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Plainse v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

September 6, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          William C. Griesbach, Chief Judge United States District Court.

         Plaintiff Heather Plainse filed this action for judicial review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act and supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Act. Plainse alleged an onset date of June 11, 2014 in her applications. Plainse contends that the administrative law judge's (ALJ) decision is flawed and requires remand for four reasons: (1) the ALJ's residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment did not account for Plainse's severe fatigue and was not assessed on a function-by-function basis; (2) the ALJ's listing discussion that related to Plainse's arthritis only offered a perfunctory analysis; (3) the ALJ failed to give controlling weight to Dr. Koster's opinion; and (4) the vocational expert's (VE) findings are inconsistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.


         Plainse filed her applications on February 19, 2015 and listed double outlet right ventricle/hypoplastic left ventricle and juvenile idiopathic arthritis as the conditions that limited her ability to work. R. 12, 330. After her applications were denied, both initially and on reconsideration, Plainse requested a hearing before an ALJ. On July 17, 2017, ALJ Roosevelt Currie conducted a video hearing where Plainse, who was represented by counsel, and a VE testified. R. 33-62.

         At the time of the hearing, Plainse was 22 years old. R. 36. Plainse testified that the highest level of education that she had completed was a year of online college courses, and that she was too exhausted and fatigued as a result of her medical conditions to continue the courses. R. 36, 39. Plainse's source of income at the time was a part-time job where she worked 15 hours a week at a Payless Shoes in a position that required her to be standing most of the time. R. 37. Plainse's prior work experience included working as a scheduler at Thrivent Financial, a customer service representative at Planet Fitness, and a cashier and sales associate at Shopko Express. R. 41-42. In general, Plainse worked between 25 to 30 hours a week in these positions but occasionally worked more hours. Id. These positions generally required her to sit or stand continuously, which led to her becoming exhausted and stiff, and her conditions resulted in her being absent from work regularly. Id. Plainse stated that she limits herself to part-time hours because she becomes too fatigued, stiff, and exhausted if she works more than 15 hours. R. 38. When she does work more than 15 hours, she reported that she needs to lay down for the remainder of the day, and often gets a headache. R. 39, 44.

         Regarding her physical conditions, Plainse stated she was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at the age of two. R. 38-39. She testified that her arthritis causes burning pain in her wrists and fingers, and swelling in her hands along her joints. R. 45. Depending on the day, Plainse stated her arthritis can make it difficult for her to button things, tie her shoes, and use a computer. R. 44-45. Plainse testified that she experiences swelling, soreness, and pain in her knees, legs, and ankles that is brought on by standing for more than 20 minutes or walking more than 15 minutes. R. 48-49. Plainse also stated that cold weather affects her, making her joints ache even more. R. 48. She testified that the pain can wake her up at night if she worked too much on a given day. R. 49.

         Plainse is currently prescribed Orencia for her arthritis, which she takes once a week, and she stated that prior medications were no longer effective. R. 46. She indicated that Orencia works for the most part, but as a result of taking the medication she experiences headaches daily or every other day. R. 46-47, 52. Plainse further stated that these headaches can turn into migraines once or twice a week, and that she takes Tylenol to treat them. R. 46-47, 49.

         Plainse also suffered a stroke resulting from a blood clot in her heart. She stated that she takes Warfarin as a result and occasionally gets headaches as a side effect of the stroke. R. 49. Plainse reported that she feels sick all of the time with cold-like symptoms and that she has a thyroid condition-for which she takes medication-that results in her feeling fatigued. R. 50, 52. Plainse further testified that, in general, she experiences fatigue and exhaustion as a result of her conditions whenever she works. See R. 38-55. Plainse also stated that the pain, fatigue, and exhaustion interfere with her ability to complete activities and focus. R. 51-52.

         Regarding her daily activities, Plainse testified that she is often too exhausted and tired to go anywhere and that typically after coming home from work she rests for the remainder of the day. R. 47, 50. Plainse lives with her parents, and she stated her mother does the laundry, cooking, and a majority of the cleaning. Plainse testified that she does dishes occasionally, but not for more than five minutes, and that she does not help carry groceries because they are too heavy. R. 47-48, 51. Plainse also stated that she tries to exercise but finds it too difficult because of her exhaustion. R. 52.

         In an twelve-page decision dated August 24, 2017, the ALJ determined that Plainse is not disabled. R. 12-23. The ALJ's decision followed the five-step sequential process for determining disability prescribed by the Social Security Administration (SSA). R. 13-14. At step one, the ALJ concluded that Plainse has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her June 11, 2014 alleged onset date and that she met the insured status requirements through September 30, 2015. R. 14. At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plainse has the following severe impairments: congenital heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis. R. 15. At step three, the ALJ concluded Plainse did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 15-16.

         Next, the ALJ assessed Plainse's RFC and found that she can perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), subject to the following limitations:

The individual can stand/walk for about two hours and sit for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday, with normal breaks; frequently balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl, occasionally climb ramps and stairs; and never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The individual should avoid concentrated exposure to heights, moving machinery, and similar hazards.

R. 17. At step four, the ALJ then concluded, based on the testimony by the VE, that Plainse is unable to perform any past relevant work as a sales associate. R. 21. The ALJ also concluded based on the VE's testimony that Plainse would be able to perform the requirements of the following representative occupations: order clerk and final assembly. R. 22. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plainse is not disabled. Id. The Appeals Council denied Plainse's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.


         Judicial review of the decisions of administrative agencies is intended to be deferential. Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010). The Social Security Act specifies that the “findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed that “[u]nder the substantial-evidence standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains ‘sufficien[t] evidence' to support the agency's factual determinations.” Beistek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). “The phrase ‘substantial evidence, '” the Court explained, “is a ‘term of art' used throughout administrative law to describe how courts are to review agency factfinding.” Id. “And whatever the meaning of ‘substantial' in other contexts, ” the Court noted, “the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not ...

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