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Stacey L. Button v. Michael J. Astrue

July 30, 2012

STACEY L. BUTTON, PLAINTIFF-CLAIMANT,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jeffrey T. Gilbert Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Claimant Stacey Lynn Button ("Claimant") brings this action under 42 U.S.C.§ 405(g) seeking reversal or remand of the decision of Respondent Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), in which the Commissioner denied Claimant's application for disability insurance benefits. The matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment [Dkt.##16, 21]. Claimant argues that the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision denying her application for disability benefits should be reversed outright or, alternatively, should be vacated and remanded to the Social Security Administration ("SSA") for further proceedings. In support of her motion for summary judgment, Claimant argues that the ALJ (1) failed to explain why Claimant did not meet or equal Listing 14.02 for Lupus; (2) inappropriately weighed the evidence; (3) made an unsupported credibility finding; and (4) gave a flawed hypothetical to the vocational expert.

For the reasons discussed below, Claimant's motion for summary judgment is granted [Dkt.#16], and the Commissioner's motion is denied [Dkt.#21]. This matter is remanded to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Procedural History

Claimant filed an application for disability benefits on October 7, 2008 in which she alleged a disability onset date of July 1, 2008. R.10, 140-157. The SSA initially denied her application. R.10, 28, 64-65. Claimant then filed a request for reconsideration on November 13, 2008 (R.78-79), which the SSA denied on February 24, 2009. R.10. Thereafter, Claimant filed a written request for a hearing before an ALJ. R.101-107. On February 1, 2010, Claimant appeared with her attorney Timothy White and testified at a hearing before ALJ Curt Marceille. R. 28-53. Vocational expert Richard Fisher also appeared and testified at the hearing. R.53-63. No medical expert testified at the hearing.

On May 5, 2010, the ALJ issued his decision finding that Claimant had not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from July 1, 2008 through the date of his decision. R.10. Specifically, the ALJ found that Claimant had severe impairments, including systemic lupus and alopecia with resulting fatigue and concentration problems. R. 12. The ALJ concluded, however, that Claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R.13. The ALJ also concluded that Claimant has "the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) that involves lifting and carrying up to 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; sitting 3 hours at one time without interruption; standing 1 hour at one time without interruption; and walking for 2 hours at one time without interruption; sitting, standing and walking each for 6 hours of an 8-hour workday; frequent bilateral reaching in all directions including overhead; frequent handling, fingering, and pushing or pulling; only occasional feeling with the left hand, but continuous feeling with the right hand; occasional climbing of stairs and ramps, kneeling, crouching or crawling; never climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds; and frequent balancing and stooping; occasional exposure to extremes of cold and heat; and only occasional exposure to excessive vibration; no use of, and no exposure to, moving machinery or automobiles; and no exposure to unprotected heights." R.13-14.

On July 7, 2010, Claimant filed a request with the Appeals Council for review of the ALJ's decision. R.136-139. On March 23, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's determination the final decision of the Commissioner. R.1-3. Claimant seeks review in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C.§ 405(g).

B. Hearing Testimony -- February 1, 2010

1. Claimant Stacey Button

At the time of the hearing, Claimant was 30 years old, married with two children and pregnant with her third child. R.31-32. Claimant graduated from high school and attended cosmetology school. R.33. Claimant testified that she was last employed part-time as a hair stylist in 2008. R.33. She testified that she stopped working because she had lost several clients when she was on maternity leave and because of fatigue. R.33. Claimant testified that she did not look for any other less strenuous work and stayed at home to take care of her children. R.34.

Claimant testified that she suffers daily fatigue and that her mother helps her take care of her children. R.34. Additionally, Claimant testified that she also suffers from severe joint pain in her hips and hands requiring cortisone injections once every three months to manage the pain. R.35. Claimant testified that she also has a hard time concentrating. R.43. She testified that she does minimal work around the house and that her husband and mother help her care for the children and take care of the household chores, including washing dishes, laundry and grocery shopping. R.41-43. Regarding her physical capabilities, Claimant testified that she could walk for 10 to 20 minutes before needing to stop, stand for 20 minutes and sit for 30 to 45 minutes before her hip joints become painful. R.39. She also testified that the pain in her hands was severe and that she could not lift anything over a few pounds. R. 39.

2. Vocational Expert Testimony

Richard Fisher testified as a vocational expert ("VE") at the hearing and identified Claimant's past work as a receptionist, which is semi-skilled and sedentary, and as a cosmetologist, which is skilled and light. R.10, 54. Based on a hypothetical posed by the ALJ which assumed an individual with Claimant's age, education and work experience who is limited to simple repetitive and routine light work, the VE testified that an individual with those limitations could not perform Claimant's past relevant work but could perform other jobs in the national economy such as a cashier, routing clerk and sales attendant. R.54.

A second hypothetical posed the following: an individual limited to three hours of sitting without interruption, two hours walking without interruption, and removal of the unskilled requirement. R.55. Again, the VE testified that Claimant's past work was unavailable, but he identified other work as a receptionist, cashier, production worker, assembler of small parts and office machine operator. R.55-57. In a third hypothetical, the ALJ assumed the previous non-exertional limitations and also incorporated a sedentary limitation with a sit/stand option. R.57. The VE responded that such limitations still would leave work as a cutter/paster/press clippings, document preparer, microfilm, office clerk, or paramutual ticket checker. R. 57-58.

On cross examination, the VE admitted that an individual with greater limitations, including (1) an individual who was limited to standing, sitting or walking for one hour or less and could not perform minimal lifting during an 8 hour work day, (2) an individual who had to miss work more than one day per month, (3) an individual who had to take more than 15 minutes of time off task in addition to regularly scheduled breaks or (4) an individual who had to lie down during the day, would not be able to work. R.62-63.

C. Medical Evidence

Claimant suffers from severe fatigue, concentration deficiencies, photosensitivity, an autoimmune deficiency, arthralgias, and pain in her joints and has been diagnosed with lupus. R.342, 447, 499. Additionally, Claimant has a history of seizures and continues to suffer from severe bouts of dizziness. R.354-355.

1. Dr. Margo Wolf -- Claimant's Treating Physician

Dr. Margo Wolf treated Claimant in 2006 and 2007. Her records confirm that Claimant suffered from tiredness and fatigue. R.650-62. Dr. Wolf also observed how the "symptoms [were] gradual," "worsening," and included: "diaphoresis, dizziness, anxiety, depression, hypoglycemia, trembling, [and] weight gain." R.652. Dr. Wolf indicated that the severity of the fatigue was "moderate" and that it occurred "frequently." Id.

2. Dr. Sakeba Issa -- Claimant's Treating Physician

Dr. Sakeba Issa has been Claimant's treating rheumatologist since 2007. On November 26, 2007, Dr. Issa diagnosed Claimant with lupus. R.342. Dr. Issa observed that Claimant suffered "fatigue, arthralgias and photosensitivity" for two years prior to her visit on November 26, 2007. Id. Treatment notes also revealed that Claimant had "discrete lesions on her scalp with alopecia."*fn1 Id. Dr. Issa was also "concerned about the white matter lesion in her brain" as it may be a strong indicator of multiple sclerosis. Id.

On March 24, 2008, Dr. Issa's notes revealed Claimant to be suffering from fatigue, depression, hair loss, pain in her joints, and numbness/tingly feelings in extremities. R.344-45. On June 23, 2008, Claimant was noted to have experienced weight gain, rashes, tingling in extremities, and was "fully fatigued." R.346-47. In addition to fatigue and malaise, hospital emergency room records from September 25, 2007 also show Claimant suffering severe pain in her pelvic and lower back regions. R.394. On October 8, 2007, a growth on Claimant's pituitary gland was confirmed. R.358-59, 382-83, 393-97. Claimant also tested positive for elevated levels of ANA, indicative of an autoimmune disorder. R.359.

Dr. Issa completed an Arthritic Report sent to him by SSA on December 29, 2008. In that Report, Dr. Issa stated that Claimant's condition probably began in 2005, but was not diagnosed until November 2007. R.499-502. Dr. Issa also confirmed the existence of "generalized" pain, tender points, generalized stiffness, fatigue, and malaise. R.501-02.

Dr. Issa also completed a "physical capacities assessment" dated April 14, 2009, in which he indicated that Claimant's impairments were ...


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