United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Central Division
ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION
GREG KAYS, Chief District Judge.
This action seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's (the "Commissioner") decision denying Plaintiff Wendy Taghan's applications for Social Security disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including rheumatoid arthritis of the hands, but she retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work as an optical goods worker, a surveillance system monitor, and a check cashier. Plaintiff challenges this determination.
Because substantial evidence on the record as a whole supports the ALJ's opinion, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision denying benefits.
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 applications on February 19, 2009, alleging a disability onset date of December 12, 2008. The Commissioner denied her claims initially and reaffirmed the denial upon reconsideration. Plaintiff appealed to an ALJ. On April 27, 2011, after conducting a video hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the regulations. On January 25, 2012, the Appeals Council denied her request for review, leaving the ALJ's determination as the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and judicial review is now appropriate under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
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 at Steps Four and Five. As for Step Four, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to include a more restrictive RFC limitation on her ability to handle and finger objects; and (2) failing to develop the record with regard to these same limitations. Turning to Step Five, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in improperly formulating the hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert ("VE"). Each argument lacks merit.
A. The ALJ did not err at Step Four.
Plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's formulation of her RFC. A claimant's RFC is the most that she can still do despite her physical or mental limitations. Leckenby v. Astrue, 487 F.3d 626, 631 n.5 (8th Cir. 2007). In formulating the RFC, the ALJ must consider all the record evidence, including medical records, physicians' opinions, and the claimant's subjective statements about her limitations. Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004). The claimant, however, bears the ultimate burden of demonstrating her RFC. Vossen v. Astrue, 612 F.3d 1011, 1016 (8th Cir. 2010).
Here, after a careful analysis of the medical records, physician opinions, and Plaintiff's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform sedentary work with a litany of additional restrictions. R. at 66. Among the many restrictions, the ALJ found Plaintiff's rheumatoid arthritis in her hands limited her to jobs involving only "frequent ...