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Acoff v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

April 22, 2019

JOANNE ACOFF, Plaintiff,

          John R. Adams Judge.


          James R. Knepp II United States Magistrate Judge.


         Plaintiff Joanne Acoff (“Plaintiff”) filed a Complaint against the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). (Doc. 1). The district court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1383(c) and 405(g). This matter has been referred to the undersigned for preparation of a report and recommendation pursuant to Local Rule 72.2. (Non-document entry dated June 26, 2018). Following review, and for the reasons stated below, the undersigned recommends the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed for DIB and SSI in January 2015, alleging a disability onset date of November 22, 2014. (Tr. 276-83). Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 151-66, 168-79). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 182-83). Plaintiff (represented by counsel), and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified at a hearing before the ALJ on January 23, 2017. (Tr. 34-100). On August 16, 2017, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled in a written decision. (Tr. 15-25). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the hearing decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-6); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.955, 404.981, 416.1455, 416.1481. Plaintiff timely filed the instant action on June 26, 2018. (Doc. 1).

         Factual Background

         Personal Background and Testimony

         Born in 1963, Plaintiff was 51 years old on her alleged onset date. See Tr. 276. She had a twelfth-grade education (Tr. 306), and past work as a home health aide. (Tr. 306-07). At the time of her application, Plaintiff alleged disability due to rheumatoid arthritis and high blood pressure. (Tr. 305).

         In a February 2015 disability report, Plaintiff reported she was unable to get out of bed some days due to difficulty standing and walking. (Tr. 330). She had pain in her hands, wrists, and feet. Id. She was able to cook, clean, and pick her children up at school, as well as attend events at school “when able”. (Tr. 331). Plaintiff reported difficulty sleeping due to pain, but no problems with personal care. Id. Plaintiff vacuumed, but her children helped with laundry; it took her approximately a half-hour longer to complete simple chores than previously. (Tr. 332). Plaintiff reported social activities of going out to dinner or the movies approximately twice per month; she also went to church. (Tr. 334). Plaintiff stated she could walk only a few feet and had to rest for five minutes before walking again. (Tr. 335).

         In an October 2015 disability report, Plaintiff reported she could not lift, pick up, or carry things. (Tr. 354). She wrote that her “wrists hurt”, her “knees pop, shift, buckle, swell [and] give out at times, get large.” Id. Additionally, she stated she required medication to “make them function and sometimes it takes a couple days for them to operate.” Id. She said she needed help getting out of bed and washing clothes. Id. She “[sat] on a chair to cook for [her] children.” Id.

         At the January 2017 hearing, Plaintiff testified she had previously worked as a home health aide, but stopped because joint inflammation made it difficult for her to care for patients. (Tr. 38). Plaintiff worked approximately 21 hours per week; she missed work about three times per month in her last few months of employment. (Tr. 38-40). She also had difficulty with bending, lifting, and pulling at her prior job. (Tr. 42).

         Plaintiff testified she could not work because she had difficulty standing, picking things up, or “try[] to care for somebody.” Id. Plaintiff cooked dinners most days but sat on a stool in the kitchen to do so. (Tr. 43-44). Standing was particularly hard on her back and ankles, and she estimated she could only stand for five to ten minutes. (Tr. 44). Plaintiff's standing limitation was due to problems in her back, ankles, and knees. (Tr. 60). She used a cane when standing or getting up from a seated position. (Tr. 45). She testified this was because she did not “have any cartilage in [her] knees” and it was difficult to get up. (Tr. 46). Plaintiff also estimated she could sit for twenty minutes before her back started throbbing. (Tr. 58). This bothered her a few times per week. Id. Plaintiff's impairments worsened during cold or rainy weather. See Tr. 59-62.

         Plaintiff testified she had difficulty lifting a gallon of milk. (Tr. 56) (“Sometimes when I pull it out of the refrigerator, my hand drops.”). She grocery shopped with a friend, riding in an electric cart. (Tr. 56-57). Her friend drove her, reached for items, and carried the groceries; her children put the groceries away at home. (Tr. 57). Her children also performed most of the household chores, including laundry and putting groceries away. (Tr. 43, 57).

         During a typical day, Plaintiff would get up, take one daughter to school, and take her two-year-old granddaughter to daycare around 8:00. (Tr. 63-65). Later, Plaintiff clarified that her friend drove while she rode as a passenger. (Tr. 80-81). She typically picked one of her daughters and her granddaughter up between 3:00 and 3:30, and the two of them cared for her granddaughter until the child's mother (Plaintiff's other daughter) came home between 4:00 and 4:30. (Tr. 64-68). Plaintiff testified she could not pick her grandchild up. (Tr. 69). During the time she was home alone, Plaintiff watched television and napped. (Tr. 83-84)

         To socialize, Plaintiff went to church, and occasionally a restaurant. (Tr. 69-70).

         Relevant Medical Evidence

         In December 2014, Plaintiff had bloodwork done that showed a positive rheumatoid arthritis factor and a high sedimentation rate. (Tr. 436). Her provider referred her to a rheumatologist due to her bloodwork and symptoms of neck, elbow, wrist, and knee pain. (Tr. 433). Plaintiff reported pain aggravated by activity, rest, sleep, and cold or rainy weather. (Tr. 476).

         In February 2015 Plaintiff had x-rays of her hands and knees performed due to pain. (Tr. 370-71). The hand x-rays were unremarkable, and the knee x-rays showed moderate bilateral osteoarthritis and ossification at the origin of the MCL suggesting prior injury. Id.

         At Plaintiff's initial rheumatology visit in 2015, she complained of morning stiffness, increased fatigue and weakness, and joint pain (particularly in her hands, knees, and toes). (Tr. 422). Plaintiff reported “significant relief” from the Prednisone prescribed by her primary care physician for the past month. Id. On examination, Irfan Raheem, M.D., noted active synovitis in Plaintiff's hands, swelling without tenderness in her knees, and swelling in her ankles and feet. (Tr. 423). Dr. Raheem noted that after laboratory data came back, Plaintiff would be started on Methotrexate or continue with Tramadol and Mobic; she started to taper off Prednisone. (Tr. 426).

         In April 2015, Dorothy Bradford, M.D., performed a consultative examination of Plaintiff. (Tr. 381-88). Plaintiff reported left wrist pain and that she could only lift five pounds. (Tr. 385). She also reported her ankles hurt on stairs, her knees hurt, and she had morning stiffness lasting an hour. Id. On examination, Plaintiff's gait, station, and posture were normal. (Tr. 387). She had synovial thickening of a finger, and tenderness over her left dorsal wrist laterally. Id. Her ability to grasp was abnormal. (Tr. 381). She had no tenderness and normal strength and range of motion in her upper and lower extremities. (Tr. 387).

         In May 2015, Plaintiff followed up with Bochra Janadeli, M.D. (Tr. 402-05). She reported polyarthralgia/arthritis with morning stiffness, with no relief from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, but “remarkable improvement” in her pain on steroids. (Tr. 402). She reported a prior attempt to taper the Prednisone, but her pain got worse, so “she was restarted on [P]rednisone 10 mg daily which seems to work.” Id. On examination, Dr. Janadeli noted Plaintiff had hand, wrist, and knee swelling, with mild tenderness, but full range of motion; she had crepitus in her knees. (Tr. 404). Dr. Janadeli gave Plaintiff a Kenalog injection for “immediate relief”, re-started her on hydroxychloroquine[1], and instructed her to try to taper the Prednisone. Id.

         In August 2015, Plaintiff had a follow up appointment for latent tuberculosis. (Tr. 399-400). Plaintiff reported feeling “very ...

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