United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division
DEBRA A. STAPLETON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION
GREG KAYS, Chief District Judge.
Plaintiff Debra A. Stapleton seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") decision denying her applications for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found Plaintiff had multiple severe impairments, including anxiety, bipolar disorder, and right knee degenerative joint disease, but retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform her past relevant work as a housekeeper.
Because the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.
Procedural and Factual Background
A complete summary of the record is presented in the parties' briefs and repeated here only to the extent necessary. Plaintiff filed the pending SSI application on April 4, 2011, and the pending SSDI application on April 6, 2011. In both, she alleged a disability onset date of October 1, 2007. After the Commissioner denied her application, Plaintiff requested an ALJ hearing. On December 18, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. The Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on December 30, 2013, leaving the ALJ's decision 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) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).
Standard of Review
A federal court's review of the Commissioner'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.
The Commissioner of Social Security follows a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine 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 at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred: (1) at Step Two by failing to include Plaintiff's ankle fracture as a severe impairment; and (2) at Step Four by improperly weighing various pieces of evidence to formulate Plaintiff's RFC. These arguments are without merit.
I. The ALJ did not err in classifying Plaintiff's ankle fracture as non-severe.
The ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments of bipolar disorder, anxiety, and degenerative joint disease in the right knee. R. at 13. He did not find Plaintiff's right ankle injury to be severe. E.g., R. at 494-95. Plaintiff claims this was error.
An impairment is "non-severe" if it does not "significantly limit" a claimant's mental and physical ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a). "Severity is not an onerous requirement for the claimant to meet, but it is also not a toothless standard...." Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 708 (8th Cir. 2007) (internal citation omitted).
In this case, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff was not significantly limited by her right ankle fracture. Plaintiff was released to work the month after her July 2011 injury. R. at 495. During a September 2011 doctor's visit, she reported that she was back at her job as a housekeeper and that she was "doing well". R. at 493. Although her foot had some mild swelling, X-rays taken during that visit showed that the fracture looked to be completely healed. R. at 436, 493. Plaintiff does not appear to have sought any treatment for her ankle after November 2011. R. at 519 (November 2011 visit). By that time, Plaintiff had normal range of motion and no tenderness in her ankle. R. at 404. Nine months after her injury, ...