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Cooks v. Colvin

United States District Court, Eighth Circuit

October 22, 2013

REBECCA R. COOKS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


KAREN E. SCHREIER, District Judge.

Plaintiff, Rebecca R. Cooks, seeks review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying her claim for social security disability insurance (SSDI).[1] The Commissioner opposes the motion and moves the court to affirm the decision. The court remands.


On March 23, 2010, Cooks applied for SSDI alleging disability beginning March 6, 2009. AR 143-47.[2] The Social Security Administration denied Cooks's application. AR 87-89. Cooks requested reconsideration, which was subsequently denied. AR 93-95. Cooks, with the assistance of counsel, requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). AR 98-99. After the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Cooks was not disabled and thus was not entitled to benefits. AR 27-38. Cooks then requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision along with new evidence, which request was denied. AR 1-6. Subsequently, Cooks commenced this action, requesting judicial review of the Commissioner's determination that she is not disabled. Docket 1.


Cooks was born on June 3, 1953. AR 159. Cooks finished high school and completed two years of college in 1986, obtaining an associate's degree in business. AR 59, 165. Cooks has two grown children and recently remarried in June of 2010. AR 62.

During the last fifteen years, Cooks has worked in accounting and sales (1993-2000), at a flower shop (2000-2002), as a credit collections representative (2002-2006), as a welder (2006-2008), and in customer service and retention (2008-March 6, 2009). AR 175. Between 1996 and 2008, Cooks earned over $20, 000 each year. AR 151. Cooks indicated that she worked full time until March 6, 2009. AR 175-180. Cooks stated that she had difficulty hearing customers in her last job, that the stress was difficult for her to handle, and that she struggled to interact professionally with customers, co-workers, and supervisors. AR 77. Additionally, she stated that she left her welding job because it required too much time on her feet and she left her job at the flower shop "partially [due to] the walking around and lifting but it was also I didn't have [medical] insurance." AR 60. Cooks currently relies on her husband's disability benefits, food stamps, Section Eight housing benefits, and church food giveaways for support. AR 62.

In her SSDI application, Cooks claimed a disability based on bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, hearing loss, right knee problems, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, migraines, and diabetes. AR 164.

I. Physical Limitations

Cooks has a number of chronic physical limitations documented in the record. She has a history of obesity. As a result, Cooks had a gastric bypass in 1998 and subsequently lost a great deal of weight, although she gained some of it back recently. AR 63-64. Cooks underwent a right knee arthroplasty on May 29, 2009, to treat degeneration in that joint.[3] AR 238. Cooks went through physical therapy following the successful procedure, but she subsequently has reported knee pain on occasion. AR 262, 330.

Cooks has difficulty hearing. She started wearing bilateral hearing aids in 2008. AR 64. Cooks states that she can hear in a quiet setting, but she struggles to hear over the telephone or in an environment with other sounds. AR 64-65. Cooks also suffers from headaches, although the cause is unknown. See, e.g., AR 309. She has controlled her headaches with medication. Id. In addition, Cooks has complained of fatigue and inability to sleep, and she has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia.[4] AR 404, 407. Cooks has taken a number of different medications to relieve pain and help her sleep. She also participated in a sleep study, which was inconclusive. AR 417.

Records from the Orthopedic Institute show that Cooks has complained of low back pain, knee pain, and neck pain. AR 622-32. Doctors diagnosed Cooks with polyneuropathy[5] with an unknown cause (AR 623), advanced spondylosis[6] (AR 627), and bilateral knee problems (AR 624). Cooks underwent acupuncture, massage therapy, and electrical muscle stimulation. She requested a gym membership. AR 623. She was also given an epidural injection, but she preferred more conservative treatments. AR 625. She reported that those treatments gave her relief. AR 623, 624.

II. Mental Limitations

Cooks has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). See AR 404, 440, 463, 475 (diagnosing depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder); AR 417, 428, 451 (diagnosing depression and PTSD); AR 542, 545, 546, 549, 552 (diagnosing major depressive disorder, PTSD, and panic disorder); AR 596 (diagnosing anxiety disorder); AR 597, 610 (diagnosing bipolar disorder); AR 611 (diagnosing anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, and panic disorder); AR 615 (diagnosing depression, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, anxiety disorder, polysubstance dependence in full remission, and PTSD). Two state sources diagnosed Cooks with intermittent explosive disorder and mood disorder. AR 523, 531. Cooks reports a history of physical and sexual abuse. See, e.g., AR 613. Cooks has taken a long list of medications to control her conditions and symptoms. See, e.g., AR 608-09 (listing current and past medications). Frequently, Cooks's doctors indicated that she was alert, oriented, well-groomed, and behaved appropriately. Some doctors expressed concern that Cooks was overmedicated, which might contribute to her fatigue. AR 381, 392.


On September 20, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying Cooks's application for SSDI. AR 24-38. The ALJ used the sequential five-step evaluation process.[7] At the first step, the ALJ determined that Cooks had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 6, 2009. AR 30. At step two, the ALJ found that Cooks had the following severe impairments: hearing impairment, fibromyalgia, mild right foot drop, [8] and obesity. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Cooks did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled a listed impairment. AR 34. At step four, the ALJ concluded that Cooks had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a range of light and sedentary work.[9] Id. Based on the testimony of a ...

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