United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Central Division
MARY L. HOLBERT, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION
GREG KAYS, Chief District Judge.
Plaintiff Mary L. Holbert seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including hypertension, hyperlipidermia, and obesity, but she retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work as security guard, cashier, assembler, and hand packer wrapper.
Because substantial evidence on the record as a whole supports the ALJ's opinion, the Commissioner's denial of benefits is AFFIRMED.
Factual and Procedural Background
A summary of the entire record is presented in the parties' briefs and is repeated here only to the extent necessary.
Plaintiff filed her application for disability insurance benefits on November 26, 2007, alleging a disability onset date of July 2, 2007. The Commissioner denied her application, an ALJ subsequently affirmed the denial, and Plaintiff sought review from the Appeals Council. On May 24, 2010, the Appeals Council remanded the case for another hearing, directing the ALJ to: (1) obtain updated treatment records from Plaintiff's treating psychologist, Margaret Harlan, Ph.D. ("Dr. Harlan"), (2) consider all third party statements in the record, (3) evaluate Plaintiff's mental impairments in accordance with the special technique described in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a, (4) evaluate the effects of her obesity, (5) reformulate her RFC, and (6) properly pose questions to the vocational expert. After expanding the record according to these directions and conducting another hearing on September 10, 2010, the ALJ again found Plaintiff was not disabled. This time the Appeals Council declined review, leaving the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. In declining review, the Appeals Council rejected new medical evidence presented by Plaintiff because the evidence documented her condition after her date of last insured. Plaintiff has exhausted all of her administrative remedies and judicial review is now appropriate under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Standard of Review
A federal court's review of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision to deny disability benefits is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough evidence that a reasonable mind would find it sufficient to support the Commissioner's decision. Id. In making this assessment, the court considers evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision, as well as evidence that supports it. McKinney v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000). The court must "defer heavily" to the Commissioner's findings and conclusions. Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010). The court may reverse the Commissioner's decision only if it falls outside of the available zone of choice, and a decision is not outside this zone simply because the court might have decided the case differently were it the initial finder of fact. Buckner, 646 F.3d at 556.
In determining whether a claimant is disabled, that is, unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months, 42 U.S.C. § 423(d), the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred: (1) at Step Two by finding that her depression and diabetes were non-severe impairments; and (2) at Step Four by discounting the opinion of Plaintiff's treating psychologist, Dr. Harlan.
Before addressing these specific arguments, the Court makes a general observation about the record evidence which impacts its analysis. To be entitled to insurance benefits, Plaintiff was required to prove disability between her alleged onset date (July 2, 2007) and the date her insurance expired (September 30, 2009). See Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 522 (8th Cir. 2009). Here, the ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff did not carry this burden. In reviewing whether substantial evidence supports this decision, however, the Court is not constrained to only evaluate the evidence considered by the ALJ. See Cunningham v. Apfel, 222 F.3d 496, 500 (8th Cir. 2000). Rather, the Court may consider new, relevant evidence that was introduced after the ALJ's decision, so long as it relates to the relevant time period of disability. Id. Accordingly, in analyzing Plaintiff's arguments, the Court only considers the new, relevant evidence that relates to Plaintiff's medical conditions between July 2, 2007, and September 30, 2009.
A. The ALJ did not err in finding Plaintiff's depression and diabetes were non-severe impairments.
Plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's finding that her depression did not constitute a severe impairment. In particular, Plaintiff contends that because Dr. Harlan diagnosed her with Major Depressive Disorder ("MDD") and other medical professionals prescribed her antidepressants, the ALJ erred in finding that her MDD had only a minimal effect on her ability to work. This argument lacks merit.
At Step Two of the sequential process, the ALJ is tasked with determining whether the claimant has a severe mental or physical impairment. A severe impairment is an impairment that significantly limits a claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). An impairment is not severe when it has no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521; SSR 96-3p, 1996 WL 374181 (July 2, 1996). The impairment "must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques... and must be established by medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by [the claimant's] statement of symptoms..." Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 923 (8th Cir. 2011) (alteration in original) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508). The ...