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Hunt v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

July 17, 2019

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



         Plaintiff Anita Studdard Hunt (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying her claim for a period of disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Based on this court's review of the record and the briefs submitted by the parties, the court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is due to be affirmed.

         I. Proceedings Below

         Plaintiff filed her application for DIB on June 24, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of December 31, 2014. (R. 60-1). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied the initial request for DIB on August 8, 2015. (R. 69-71). Subsequently, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (R. 83-4), and ALJ Lisa M. Johnson held the hearing on June 22, 2017. (R. 34). In her decision dated October 4, 2017, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability within the meaning of Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. (R. 28). As the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on May 17, 2018, which was the final decision of the Commissioner (R. 1-3), the Commissioner's decision is now a proper subject for this court's appellate review.

         II. Statement of Facts

         Plaintiff, who was born on December 25, 1965, was 49-years-old when she filed her request for DIB and 51 at the time of the ALJ's decision. (R. 20, 28, 59). Plaintiff received her GED in 1991 and held two different jobs over a fifteen-year period: an assembly line worker from 2000 to 2002 and cashier/cook at a gas station from 2005 to 2015. (R. 160). Plaintiff alleges, and the ALJ found, that she suffers from morbid obesity, sciatica, hypertension, carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis, neuropathy, and obstructive sleep apnea. (R. 22).

         Plaintiff's medical record begins with a January 20, 2014 visit to Shellie Gilbreath, NP-C, [1]complaining of pain in her left shoulder. (R. 277-78). During the physical exam, Gilbreath found tenderness in the lower cervical spine resulting in limited range of motion in the area. (R. 279). Gilbreath prescribed a ten-day-amount of prednisone for Plaintiff's shoulder joint pain and ordered Plaintiff to return to the office if no improvement occurred. (R. 279). Plaintiff returned to Gilbreath's office a month later, and despite reviewing the past shoulder joint pain, Gilbreath only assessed Plaintiff's bronchitis issue in the report. (R. 276-77). Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff again sought respite from shortness of breath and congestion. (R. 272). Once again, despite reviewing shoulder joint pain, Gilbreath did not create a plan for treatment related to that condition; instead, Gilbreath prescribed more medication for bronchitis and ordered three-weeks of medication for hypertensive disorder. (R. 274).

         On April 4, 2014, Plaintiff returned with additional complaints, including edema and abnormal weight gain. (R. 269-70). In her assessment, Gilbreath found that Plaintiff suffered from edema in the lower extremities and abnormal weight gain; as a result, Gilbreath started Plaintiff on Lasix and potassium chloride tablets for thirty days. (R. 272). Gilbreath instructed Plaintiff to return to the office four days later to monitor her weight and blood pressure (R. 272); however, Plaintiff's next visit did not occur until April 30. (R. 267). Again, Gilbreath prescribed a month-supply medication for Plaintiff's edema in addition to Adipex to treat her abnormal weight gain. (R. 266).

         A day after her June 9 visit for a prescription refill, Plaintiff was in a motor vehicle accident. She sought treatment for resulting neck and right shoulder pain, in addition to the previous shoulder joint pain, during a July 1 visit to Gilbreath. (R. 261, 264).[2] After a physical exam that revealed limited range of motion in the right shoulder, Gilbreath ordered Plaintiff an MRI for her cervical spine and shoulder. (R. 263). Gilbreath prescribed a thirty-day starter pack of Gralise for Plaintiff's neuropathy. (R. 263). Three weeks later, Plaintiff returned seeking treatment for her previous ailments in addition to right elbow pain. (R. 258). Gilbreath examined Plaintiff and found that the pain caused Plaintiff moderate distress and limited her range of motion. (R. 260). Moreover, the nurse practitioner prescribed further medication for obesity. (R. 260).

         Plaintiff underwent the two MRI exams on August 13, 2014. (R. 233). The exams revealed that Plaintiff suffers from mild degenerative disk disease in her neck and osteoarthritis in her right shoulder. (R. 233-34). Following a reference from her visit with Gilbreath on August 18 to discuss the MRI results (R. 255), Plaintiff saw Dr. Seth Spotinitz, who diagnosed Plaintiff with moderate right carpal tunnel syndrome on September 16, 2014. (R. 240, 281). Plaintiff returned to Gilbreath in September and December 2014 without any new diagnoses. Plaintiff's last visit to Gilbreath before she applied for DIB occurred June 23, 2015.[3] (R. 246). During this visit, Gilbreath noted that Plaintiff gained 34 pounds since her previous visit in September 2014. (R. 247). Also, Plaintiff complained of back pain for the first time, and Gilbreath prescribed both tramadol and prednisone to treat the pain. (R. 248).

         On the following day, Plaintiff filed for disability. (R. 59). She visited Dr. Jimmy A. Oguntuyo for a disability medical examination on August 20, 2015. (R. 311). After a review of systems, physical exam, a “suboptimal” lower back x-ray that showed no gross malalignment, and review of a range of motion chart, Dr. Oguntuyo found that Plaintiff suffered from morbid obesity, sciatica, carpal tunnel syndrome, edema of the lower extremities, osteoarthritis, neuropathy, sleep apnea, and hypertension. (R. 313-14). Consequently, Dr. Oguntuyo found that Plaintiff “may not be able to perform any meaningful work-related activities that involve prolonged standing, sitting, walking, lifting, carrying, [and] handling objects.” (R. 313). Also, Dr. Oguntuyo wrote that Plaintiff may benefit from the use of a walker for support, stability, and mobility; however, he did not prescribe Plaintiff an assistive device. (R. 313).

         The Disability Determination Service also sent Plaintiff to Dr. Anand Iyer for an examination that took place April 1, 2017. (R. 327). After physical examination and a range of motion determination, Dr. Iyer found a history of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and hypertension confirmed by records; however, he did not confirm record support of Plaintiff's history of neck pain, left shoulder pain, back pain, hip pain, and left knee pain. (R. 329). Dr. Iyer did, however, note that Plaintiff had “difficulty getting on and off the exam table, ” “difficulty opposing her digits, making a fist, squeezing my fingers, buttoning, and buckling, ” abnormal gait, and inability to “walk on heels and tiptoes.” (R. 328). Ultimately, Dr. Iyer concluded that Plaintiff “may have some impairment of functions involving sitting, standing, walking, climbing steps, bending, lifting, twisting, carrying, reaching overhead, handling, buttoning, buckling, and opening jars.” (R. 329).

         III. ALJ Decision

         Disability under the Act is determined under a five-step test. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). “Substantial work activity” involves significant physical or mental activities, and “gainful work activity” is work that is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572. If the ALJ finds that the claimant engages in substantial gainful activity, then the claimant cannot claim disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).

         Second, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or a combination of medical impairments that significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Absent such impairment, the claimant may not claim disability. Id.

         Third, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526. When the claimant meets these criteria, the ALJ ...

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