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Johnson-Stott v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Utah, Central Division

April 24, 2019

TIFFANY JOHNSON-STOTT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER AND MEMORANDUM DECISION

          TENA CAMPBELL, U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Tiffany Johnson-Stott appeals the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's denial of her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Ms. Johnson-Stott claimed that she was disabled as a consequence of a number of physical and mental maladies. An administrative law judge (ALJ) determined that she suffered from severe medically determinable impairments, but nonetheless retained the capacity to perform light work with some limitations and so denied her application. For the reasons set forth below, the court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         BACKGROUND FACTS

         Application for Disability Insurance Benefits

         Ms. Johnson-Stott filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, claiming that she was disabled from August 30, 2010, to September 30, 2013, her date last insured. According to her application, she was unable to work as a consequence of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, insomnia, lipoma tumors, fibromyalgia, cervicalgia, chronic back pain, neoplasms of the skin, and pain and tingling in her arms and hands.

         Ms. Johnson-Stott's medical records from 2010 to 2013 reflect treatment for each of these conditions. She repeatedly visited her primary care physician, Dr. Ronald Lee, to treat anxiety, neck and back pain, and insomnia. She also visited pain specialists and underwent physical therapy to treat pain in her neck, back, wrists, feet, and ears. In August of 2013, she underwent an MRI, which revealed a “small disc osteophyte” in her neck and “mild degenerative changes of the lumbar spine” in her lower back. (Administrative Transcript[1] (“R.”) 347, 349.)

         Ms. Johnson-Stott also underwent a number of medical procedures during this time. She gave birth by caesarian section in June of 2013, and, the next month, underwent surgery to remove tumors known as lipomas from her body.

         In her initial application for benefits, Ms. Johnson-Stott described “overall pain through out my arms, back, neck, knees, hand, legs, and feet, ” which “make[s] it impossible to lean over people for any amount of time let alone all day preforming [sic] massage therapy.” (R. 166.) She also reported pain performing household chores such as cleaning dishes, picking up her children's toys, sweeping and cleaning, and doing laundry. She stated that “[j]ust to walk I have to hold on to items or my husband to walk around the house or to even use the restroom I have to have him help set me down on the toilet.” (R. 167.) Psychologically, she reported debilitating anxiety and panic attacks, and feelings of claustrophobia.

         Two state examiners, Dr. Kimberlee Terry and Dr. Louis Huebner, reviewed Ms. Johnson-Stott's initial application. Dr. Terry found that Ms. Johnson-Stott's “reported limits are significantly out of proportion to the [objective] exams.” (R. 66.) Dr. Huebner conducted a vocational assessment and concluded that

[t]here was sufficient enough evidence . . . to determine that you were capable of performing light duty work from a physical standpoint, as found in the national economy. There was not enough evidence to show you were completely disabled psychologically and therefore your claim for disability under Title II benefits is denied.

(R. 67.)

         After an initial denial, the Social Security Administration reviewed her application again on reconsideration. Dr. Dennis Taggart, another state agency examiner, concluded that

[r]eview of the medical evidence indicates the previous decision [denial] was made appropriately. The medical evidence available for review from 08/30/2010, your alleged onset date, to 09/30/2013, the date you were last insured for disability benefits; was insufficient to support any totally disabling condition. No. additional medical evidence was received for review from 08/30/2010 through 9/30/2013 to indicate your condition was worse during that time, therefore you [sic] claim is denied.

(R. 80.)

         Ms. Johnson-Stott's Appeal before the ALJ

         Following denial on reconsideration, Ms. Johnson-Stott requested and received a hearing before an ALJ. The hearing took place in February of 2016.

         The record before the ALJ consisted of Ms. Johnson-Stott's medical records and statements from her treating physicians and her husband. Dr. Lee submitted a letter dated June 11, 2015, which stated that Ms. Johnson-Stott “has been seen and treated here for Anxiety, Panic Attacks and PTSD. Tiffany is very limited towards driving and working and doesn't feel comfortable leaving her home unless it is for doctors [sic] appointments or emergencies because being around people triggers the Panic Attacks.” (R. 502.)

         Dr. William Hough, another treating physician, submitted a letter dated June 16, 2015, ...


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