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James v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

September 15, 2014

HOWARD L. JAMES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

NANNETTE A. BAKER, Magistrate Judge.

This is an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying Howard L. James' ("James") application for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq. James alleged disability due to substance abuse and a bad liver. (Tr. 178.) This matter was referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) for a report and recommendation. [Doc. 4.]

I. Background

On September 11, 2007, James applied for SSI benefits. (Tr. 161-163.) The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied James' claim and he filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 88-93.) The SSA granted James's request for review. (Tr. 95-96.) An administrative hearing was held on July 28, 2009. (Tr. 25-44.) James, who was represented by counsel, testified at the hearing. The ALJ issued a written opinion upholding the denial of benefits. (Tr. 71-76.) James requested review of the ALJ's decision from the Appeals Council. (Tr. 123.) On February 28, 2011, the Appeals Council granted James's request for review. (Tr. 80-83.) The Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ to obtain additional evidence and issue a new decision. (Tr. 85-87.) James submitted additional evidence and another administrative hearing was held on September 19, 2011 before a different ALJ. (Tr. 45-65.) James and vocational expert Delores Gonzalez testified at the hearing. The new ALJ issued a written decision again denying benefits. (Tr. 9-18.) James again requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, but the Appeals Council denied his request for review. (Tr. 1-5.) The decision of the ALJ thus stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 107 (2000). James filed this appeal on May 22, 2013. [Doc. 1.] The Commissioner filed an Answer and the certified Administrative Transcript on August 1, 2013. [Docs. 8, 9.] James filed a Brief in Support of Complaint on February 6, 2014. [Doc. 16.] The Commissioner filed a Brief in Support of the Answer on April 30, 2014. [Doc. 21.]

II. Standard of Review

The Social Security Act defines disability as an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1)(A).

The Social Security Administration uses a five-step analysis to determine whether a claimant seeking disability benefits is in fact disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(1). First, the claimant must not be engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). Second, the claimant must establish that he or she has an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits his or her ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Third, the claimant must establish that his or her impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in the appendix to the applicable regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(iii).

Fourth, the claimant must establish that the impairment prevents him or her from doing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that the claimant maintains the residual functional capacity to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. Singh v. Apfel, 222 F.3d 448, 451 (8th Cir. 2000). If the claimant satisfies all of the criteria under the five-step evaluation, the ALJ will find the claimant to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).

This Court reviews decisions of the ALJ to determine whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind would find adequate support for the ALJ's decision. Smith v. Shalala, 31 F.3d 715, 717 (8th Cir. 1994). Therefore, even if this Court finds that there is a preponderance of evidence against the weight of the ALJ's decision, the decision must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence. Clark v. Heckler, 733 F.2d 65, 68 (8th Cir. 1984). An administrative decision is not subject to reversal simply because some evidence may support the opposite conclusion. Gwathney v. Chater, 1043, 1045 (8th Cir. 1997).

To determine whether the ALJ's final decision is supported by substantial evidence, the Court is required to review the administrative record as a whole to consider:

(1) The findings of credibility made by the ALJ;
(2) The education, background, work history, and age of the claimant;
(3) The medical evidence given by the claimant's treating physician;
(4) The subjective complaints of pain and description of the claimant's physical activity and impairment;
(5) The corroboration by third parties of the claimant's physical impairment;
(6) The testimony of vocational experts based upon prior hypothetical questions which fairly set forth the claimant's physical impairment; and
(7) The testimony of consulting physicians.

Brand v. Sec'y of Dept. of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 623 F.2d 523, 527 (8th Cir. 1980).

III. ALJ's Decision

The ALJ determined that James has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 11, 2007. (Tr. 12.) The ALJ found that James had the severe impairments of polysubstance abuse, discogenic and degenerative disorders of the back, anxiety, and depression. (Tr. 12.) The ALJ also determined that James did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart, Appendix 1. (Tr. 12.) The ALJ then found that James had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, except that he could not perform work that required the following: (1) climbing ropes, ladders or scaffolds; (2) more than frequent stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; (3) working with or around industrial hazards and dangerous machinery; (4) understanding, remembering, and carrying out more than at least simple instructions and non-detailed tasks; (5) constant/regular contact with the general public; and (6) more than infrequent handling of customer complaints. (Tr. 13.) The ALJ stated that James was unable to perform past relevant work, but there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he can perform. (Tr. 16-17.) Based on the foregoing, the ALJ concluded that James has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act since September 11, 2007, the date the application was filed. (Tr. 18.)

IV. Administrative Record

The following is a summary of relevant evidence ...


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