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Yates v. Colvin

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

February 3, 2015

DIANNA L. YATES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

SHIRLEY PADMORE MENSAH, Magistrate Judge.

This is an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying the application of Plaintiff Dianna L. Yates ("Plaintiff") for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. (the "Act"). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 7). Because I find the decision denying benefits was supported by substantial evidence, I will affirm the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on May 20, 1948 and has an associate's degree in Applied Science. (Tr. 34-35). She worked as a full-time benefits specialist from 1997 to 2008 and as an instructor at Metro Business College from June 2009 to July 2010. (Tr. 37-38, 40-42, 153-56). She testified that she did not continue the instructor job because she did not believe she could physically or mentally perform it. She later worked in several additional part-time jobs, most recently in March 2012 as a medical coder and biller. (Tr. 35-36).

Plaintiff testified at the hearing before the ALJ that she has back pain, leg pain, and pain in her right hand that cause her various physical limitations.[1] She also testified that she had two strokes in 2007, and since then she has had memory and concentration problems, difficulty remembering things she reads, and less patience than she used to have. (Tr. 49, 52, 54, 57). She testified that it seemed like the mental problems had gotten worse in 2011 and 2012. (Tr. 56).

II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On April 27, 2011, Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging that she was unable to work due to diabetes, laminectomy, lumbar spine scar tissue, degenerative disc disease, hypertension, right leg pain/trouble standing, recurring left elbow epicondylitis, and two strokes in November 2007. (Tr. 129-135, 190-91). That application was initially denied. (Tr. 67-73). On June 10, 2011, Plaintiff filed a Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Tr. 76-77). On September 26, 2012, a hearing was held before the ALJ. (Tr. 30-59). On October 4, 2012, Plaintiff amended her onset date to July 24, 2010. (Tr. 175). On November 30, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 10-26). Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision with the Social Security Administration's Appeal's Council on January 11, 2013 (Tr. 6), but the Council declined to review the case on November 21, 2013. (Tr. 1-5). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

III. STANDARD FOR DETERMINING DISABILITY UNDER THE ACT

To be eligible for benefits under the Social Security Act, a plaintiff must prove he or she is disabled. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); Baker v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992). The Social Security Act defines as disabled a person who is "unable 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 which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010). The impairment must be "of such severity that [the claimant] is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); see also McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir. 2011) (discussing the five-step process). At Step One, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in "substantial gainful activity"; if so, then he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment, which is "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities"; if the claimant does not have a severe impairment, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Three, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "listings"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant has such an impairment, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds with the rest of the five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

Prior to Step Four, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC"), which is "the most a claimant can do despite [his or her] limitations." Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). At Step Four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can return to his past relevant work, by comparing the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant can perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled; if the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id. At Step Five, the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine whether the claimant can make an adjustment to other work in the national economy; if the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the claimant will be found disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

Through Step Four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove that he or she is disabled. Moore, 572 F.3d at 523. At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that, given the claimant's age, education, and work experience, there are a significant number of other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id .; Brock v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1062, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012).

IV. THE ALJ'S DECISION

Applying the foregoing five-step analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 24, 2010, the amended alleged onset date; Plaintiff had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status post laminectomies, left elbow lateral epicondylitis, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and carotid artery disease with the residual effects of a CVA (stroke); and Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 15-16). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) except that she must have the option to sit and/or stand while working. (Tr. 17). The ALJ found that Plaintiff has past relevant work as a benefits analyst and as a vocational training instructor and that Plaintiff is capable of performing her ...


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