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Stufft v. Saul

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

August 6, 2019

Lisa Ann Stufft, Plaintiff,
Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         This social security matter is before the court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Civil Rule 83.VII.02 (D.S.C.) for final adjudication, with the consent of the parties, of Plaintiff's petition for judicial review. Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of a final decision the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) pursuant to the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Having carefully considered the parties' submissions and the applicable law, the court affirms the Commissioner's decision for the reasons discussed herein.

         I. Relevant Background

         A. Procedural History

         On March 15, 2016, [2] Plaintiff protectively filed for SSI under Title XVI of the Act, alleging a disability onset date of January 5, 2015. Tr. 216-21. Plaintiff's application was denied initially on November 22, 2016, Tr. 116, and upon reconsideration on March 29, 2017, Tr. 138.

         Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, Tr. 158, and the ALJ conducted a hearing on September 19, 2017, taking testimony from Plaintiff and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Ryan Farrell, Tr. 32-78. Representing Plaintiff at that hearing was her attorney, Brett A. Owens. Tr. 32. The ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim in a decision dated December 26, 2017. Tr. 10-27. Plaintiff requested review of this decision from the Appeals Council on February 23, 2018. Tr. 212. On April 16, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-5. Plaintiff brought this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision in a Complaint filed June 15, 2018. ECF No. 1.

         B. Plaintiff's Background

         Plaintiff was born in October 1968 and was 47 years old when she filed her application for SSI on March 15, 2016, and 46 years old as of the alleged onset date of January 5, 2015. Tr. 245. In her form Disability Report-Adult dated April 26, 2016, Plaintiff indicated she completed two years of college in September 2011. Tr. 235. She listed her past relevant work (“PRW”) as relay operation/communication (Dec. 2004-Sept. 2005), temporary office assistant (Oct. 2005-April 2006), office manager (April 2006-Feb. 2008), secretary (Mar. 2008-May 2008), and medical transcriptionist (Mar. 2012-May 2012). Tr. 236. Plaintiff indicated she stopped working on May 21, 2012 because of her medical conditions which she listed as: chronic back pain, lower thoracic scoliosis, cyst on hand, degenerative disc disease, chronic kidney disease, depression, colonic polyps, gastrointestinal bleeding, type 3 paraesophageal hernia, sciatica, ongoing urinary tract infections, arthropathy, and dysphagia. Tr. 234. Plaintiff indicated she was 5'3” tall and weighed 140 pounds. Id.

         In a Disability Report-Appeal dated January 3, 2017 Plaintiff indicated a change in her medical condition that occurred November 21, 2016. Tr. 261. Plaintiff noted that lab results indicated changes in her thyroid levels and an ongoing urinary tract infection. Id. Plaintiff noted she had “[f]atigue, excessive sleeping and [was] having difficulty concentrating.” Id. She indicated she was “having mobility issues and it is impaired as cannot stand, sit or walk for long periods of time due to the diagnoses. Am having issues with thyroid, kidney/urinary tract and gastrointestinal (upper and lower).” Id. Plaintiff indicated that it was difficult for her to see specialists because of her lack of insurance and financial coverage. She also indicated she had problems “trying to afford some medications, xrays and diagnostic testing.” Id. In a subsequent Disability Report-Appeal dated April 13, 2017, Plaintiff indicated a change in her condition that occurred April 21, 2015. Tr. 272. Plaintiff noted that she was having difficulty walking and required “assistance of an apparatus” due to diagnoses related to her left hip, hands, knees, and ankles. Id. Plaintiff noted a change that occurred on April 21, 2016, of “limited physical mobility, narrowing of the joints, dizziness” and new conditions of myocardial infarction and decompressed bladder as of November 21, 2015. Tr. 272-73.

         C. Administrative Proceedings

         On September 19, 2017, Plaintiff appeared with counsel at an administrative hearing in Columbia, South Carolina and testified regarding her application for SSI. Tr. 32. VE Ryan Farrell also appeared and testified at the hearing. Id.

         1. Plaintiff's Testimony

         In response to questions from the ALJ Plaintiff testified that she was 48 years old and since the end of July she has been living in the Transitions shelter due to health and financial reasons. Tr. 37. Plaintiff testified that prior to that she lived in her parents' home in West Columbia. Id. Plaintiff testified that her mother died three years ago, and her father died a year-and-a-half ago. Tr. 38. Plaintiff stated that after her parents died and until she went to Transitions, her niece lived in the house with her “off and on.” Id. Plaintiff testified that she was divorced and did not have any children or dependents. Tr. 39. Plaintiff stated that she no longer had a driver's license because five years prior it was suspended for unpaid tickets. Id. Plaintiff testified that before she moved to Transitions she used Medicaid transportation, or a friend or family member would drive her. Tr. 40. Plaintiff testified that she graduated from high school and later received a certificate in medical transcription. Id. Plaintiff stated she worked in the medical transcription field for two or three months, but she could not keep up with the workload. Tr. 40-41. Plaintiff stated she never served in the military. Tr. 41. Plaintiff testified that she is right-handed, 5'3” tall, and weighed 158 pounds. Id.

         In response to questions from her attorney, Plaintiff outlined her work history. Plaintiff testified that in 2008 she worked for two or three months for Keeler Landscape & Design scheduling appointments, answering phones, and typing and filing documents. Tr. 42. Prior to that she worked with Metro Blueprint & Supply (which bought out a company called iSqFt) where she organized documents for construction jobs. Plaintiff testified that she would occasionally have to lift 50 pounds. Tr. 42-44. Plaintiff testified that she left the job voluntarily because “it was a little bit heavier of a workflow than [she] could do by [her]self.” Id. Plaintiff testified that she worked in a temporary position with Snack Time Distributors doing data entry while an employee of the company was on maternity leave. Tr. 44. Plaintiff confirmed that she also did secretarial work for Richard Miller & Associates in Jacksonville, and she did data entry for Kenneth Heatherman and Columbia Check Cashers. Tr. 45-46. Plaintiff testified that other than the job at iSqFt/Metro Blueprint & Supply she did not have any specific physical requirements of lifting and worked in an office setting. Tr. 46. The VE questioned Plaintiff briefly for clarification regarding employment dates and job duties. Tr. 46-48. Plaintiff confirmed that she never worked in a supervisory capacity in any of her past jobs. Tr. 48.

         Plaintiff testified that the issues that prevent her from working are problems with her back, legs, feet, and gastrointestinal issues. Tr. 50. Plaintiff also testified that she was “kind of mentally a little bit slow.” Id. Plaintiff testified that she has struggled with mental issues for 10-20 years. Tr. 51. Plaintiff testified that last year she was involuntarily admitted to the hospital for mental issues and was hospitalized for about two-and-a-half weeks. Id. Plaintiff stated that other than her regular doctor prescribing antidepressants, she was not receiving currently any medical treatment for her mental condition. Id. Plaintiff described her mental state as sometimes being depressed, having memory problems, and occasional crying spells. Tr. 52.

         Plaintiff described her typical day at Transitions. She testified that she normally wakes up at 6:30, gets dressed without assistance, and takes financial and health-related classes every day. Tr. 53-54. Plaintiff stated that meals are provided but she is responsible for cleaning her area. Tr. 55. Plaintiff testified that when she was living at home she would do “a little bit of spot cleaning” and would prepare microwave meals and sandwiches. Tr. 55-56. Plaintiff testified that she could stand for ten minutes before her “left hip and knee would start kind of going out on [her].” Tr. 57. She said they would sometimes become painful and sometimes go numb. Id. Plaintiff testified that she experiences problems with her back daily that consisted of pain in the lower to middle back. Tr. 57-58. Plaintiff stated that a lot of walking or sitting made it worse. Tr. 58. Plaintiff stated she could probably walk a city block before experiencing pain in her lower back that would be unbearable. Id. Plaintiff stated that after walking one block she would have to sit and rest for “probably about 30 minutes or to an hour.” Tr. 59. Plaintiff testified that she has problems with her legs daily caused by walking or standing for long periods. She confirmed that if she were to walk she would not only have the back pain but would also have leg pain. Id. Plaintiff stated the pain was “a little worse in the left leg than the right.” Tr. 60. She also testified to pain and swelling in her feet. Id. Plaintiff's counsel noted that she had been sitting for 35 minutes and asked at what point would she need to get up and move around. Plaintiff stated that although it gets uncomfortable she could sit for 45 minutes to an hour. Id. Plaintiff testified that when she was living at home the heaviest thing she would lift would be a gallon jug of water. Tr. 61. Plaintiff stated that she would leave home on average once a week to go to the grocery store. Tr. 61-62. Plaintiff testified that although someone would take her to the store she was able to do the grocery shopping by herself. Tr. 62. Plaintiff stated that physical problems occurred while shopping if she walked too much or carried or tried to lift heavy items. Plaintiff stated that she had no mental problems related to grocery shopping but on prompting by her attorney stated she was a little bothered by being in crowds. Id. Plaintiff testified that when she was at home she would watch television or be on the internet. Tr. 63. Plaintiff stated that she had a Facebook account that she used once or twice a month. Id. Plaintiff stated her hobby was doll collecting and her dolls were still at the house. Id. Plaintiff stated that her niece and her friend were living in the house and paying the bills. Tr. 64. Plaintiff testified to having problems with short-term memory and with concentration. Id. Plaintiff stated that she currently sleeps in four-hour spurts, which makes her tired during the day. Tr. 64-65. Plaintiff testified that she smokes two-to-four cigarettes a day that she either buys or someone else gives her. Tr. 65. Plaintiff stated that she spends most of her time on the premises at Transitions unless she has a bus pass or leaves with a friend. Tr. 66. She testified that she does not socialize very often but does try to stay in touch with friends. Id.

         The ALJ resumed questioning of Plaintiff. Plaintiff testified that she still does cross-stitch “a couple of times a week for a little while.” Tr. 66. She stated that her room at Transitions is like a dormitory and she shares it with 10 or 15 women. Tr. 67. Plaintiff testified that she does not have a problem getting along with the other women and she is allowed to keep her tablet and cell phone. Id. Plaintiff confirmed that in the past she had surgery on her wrists and she stated that she has problems occasionally with both hands with stiffness, dropping things, or being unable to lift. Tr. 67-68. Plaintiff stated that she has arthritis gloves that she wears a couple of times a week. She acknowledged that her left hand is worse than the right and she is right-handed. Tr. 68. Plaintiff stated she sometimes had problems with fine fingering actions. Tr. 68-69. Plaintiff confirmed that in addition to taking classes at Transitions she is required to look for work. Tr. 69. Plaintiff stated that she spoke with vocational rehabilitation and they required that she obtain a doctor's release before she could go to work. Id. Plaintiff stated she has not spoken with her doctor about going back to work. Id.

         2. VE's Testimony

         The ALJ asked the VE to classify Plaintiff's PRW, but before doing so the VE confirmed with Plaintiff that she also worked from 2002 to 2005 for a private company as a relay operator for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Tr. 70-71. The VE identified Plaintiff's PRW as a receptionist, Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) number 237.367-038, SVP of 4, sedentary; administrative clerk, DOT number 219.362-010, SVP of 4, light but performed as medium; telephone operator, DOT number 235.662-022, SVP of 3, sedentary. Tr. 71.

         The ALJ asked the VE to consider that work background for a younger individual with at least a high school education and with medical impairments that limit her to light work requiring lifting only 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. Tr. 72. The ALJ posed the following additional limitations:

The individual can sit, stand and walk for six hours a day each. She . . . has the following non-exertional limitations. She can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can only occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. She cannot work at heights or around hazardous machinery. She cannot work where exposed to concentrated vibration or in an environment that has excessive noise. She can only frequently handle objects and frequently finger objects with either hand. . . . In addition, the individual is limited to performing the simple/routine tasks of unskilled work in occupations that require only simple/work-related decisions. She can occasionally have contact with co-workers and supervisors. She can have no contact with the general public and those are the limitations in my first hypothetical.

Tr. 72-73. The ALJ asked if that individual could perform any of Plaintiff's past work and the VE responded in the negative. Tr. 73. The VE testified that there would be light, unskilled jobs with an SVP of 2 that would match the description and identified the following representative examples: marker, DOT number 209.587-034, with 168, 000 available nationally; order caller, DOT number 209.667-014, with 86, 000 available nationally; and apparel stock checker, DOT number 299.667-014, with 80, 000 available nationally. Tr. 73-74.

         The ALJ asked how the ability to perform the identified jobs would be affected if he added the limitation that the individual would be off task or non-productive a minimum of 20 percent of the workday because of her impairments. Tr. 74. The VE testified that limitation “would preclude any competitive employment.” Id. The ALJ asked if there would be any unskilled work available for an individual who missed three or more days of work per month and the VE responded in the negative.


         Plaintiff's counsel had no questions for the VE. Tr. 75.

         II. Discussion

         A. The ALJ's Findings

         In his December 26, 2017 decision, the ALJ made the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 15, 2016, the application date (20 CFR 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, scoliosis, affective disorder and ...

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