motion (and tearfulness), as well as decreased range of motion of the shoulders and hips, with a short and guarded gait and inability to squat and difficulty with tandem walk and balance. Tr. 324-325. Dr. Johnson diagnosed her with low back syndrome, decreased visual acuity, history of carpal tunnel bilaterally, and depression. Tr. 325. He also assessed her with limitations to lifting only 10 pounds occasionally, and standing or walking only 4.5-5 hours total with normal breaks. Tr. 325.
Ms. Hargis . . . presented to the emergency department in May 2009 related to her worsening back pain after being involved in a motor vehicle accident. Tr. 938- 947. She reported low back pain rated as an eight out of ten, as well as some left arm pain. Tr. 945-946. X-rays revealed degenerative subluxation of L5 on S1 related to advanced facet arthropathy. Tr. 938 (emphasis [in original]).
Dr. James Moore reviewed the evidence in June 2009 and provided an opinion regarding Ms. Hargis' capabilities and limitations due to her impairments. Tr. 362-370. Dr. Moore assessed her with limitations to light work with only occasional climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds, frequent climbing ramps or stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching or crawling, limited far acuity, and only frequent bilateral handling and fingering due to diagnostic evidence supporting carpal tunnel syndrome. Id.
Ms. Hargis presented for another consultative medical examination at SSA's request in December 2009 with Dr. Ashok Mehta. Tr. 371-382. Similar to Dr. Johnson, Dr. Mehta's examination revealed significantly decreased range of motion of the lumbar spine, as well as lumbar tenderness and muscle spasm, decreased range of motion of the lower extremities, and an unsteady, slow gait. Tr. 372, 374-375. Dr. Mehta also assessed Ms. Hargis with limitations to lifting or carrying only 10 pounds occasionally (no frequent lifting or carrying); sitting, standing and walking a total of less than an eight-hour workday; occasional climbing and balancing; and never stooping, kneeling, crouching or crawling (among other limitations). Id.
Ms. Hargis underwent a consultative psychological examination in January 2010 and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, moderate, and obsessive compulsive disorder, mild-to-moderate. Tr. 386. She was further assessed with a global assessment of functioning (GAF) score of 54, indicating moderate symptoms, and assessed with moderate impairment in maintaining persisten[ce] ...

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