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Cooper v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, El Dorado Division

September 6, 2019

MERDIS COOPER PLAINTIFF
v.
ANDREW SAUL[1], Commissioner Social Security Administration DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HON. BARRY A. BRYANT U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Merdis Cooper (“Plaintiff”) brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), and supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (hereinafter “the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). In this judicial review, the court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the Commissioner's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         The Parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge to conduct any and all proceedings in this case, including conducting the trial, ordering the entry of a final judgment, and conducting all post-judgment proceedings. ECF No. 6.[2] Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues this memorandum opinion and orders the entry of a final judgment in this matter.

         1. Background :

         On April 3, 2014, Plaintiff protectively filed her application. (Tr. 115, 183, 195). In her application, Plaintiff alleges she was disabled due to severe carpal tunnel, acid reflux, and arthritis with an alleged onset date of February 13, 2014. (Tr. 11, 115, 336). The claim was denied initially on August 17, 2015, and again upon reconsideration on October 10, 2015. (Tr. 115).

         Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her application, and this hearing request was granted. (Tr. 115). An administrative hearing was held on September 22, 2015, in Jackson, Mississippi. (Tr. 49-81). At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was present and was represented by counsel, Leonard Fischer. Id. Plaintiff and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Brandy McGrew-Rose testified at this hearing. Id.

         On February 26, 2016, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision on Plaintiff's application. (Tr. 112-29). In this decision, the ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through September 30, 2019. (Tr. 117, Finding 1). The ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since February 13, 2014, the initial application date. (Tr. 117, Finding 2). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, tendonitis elbow, osteoarthritis of the knees, carpal tunnel syndrome, and obesity. (Tr. 117-19, Finding 3). The ALJ, however, also determined Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 119-20, Finding 4).

         In this decision, the ALJ evaluated the Plaintiff's subjective complaints and determined her RFC. (Tr. 120-22, Finding 5). First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's subjective complaints and determined they were not entirely consistent with the evidence in the record. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC for the following:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; can never climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds; can occasionally, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl; can occasionally handle and finger bilaterally, can have no exposure to excessive vibration, and can never be exposed to workplace hazards such as moving mechanical parts and high, exposed places.

Id.

         With the assistance of the Vocational Expert, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's Past Relevant Work (“PRW”) and determined she was able to perform her PRW as a customer service representative, and a substitute teacher. (Tr. 122-23, Finding 6). The ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled for the duration of the relevant time period, from February 13, 2014, through the date of this decision. (Tr. 123, Finding 7).

         Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's unfavorable disability determination, and they remanded the case. (Tr. 130-33). In their remand, the Appeals Council found that the case required remand to resolve the conflict between the ALJ's RFC finding which limited Plaintiff to light work with only occasional handling and fingering, and the jobs he found she was capable of performing which required more than occasional handling and fingering as listed in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (Tr. 132). They also found that it was unclear whether Plaintiff's past work as a substitute teacher met the requirements to be considered past relevant work. Id. The Appeals Council ordered the ALJ to give further consideration to Plaintiff's maximum RFC and provide appropriate rationale with specific references to evidence of record in support of assessed limitations, and to obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on Plaintiff's occupational base. (Tr. 133).

         A second administrative hearing was held on October 31, 2017. (Tr. 29-48). At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was present and was represented by non-attorney representative, Laura Lesacar. Id. Plaintiff, Medical Expert Subramaniam Krishnamurthi, M.D., and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Thomas C. Mungall testified at this hearing. Id. Notably, Dr. Krishnamurthi testified that he had reviewed Plaintiff's medical records and that she had an impairment that would meet or equal a listing, and that she would have non-exertional limitations including that she could frequently handle, finger, feel, and grasp bilaterally; occasionally climb stairs, bend, stoop, crawl, crouch, and kneel, but can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. (Tr. 33-34).

         On March 5, 2018, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision on Plaintiff's application. (Tr. 8-26). In this decision, the ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through September 30, 2019. (Tr. 14, Finding 1). The ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since February 13, 2014, the initial application date. (Tr. 14, Finding 2). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis of both knees, and obesity. (Tr. 14, Finding 3). The ALJ, however, also determined Plaintiff did not have an ...


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