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Harris v. Colvin

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

February 23, 2015

AKKIAAS HARRIS, 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) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying the application of Plaintiff Akkiaas Harris ("Plaintiff") for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381, et seq. (the "Act"). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 11). Because I find the decision denying benefits was not supported by substantial evidence, I will reverse the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application and remand the case for further proceedings.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born March 6, 1972. (Tr. 27). She last worked as a child care provider for one year and has not worked since May 1, 2010. (Tr. 27-28). She claims she can no longer work because of pain in her lower lumbar area that runs down her legs to her feet. (Tr. 28). She has been diagnosed with degenerative joint disease and lupus. (Tr. 29). She experiences numbness, pain, pinching, throbbing, and tingling, and this has lasted for about eight years. (Tr. 28). She claims to be able to sit for approximately five minutes at a time, stand for about five to seven minutes at a time, and walk for five to ten minutes at a time. (Tr. 29-30). Plaintiff reports that it hurts to sleep, to take a shower, and to sit on the toilet. (Tr. 31). She completes household tasks with help from her husband and older children and by taking breaks. (Tr. 31). She reports that she cannot drive because she loses feeling in her legs and feet. (Tr. 116). Plaintiff has taken pain medication, but it does not help. (Tr. 30). She takes medication for her lupus. (Tr. 30-31).

II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On June 2, 2011, Plaintiff applied for SSI, alleging that she had been unable to work since May 1, 2010 due to degenerative joint disease. (Tr. 90-96, 104). On July 11, 2011, her application was initially denied. (Tr. 40-45). On August 18, 2011, Plaintiff filed a Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Tr. 46-48). After a hearing on August 13, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 7-24). Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision with the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council on October 3, 2012, but the Council declined to review the case on September 25, 2013. (Tr. 1-3). 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(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. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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. § 416.920(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. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(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. § 416.920(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. § 416.920(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. § 416.920(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. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(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. § 416.920(a)(4)(v); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

Through Step Four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove that he 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 has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her application date; that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease and obesity; and that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the impairments in the listings. (Tr. 12). The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform the full range of sedentary work. (Tr. 13). He found that Plaintiff has no past relevant work; however, relying on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines ("the Guidelines"), he found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national ...


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