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Alnutt v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division

June 17, 2015

APRIL ALNUTT, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

GREG KAYS, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff April Alnutt seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") decision denying her applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") 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 suffered from severe anxiety and depression, but retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work as a kitchen helper, an industrial cleaner, and a laboratory equipment cleaner.

Because substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the Commissioner's denial of benefits is AFFIRMED.

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 DIB application on August 1, 2011, and her SSI application on October 3, 2011, with each alleging a disability onset date of March 22, 2011. The Commissioner denied her applications, and she subsequently requested an ALJ hearing. The ALJ held an initial hearing, but he found that some of the treatment notes from Plaintiff's psychiatrist Samuel Fadare, M.D. ("Dr. Fadare") were illegible, so he ordered a consultative examination. After this examination and a supplemental hearing, the ALJ affirmed the Commissioner's denial of benefits. The Appeals Council later denied Plaintiff's request for review, leaving the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. With all administrative remedies now exhausted, judicial review is appropriate under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), 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.

Analysis

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.[1]

Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's determinations at Steps Three and Four. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred at Step Three when he erroneously concluded that Plaintiff's depression and anxiety did not meet listing-level severity. Plaintiff next argues the ALJ erred at Step Four by improperly weighing the medical opinion evidence. The Court addresses each challenge below.

I. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's Step Three determination.

Plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's Step Three determination. To demonstrate disability at Step Three, the claimant must show that her impairments meet or equal one of the listings in the regulations. Johnson v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 1067, 1070 (8th Cir. 2004). With respect to the listings at issue here, a claimant must satisfy one of the requirements in paragraph A of that listing and at least two of the requirements in paragraph B or one of the requirements in paragraph C. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.00A. Plaintiff challenges only the ALJ's paragraph B findings. To satisfy the paragraph B listing requirements under either Listing 12.04 (depression-related disorders) or 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders), the claimant must show that her impairment results in at least two of the following:

(1) Marked restriction of activities of daily living; (2) Marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) Marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace; or (4) Repeated ...

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