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Pritchett v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division

September 28, 2017

BETTYE PRITCHETT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          P. BRADLEY MURRAY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Bettye Pritchett brings this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), based on disability. The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by the Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), for all proceedings in this Court. (Doc. 28 (“In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, the parties in this case consent to have a United States Magistrate Judge conduct any and all proceedings in this case, ... order the entry of a final judgment, and conduct all post-judgment proceedings.”)). See also Doc. 30. Upon consideration of the administrative record, Pritchett's brief, the Commissioner's brief, and all other documents of record, it is determined that the Commissioner's decision denying benefits should be reversed and remanded.[2]

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Pritchett applied for SSI, based on disability, under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383d, on December 10, 2012, alleging disability beginning on December 7, 2012. (Tr. 189, 195). Her application was denied at the initial level of administrative review on March 1, 2013. (Tr. 126-30). On March 14, 2013, Pritchett requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Tr. 134). After a hearing was held on August 25, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Pritchett was not under a disability from the date the application was filed through the date of the decision, September 16, 2014. (Tr. 34-50). Pritchett appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review of the ALJ's decision on June 17, 2016. (Tr. 1-4).

         After exhausting her administrative remedies, Pritchett sought judicial review in this Court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). (Doc. 1). The Commissioner filed an answer and the social security transcript on November 8, 2016. (Docs. 11, 12). On January 20, 2017, Pritchett filed a brief in support of her claim. (Doc. 16). The Commissioner filed her brief on May 12, 2017. (Doc. 24). The parties waived oral argument. (Docs. 27, 29). The case is now ripe for decision.

         II. CLAIMS ON APPEAL

         Pritchett alleges that the ALJ's decision to deny her benefits is in error for the following three reasons:

1. The ALJ's finding that Pritchett's carpal tunnel syndrome, hypertension, and headaches are non-severe impairments is not supported by substantial evidence;
2. The ALJ failed to apply the Eleventh Circuit's pain standard correctly; and
3. The ALJ failed to develop a full and fair record by not ordering objective medical testing for carpal tunnel syndrome, such as nerve conduction testing. (Doc. 16 at p. 2).

         III. BACKGROUND FACTS

         Pritchett was born on April 23, 1961 and was 51 years old at the time she filed her claim for benefits. (Tr. 189). Pritchett alleged disability due to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and carpel tunnel syndrome. (Tr. 224). She attended regular education classes and graduated from high school in 1979. (Tr. 225). She worked from 1989 to 2001 as a sewing machine operator, and she worked as a housekeeper in 2005. (Tr. 216, 233). She engages in limited daily activities, such as sleeping, watching television, walking in her yard, and light chores around the house in 15-minute increments. (Tr. 241). She is unable to fix her hair, shave, or button, zip, or unfasten clothes because of pain in her hands. (Tr. 242). She cannot prepare meals because she drops dishes and food. (Tr. 243). She can pay bills, count change, and handle a savings account, but she cannot use a checkbook because writing is very difficult because her “hands hurt too bad.” (Tr. 244-45). She does not drive. (Tr. 244). After conducting a hearing, the ALJ made a determination that Pritchett had not been under a disability during the relevant time period, and thus, was not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 34-50).

         IV. ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ made the following relevant findings in her September 16, 2014 decision:

The claimant's hypertension, high cholesterol, headaches, and carpal tunnel syndrome are considered nonsevere impairments. The claimant's symptoms and diagnoses of hypertension and carpal tunnel syndrome are seen throughout the record (Ex.'s Bl F, B2F, B7F, and lOF). The undersigned carefully considered all of the evidence of record and based on that review discussed in detail below, it is clear that these impairments do not cause more than slight limitation in her capacity to perform work activity. Nevertheless, the undersigned considered the claimant's impairments collectively, severe and nonsevere, in assessing the claimant's residual functional capacity.
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As for as the claimant's carpal tunnel syndrome, the claimant testified at the hearing she has hand pain and she has difficulty holding objects or writing. The claimant was diagnosed as having bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome in or about 2004, which was more than two years prior to the date she stopped working; she earned 12, 006.00 in 2006 (Ex.'s B10D and Bl0F). In 2010, the claimant's treating physician wrote the claimant had reduced grip strength, but he did not offer any specific descriptions of the claimant's carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms (Ex. 7F/40). The claimant's treating records at Yellow Bluff Rural Clinic generally reveal more complaints of back pain than hand pain. Since the claimant's onset date, she has not been treated by a neurologist for her carpal tunnel syndrome. She testified she takes pain medication for her condition. She has not been referred for surgery for this condition. On February 14, 2013, the claimant was examined by a consultative examiner, Walid Freij, MD, who noted the claimant, was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and she uses splints on her wrists. Dr. Freij reported the claimant's “diagnosis was made clinically based on numbness sensation she had in the hands for that duration.” Dr. Freij noted, “No nerve conduction test was performed”(Ex. B2F). The consultative examiner noted the claimant had positive Tinel's sign in both wrists;[3] however, the sensory and coordination examinations were unremarkable (Id.). The examination by Dr. Freij reveals the claimant has no motor deficits, no atrophy, and no sensory deficits (Id.). After completing the examination, Dr. Freij, diagnosed the claimant with carpal tunnel syndrome. He opined the claimant's “repetitive motion at the wrists would have to be limited because of the possibility of carpal tunnel, although that is not proven by electrical testing” (Id.). While the records reveal some complaints regarding carpal tunnel syndrome, the claimant's medical treatment is not consistent with an individual who suffers from severe carpal tunnel symptoms. The medical records lack any nerve conduction studies and there are no recommendations for surgical intervention. While the claimant has been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, the evidence does not support that these symptoms cause more than a slight limitation in the claimant's ability to work. Even so, the undersigned has considered the claimant's diagnoses and limitations from this condition in the established residual functional capacity by limiting the claimant to only frequent bilateral gross and fine manipulation, which includes frequent handling and fingering.
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4. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c) except the claimant is limited to never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She is restricted to frequent bilateral gross and fine manipulation, which includes frequent handling and fingering. With regard to environmental limitations, she is restricted to no exposure to ...

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