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Chandler v. U.S. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Alexandria Division

September 13, 2019

KAREN JEAN CHANDLER, Plaintiff
v.
U.S. COMMISSIONER SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant

          JAMES, JUDGE.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          JOSEPH H.L. PEREZ-MONTES, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Karen Jean Chandler (“Chandler”) protectively filed an application for period of disability and Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II and Part A of Title XVIII on October 20, 2015. (Doc. 13-1, pp. 158-164). Chandler alleged a disability onset date of September 16, 2015, due to Crohn's Disease, fibromyalgia, chronic pain disorder, “sleep apnea/sleep disorder, ” and depression. Id. at 179-83. Chandler's claims were initially denied by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) on February 12, 2016. Id. at 83-95.

         Chandler's application was heard before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on November 4, 2016. Id. at 39-82. Chandler appeared with Leonard Francois, a vocational expert (“VE”). Id. Chandler also appeared with her attorney Yuri Beck. Id. The ALJ denied Chandler's claim on February 21, 2017. Id. at 18-34. The ALJ determined that Chandler was not disabled under the Social Security Act (the “Act”), finding at step five of the sequential evaluation process that she is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 21-34.

         On December 22, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Chandler's request for review, and the ALJ's February 21, 2017 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”). (Doc. 13-1, p. 4).

         Proceeding in forma pauperis, Chandler filed this appeal for judicial review. (Doc. 1). Chandler asserts the findings of the Commissioner are not based upon substantial evidence and that improper legal standards were applied. Id. at 2. Chandler also filed post-decision medical records with this Court. (Doc. 17, pp. 1-23).

         The Commissioner responded. (Doc. 18). Chandler's appeal is now before the Court for disposition.

         I. Summary of Pertinent Facts

         A. Administrative Hearing

         At the November 4, 2016 administrative hearing, Chandler testified that she is 44 years old. (Doc. 13-1, p. 44). She is 5 feet tall and weighs approximately 230 pounds. Id. She resides with her husband and daughter in Dry Prong, Louisiana. Id. at 45. Chandler has a high school diploma and no additional vocational training or certifications. Id. She has never served in the military. Id.

         Chandler last worked in September of 2015 at Heart of Louisiana Credit Union. Id. at 46. Chandler had trouble concentrating at work and doing her job. Id. She was offered a demotion but resigned. Id. Chandler worked there for over 20 years. Id. For about seven years until 2015, she was an Operations Manager. Id. at 46-48. This position required her to work with redesigning a new branch, work with vendors, maintain an ATM at a local business, and oversee the collections department. Id. at 47. She supervised one employee. Id. at 47-48. Prior to being Operations Manager, Chandler worked for over five years in member services. Id. at 48. She opened accounts and dealt with customers. Id.

         Chandler testified she was having diarrhea, stomach pain, and nausea, which caused problems with concentration at work. Id. at 49. She was treated for depression, mood swings, and bipolar disorder. Id. Chandler testified she lost her son in an accident almost three years ago. Id. She attributes a combination of everything affected her ability to focus on things. Id. When offered a demotion to go back to member services, she felt she could not deal with people like before and could not concentrate. Id.

         Chandler has not worked since September of 2015 and has not applied for any jobs since that time. Id. Chandler drew unemployment for about five or six months, from the fourth quarter of 2015 through the third quarter of 2016. Id. at 50. She testified she called and asked if there were any openings but did not actually submit any applications. Id. Chandler's husband is their only source of income and they are struggling to maintain. Id. at 50-51.

         Chandler has had Crohn's disease for over 20 years which causes her to have severe bouts of diarrhea multiple times a week, nausea, and stomach pain. Id. at 51. It has progressively worsened over time. Id. She has bouts with a perianal fistula from the Crohn's disease which causes problems sitting for periods of time when it flares up. Id. Chandler stated she takes Phenergan when she gets nauseous. Id. at 52.

         Chandler has fibromyalgia. Id. at 51. She has muscle spasms and pain in different parts of her body when doing anything strenuous. Id. She also has severe right knee pain when first standing up and walking, and cannot stand for long periods of time. Id. She takes Librax for pain and omeprazole for stomach pain. Id. at 52.

         On a typical day, Chandler takes her daughter to school, visits with her grandmother, and goes back home. Id. She folds clothes and does laundry. Id. She uses a rolling cart to bring laundry to the laundry room. Id. She sometimes puts the dishes in the dishwasher. Id. Chandler sometimes shops and uses a wheelchair cart when she does. Id. She testified her husband does most of the shopping. Id. at 52-53. She goes to church. Id. at 53. Her husband does the yard work because she is not able. Id. Because she can stand or sit, she can do some household chores. Id. She does not vacuum. Id. Chandler testified vacuuming “throws my fibromyalgia” and starts pain in her arms and legs. Id.

         Chandler's hobbies and interests consist of reading novels and watching television. Id. at 54. Sometimes she uses a computer. Id. She can use a computer, an iPad, and a smart phone. Id. Chandler tries to read and cannot just sit and do nothing. Id.

         Chandler testified she can shower or bathe and dry her hair. Id. She has a chair in her bathroom so she does not have to stand the whole time. Id. She must sit down and dry her hair. Id. Chandler testified she can take care of herself and dress herself. Id. at 55.

         Chandler testified she has sleep apnea and falls asleep easily. Id. She uses a CPAP machine but still gets sleepy during the day. Id. She has used a CPAP machine for about five years. Id. She has severe mood swings and cries a lot. Id. She has trouble focusing and forgets what she is doing. Id. Due to her dramatic mood swings, she is easily aggravated with other people. Id. at 56. Chandler testified she does not associate with a lot of people. Id. She has been this way for a couple of years, beginning after her son was killed. Id.

         Chandler sees Dr. Kirkikis for Crohn's disease, Dr. Quillin for psychological issues, Dr. Brunet for her knee, Dr. English for psoriasis, Dr. Shoshay for her fasciitis, Dr. Gallaher as her general practitioner, Dr. Hajmurad for nerve pain and neuropathy, Dr. Shaleb for fibromyalgia, Dr. Foray for sleep issues, and Dr. England for her eyes. Id. at 56-57.

         She was hospitalized in 2016 for an acute flare-up of Crohn's disease. Id. at 57. Chandler testified she was no longer taking Humira and began having problems with her Crohn's beginning in early 2016. Id. She could not afford Humira because she no longer had insurance. Id. at 57-58. After her hospitalization, she was able to restart Humira through an assistance program. Id. at 58. Chandler testified she was doing better with her Crohn's disease and not having diarrhea and nausea every day. Id.

         Chandler testified she received counseling from Dr. Stokes, another psychologist with Dr. Quillin. Id. Chandler no longer sees Dr. Stokes because she cannot afford it. Id. She sees Dr. Quillin for medication management. Id. at 59. She believes some of the medication causes blurry vision. Id. She has trouble reading and uses different pairs of glasses. Id. She did not know of other side effects of her different medications. Id.

         After her June 2016 hospitalization, Chandler went to Urgent Care for excruciating knee pain. Id. She then went to Dr. Brunet, an orthopedic doctor. Id. Chandler testified Dr. Brunet felt the knee swelling was arthritis and that there was not much she could do. Id. Chandler stated Dr. Brunet has not recommended any knee surgery. Id. She tries to exercise some, but not a lot because it is too painful. Id. at 60. She uses an elliptical machine at home, but usually only walks five to ten minutes. Id. She can stand in place for a couple of minutes. Id. She testified she is limited by pain in her knee and feet. Id. Sitting is okay unless her fistula flares up. Id. She cannot lift a box of copy paper but can lift a six-pack of Cokes or a gallon of milk. Id. at 61. She stated it hurts her stomach or legs to lift. Id.

         Chandler testified she tries to get along with people but does not see a lot of people. Id. She gets aggravated easily. Id. Chandler stated that she had trouble dealing with people at her job and got aggravated just talking with people. Id. at 62. She testified she can concentrate on instructions if it is written down in front of her. Id. If something requires longer concentration, she drifts off or must get up and go to the bathroom. Id. She loses her focus and has a hard time getting back to what she was doing. Id. at 63.

         Chandler testified Crohn's disease is the main problem that keeps her from working. Id. at 64. Her second problem is focusing on the task at hand. Id. at 64.

         At the hearing, the ALJ and Chandler's attorney discussed Dr. Kirkikis opinion statement in which he discusses and circles some findings that track the irritable bowel disease, listing 5.06. Id. at 43. The ALJ notes that Dr. Kirkikis circles a couple of lab findings that would be consistent with that listing level severity - hemoglobin less than 10 grams per deciliter 60 days apart and albumin levels at less than 3.0 grams. Id. The ALJ could not find any hemoglobin low levels that were 60 days apart, and could not find any albumin levels that met that threshold. Id. Chandler's attorney noted that the lowest level of albumen he found was 3.1 grams, just above the threshold. Id. at 64. He found hemoglobin at level 8.2 on June 12 and 8.6 on June 9. Id. The ALJ noted that for the purpose of the listing analysis, the abnormal readings have to be separated by 60 days. Id. at 64-65. Chandler's attorney noted another low hemoglobin on May 11, 2016 at 9.7 grams. Id. at 65.

         Chandler's attorney questioned her about her Crohn's disease. Id. Chandler testified her average day consists of stomach pain and diarrhea. Id. at 65-66. She goes to the bathroom with diarrhea three to five times on an average day. Id. at 66. Chandler stated she has nausea several times a week but not daily. Id. On a bad day, she has to go to the bathroom with diarrhea probably 12 to 15 times. Id. Chandler testified no matter what she is doing, she must leave, drop that task, and go to the bathroom. Id. Chandler wears adult diapers if she is having a bad day and must go somewhere. Id. She must stay close to a bathroom. Id. at 67. She often cannot make it to the bathroom in time. Id. Chandler testified she is often thinking about when she will have to go to the bathroom next. Id. She stated her fistula is reoccurring. Id. Chandler has on average about two bad days in a week. Id. at 68.

         Chandler testified Dr. Shaleb diagnosed her fibromyalgia. Id. at 68. Dr. Shaleb sent Chandler to a neurologist for nerve conduction testing with Dr. Hajmurad. Id. Chandler testified that the nerve conduction study confirmed she had fibromyalgia. Id. She stated it is worse with exertion. Id. She has all over pain and tenderness all the time. Id. at 69. She has tenderness in her arms. Id. She has joint pain which she associates with arthritis and fibromyalgia. Id.

         Chandler testified Dr. Quillin diagnosed her with bipolar disorder and major depression. Id. During a bout of depression, Chandler does not want to do anything and wants to be by herself at home. Id. She does not want to be around family. Id. She feels down a lot of the time. Id. at 71. She cries all the time. Id. She has anxiety and takes Abilify, Ativan, and Wellbutrin. Id. Sometimes she has panic attacks, which occur monthly and are triggered by environmental stressors. Id. During bouts of depression, she has trouble maintaining focus and completing tasks. Id. at 72. This occurs three or four times a week. Id. She also has issues sleeping during the day. Id. If she must travel, her husband always drives so she is not driving any distances by herself. Id.

         Regarding her ability to work, Chandler testified that Dr. Kirkikis said her bouts of diarrhea, stomach pain, and nausea would probably prohibit her from maintaining a job. Id. at 73. Dr. Kirkikis estimated she would be absent from work more than once a week due to her issues. Id. Chandler testified Dr. Quillin stated that not focusing prohibited her from working. Id. Chandler used to enjoy work but became overwhelmed, would cry, and feel bad about coming to work every day. Id. Without her issues, she felt she would be working. Id.

         The VE did not need any clarification regarding Chandler's past work. Id. at 74. The ALJ asked the VE to characterize Chandler's past work history. Id. The VE testified that during her 20 years at the credit union, Chandler performed the job of financial institution manager, DOT[1] number 186.167-086, skilled work, SVP level 8, physical demand level sedentary. Id. The VE testified Chandler also performed the job of collection and credit manager, DOT number 169.167-086, skilled work, SVP level 8, physical demand level sedentary. Id. at 74-75. She also performed the job of head teller, DOT number 211.132-010, skilled work, SVP level 8, physical demand level light. Id. at 75. The characterizations given were both as generally performed and as she actually performed that work. Id.

         The ALJ asked the VE to assume a hypothetical individual with the same age, education, and past work experience as Chandler with the following limitations: light work; lifting and carrying 20 pounds occasionally, ten pounds frequently; standing and walking for up to six hours in an eight-hour day; sitting for up to six hours in an eight-hour day; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, but no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; no exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery; no exposures to extremes of heat or cold; limited to simple, routine, repetitive work; limited to simple work-related decisions; and only frequent interaction with supervisors and coworkers and only occasional interaction with the public. Id. at 75-76. The ALJ asked the VE if, based on those limitations, whether that hypothetical individual could perform any of Chandler's past work. Id. at 76.

         Regarding the ALJ's hypothetical, the VE testified there was no past work available to that individual. Id. The ALJ inquired about the sedentary work Chandler performed as a credit manager and financial institution manager and what limitations in the hypothetical preclude Chandler's past work. Id. The VE testified that occasional contact with the public primarily precludes past work as Chandler had frequent to constant contact with the public. Id. The VE stated that Chandler's past work was highly skilled work, all SVP level 8. Id. The VE stated that the hypothetical required unskilled, simple work-related decisions and Chandler performed past jobs that were highly skilled and required her to make complicated decisions. Id. at 76-77.

         The VE testified that there are other jobs in the national economy that such a person could perform. Id. at 77. The VE stated that the individual with such limitations could work as a price marker, DOT number 209.587-034, unskilled work, SVP level 2, exertional level light (273, 000 jobs in the national economy). Id. The VE testified the individual could work as a housekeeper, DOT number 323.687-014, unskilled work, SVP level 2, physical demand level light (137, 000 jobs in the national economy). Id. The VE further testified that the individual could work as a cafeteria attendant, DOT number 311.677-010, unskilled, SVP level 2, physical demand level light (60, 000 jobs in the national economy). Id.

         The ALJ asked the VE to assume the hypothetical individual is exertionally limited to sedentary work with essentially the same non-exertional limitations as before. Id. at 78. The ALJ asked the VE to assume the following limitations: lifting and carrying 10 pounds occasionally, five pounds frequently; standing and walking for up to two hours in an eight-hour day; sitting for up to six hours in an eight-hour day; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, but no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; no exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery; no exposures to extremes of heat or cold; limited to simple, routine, repetitive work; limited to simple work-related decisions; and only frequent interaction with supervisors and coworkers and only occasional interaction with the public. Id. at 75-76. The ALJ asked the VE if, based on those limitations, whether that hypothetical individual could perform any of Chandler's past work. Id.

         Regarding the ALJ's second hypothetical, the VE testified there was no past work available to that individual. Id. The VE asked some clarifying questions to determine whether jobs would be available in the national economy to that individual. Id. at 79. The ALJ clarified that the limitation of occasional public contact includes telephone contact with the public. Id. The VE testified that there are other jobs in the national economy that such a person could perform. Id. The VE testified that the individual could perform work as a document specialist, DOT number 249.587-018, unskilled, SVP level 2, physical demand level of sedentary (73, 000 jobs in the national economy). Id. The VE also testified the individual could work as a surveillance system monitor, DOT number 379.367-010, unskilled work, SVP level 2, physical demand level sedentary (17, 000 jobs in the national economy). Id.

         The ALJ asked the VE to assume those same limitations, except that due to various physical and mental limitations, the individual would need at least two additional breaks other than the normal workday breaks, each a 15-minute duration; would be absent at least two days or more per month; and would be off task at least 20 percent of the workday. Id. at 79-80. The VE testified that the third hypothetical would eliminate all jobs in the national economy for the individual. Id. at 80. That is true for the individual limitations, both individually and collectively. Id.

         Chandler's attorney asked the VE to assume in the first hypothetical that the individual's condition markedly limited her ability to perform activities within a schedule and maintain regular attendance within customary tolerances. Id. The VE testified that no unskilled jobs would be available in the national economy with that limitation. Id. at 81. Chandler's attorney asked the VE to assume in the first hypothetical that the individual had to be allowed to take unscheduled breaks for regular durations up to 10 times a day. Id. The VE testified no jobs would be available to that individual in the national economy. Id.

         B. ALJ's Findings

         To determine disability, the ALJ applied the five-step sequential process outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The sequential process required the ALJ to determine whether Chandler: (1) is presently working; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment listed in or medically equivalent to those in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“Appendix 1”); (4) is unable to do the kind of work she did in the past; and (5) can perform any other type of work. If it is determined at any step of that process that a claimant is or is not disabled, the sequential process ends. A finding that a claimant is disabled or is not disabled at any point in the five-step review is conclusive and terminates the analysis. See Greenspan v. Shalala, 38 F.3d 232, 236 (5th Cir. 1994), cert. den. 914 U.S. 1120 (1995) (citing Lovelace v. Bowen, 813 F.2d 55, 58 (5th Cir. 1987)).

         To be entitled to benefits, an applicant bears the initial burden of showing that she is disabled. Under the regulations, this means the claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps of the sequential analysis. Once this initial burden is satisfied, the Commissioner bears the burden of establishing that the ...


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