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Hooten v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Jonesboro Division

November 6, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration DEFENDANT


         I. Introduction:

         Plaintiff, Pamela Gail Hooten, applied for disability income benefits (“DIB”) on May 1, 2014 and for supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”) on May 5, 2014. (Tr. at 17) In both applications, she alleged an onset date of May 1, 2013. Id. Ms. Hooten's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id. After conducting a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied Ms. Hooten's application. (Tr. at 25) The Appeals Council denied her request for review. (Tr. at 1) The ALJ's decision, therefore, now stands as the final decision of the Commissioner, and Ms. Hooten has requested judicial review. For the reasons stated below, the Court[1] affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

         II. The Commissioner's Decision:

         The ALJ found that Ms. Hooten had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of May 1, 2013. Id. At Step Two of the five-step process, the ALJ found that Ms. Hooten has the following severe impairments: idiopathic peripheral neuropathy, morbid obesity, degenerative joint disease, and osteoarthritis. Id.

         After finding that Ms. Hooten's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment (Tr. at 21), the ALJ determined that Ms. Hooten had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, with frequent use of the hands to handle and finger, but with no concentrated exposure to cold temperatures. (Tr. at 22) The ALJ relied on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”) to find that, based on Ms. Hooten's age, education, work experience and RFC, she was capable of performing past relevant work as a telephone representative and a computer programmer. (Tr. at 24) Based on that determination, the ALJ held that Ms. Hooten was not disabled. (Tr. at 25)

         III. Discussion:

         The Court's role is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012 (8th Cir. 2000). “Substantial evidence” in this context means “enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the ALJ's decision.” Slusser v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 923, 925 (8th Cir. 2009). The Court must consider not only evidence that supports the Commissioner's decision, but also evidence that supports a contrary outcome. Nevertheless, the Court cannot reverse the decision, “merely because substantial evidence exists for the opposite decision.” Long v. Chater, 108 F.3d 185, 187 (8th Cir. 1997) (quoting Johnson v. Chater, 87 F.3d 1015, 1017 (8th Cir. 1996)).

         A. Arguments on Appeal

         Ms. Hooten argues that the RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence and that the RFC for sedentary work with frequent fingering and handling is beyond Ms. Hooten's capabilities.

         A claimant's RFC represents the most she can do despite the combined effects of all of her credible limitations. It must be based on all credible evidence. McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 614 (8th Cir. 2011). “In determining the claimant's [RFC], the ALJ has a duty to establish, by competent medical evidence, the physical and mental activity that the claimant can perform in a work setting, after giving appropriate consideration to all of [her] impairments.” Ostronski v. Chater, 94 F.3d 413, 418 (8th Cir. 1996).

         The records from Lawrence County Family Clinic indicate that at appointments from 2012 through 2014, Ms. Hooten complained of pain in her lower extremity joints and left knee. (Tr. at 279-342). Kevin Diamond, M.D., diagnosed her with polyneuropathy, restless leg syndrome, and osteoarthritis; he prescribed Lyrica and Tramadol. (Tr. at 288, 293, 296, 302, 303). Ms. Hooten reported to Dr. Diamond that the Lyrica worked well for pain, and she reiterated that at the hearing. (Tr. at 43-44, 286).

         Dr. Diamond also found Ms. Hooten to be morbidly obese and, over the course of treatment, she went from about 250 pounds to 290 pounds. (Tr. at 281, 290, 301, 304). Dr. Diamond recommended therapeutic exercise and weight loss to improve her condition. (Tr. at 284, 354) Ms. Hooten did not attend physical therapy sessions or lose weight. A failure to follow a recommended course of treatment weighs against a claimant's credibility. Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 802 (8th Cir. 2005).

         While Ms. Hooten complained that her pain was debilitating, musculoskeletal exams were normal on August 6, 2013, April 30, 2014, August 18, 2014, and March 12, 2015. (Tr. at 281, 290, 348, 352) She had full active range of motion in her knee and no collateral instability on January 7, 2014. (Tr. at 283-284) On only one occasion, she showed an antalgic gait. (Tr. at 352-354)

         While John Woloszyn, M.D., recommended knee replacement surgery on March 12, 2015 (after x-rays showed medial joint space collapse and sclerosis with massive osteophytes), he indicated that she would not be able to proceed with surgery until she lost 50 pounds. (Tr. at 386) Her progressive weight gain over several years did not mitigate her symptoms, nor help her case for disability. Indeed, rather than undertake surgery or other invasive measures, she was treated conservatively with injections and prescription medication. The need for only conservative treatment contradicts allegations of disabling pain. Sm ...

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