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Caudill v. Commissoner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

August 21, 2017


          George C. Smith Judge.



         Plaintiff, Brenda Kay Caudill (“Plaintiff”), brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for social security disability insurance benefits. This matter is before the United States Magistrate Judge for a Report and Recommendation on Plaintiff's Statement of Errors (ECF No. 9), Defendant's Memorandum in Opposition (ECF No. 16), Plaintiff's Reply to Defendant's Memorandum in Opposition (ECF No. 20), and the administrative record (ECF No. 5). For the reasons that follow, it is RECOMMENDED that the Court OVERRULE Plaintiff's Statement of Errors and AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.


         Plaintiff protectively filed her application for Title II Social Security Benefits on December 20, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of December 7, 2012. Plaintiff's application was initially denied on May 8, 2013. Upon reconsideration, Plaintiff was found disabled, with a June 30, 2013 onset date. Plaintiff timely appealed the partially favorable decision. An administrative hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge John L. Shailer (the “ALJ”) (ECF No. 5, at PAGEID# 53-80), who determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at PAGEID# 34-47.)

         The ALJ held the hearing on June 2, 2015, at which Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified. (Id. at PAGEID# 53-80.) Also present and testifying at the hearing were the medical expert, Ronald E. Kendrick, M.D. (the “ME”), and the vocational expert, Millie M. Droste (the “VE”). Id.

         When asked why she decided that she needed to stop working at the end of 2012, Plaintiff testified that she had “increased pain” and “anxiety, ” and that she “was confused” and “forgetting things.” (Id. at PAGEID# 42.) Plaintiff explained that she initially injured her back in 2001 and had surgery in 2004. (Id. at PAGEID# 59.) She also testified that she was diabetic, has a “70 percent loss in [her] left ear and a 10 percent loss in [her] right, ” has high blood pressure, has sleep apnea, and was previously treated for depression and anxiety for a couple of months in 2013. (Id. at PAGEID# 60-61.) Plaintiff further testified that she received no counseling since 2013 for depression or anxiety, adding that she does not get anxious like she used to and that her anxiety usually goes away after a few minutes if she just relaxes and takes deep breaths. (Id. at PAGEID# 61, 69.)

         The ME testified regarding Plaintiff's documented physical impairments. The ME noted that in 2004, long before her alleged onset date, Plaintiff had a lumbar fusion from L3 to S1. (Id. at PAGEID# 72.) Subsequent films demonstrated multilevel degenerative disc disease in her back. (Id.) The ME indicated that Plaintiff was diabetic and had sleep apnea and severe obesity. (Id.) The ME did not address Plaintiff's mental or psychological allegations. (Id.) The ME provided Plaintiff's limitations in response to the ALJ's questions as follows:

A . . . I would say from the alleged onset on, her functional capacity would be confined no better than sedentary. * * * no lifting ten pounds occasionally, less than ten pounds frequently; standing or walking two out of three hours; sitting six out of eight. I'd restrict bending, stooping, kneeling, and crawling, postural that is, to only occasional. I don't see any restrictions that apply to the upper extremities. She certainly couldn't do ladders or work in high places or around dangerous, moving machinery.

Q Very good. And for her loss of hearing on the - on that left side, would there be a - what would be an appropriate kind of limitation from - a workplace limitation due to that?
A Well, I think she should avoid environments of, you know, high noise levels. I don't know what decibels would be tolerable, but primarily more of a quiet environment.
Q Okay. Very good. And do you consider her pain, her allegations of pain within that opinion?
A Yes. That's primarily the reason for her inabilities to perform work as she did, you know, prior to her [INAUDIBLE] starting.
Q Okay. And you've already mentioned the aggravating effects of weight in the way you just were describing those things.
A Yes. I've taken that into consideration.
ALJ: All right. Counselor, do you have any questions for the Doctor?
ATTY: No, Your Honor, I do not.

(Id. at PAGEID# 73-74.)

         The VE provided her testimony after the ME. The VE testified that Plaintiff's past jobs included the following positions: nurse supervisor, general duty nurse, licensed practical nurse, and community health nurse. (Id. at PAGEID# 75.) In VE determined that an individual with the limitations the ME assessed could not perform Plaintiff's past relevant work. (Id.) When asked whether there were “any transferrable skills” from Plaintiff's past positions given Plaintiff's “profile, ” the VE identified the following transferable skills: the ability to “identify codes, ICD-9 codes;” “work around others and be able to evaluate [patients];” and “triage.” (Id. at PAGEID# 75-76.) The VE explained that “triage” meant “[t]he ability to organize according to level of importance, ” not requiring hands-on with patient, but “more of a prioritization.” (Id. at PAGEID# 76.) The VE testified that the following positions would accommodate an individual with Plaintiff's profile with these transferred skills: medical voucher clerk (60, 000 jobs nationally), hospital admitting clerk (100, 000 jobs nationally), and claims examiner (120, 000 jobs nationally). (Id. at PAGEID# 76-77.) The VE added that all three of these positions are sedentary and involve a quiet noise level. (Id. at PAGEID# 77.)

         Plaintiff's counsel did not ask about the level of vocational adjustment required at the hearing and instead focused on whether the positions the VE identified could be performed with additional limitations. More specifically, Plaintiff's counsel asked whether those positions could be performed if “claimant would need an environment with low time and production standards; could make simple, work-related decisions; could get along with others including supervisors and coworkers on at least a superficial basis; and could adapt to changes in the work environment that are routine and easily explainable.” (Id. at PAGEID# 78.) The VE testified that the inclusion of the limitation of “simple, repetitive tasks” would prevent performance of both Plaintiff's past work and also the other positions she had identified. (Id.)

         On July 7, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id. at PAGEID# 47.) The ALJ noted that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2017. (Id. at PAGEID# 39.) At step one of the sequential evaluation process, [1] the ALJ stated that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantially gainful activity since December 7, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Id.)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, diabetes mellitus, obstructive sleep apnea, hypertension, obesity, and partial hearing loss. (Id.) The ALJ considered Plaintiff's medically determinable mental impairments of depression and anxiety, but concluded that they were non-severe because “considered singly and in combination, [Plaintiff's mental impairments] do not cause more than minimal limitation in [her] ability to perform basic mental work activities.” (Id. at PAGEID# 40.) As discussed more fully below, the ALJ offered a thorough discussion in support of his step-two findings.

         The ALJ further found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments described in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.)

         At step four of the sequential process, the ALJ set forth Plaintiff's residual functional ...

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