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Ellison v. Colvin

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

July 20, 2015

BRITTANY L. ELLISON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

GREG KAYS, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff Brittany L. Ellison seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") decision denying her applications for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found Plaintiff suffered from a litany of severe impairments, but retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work as a final assembler, a production area table worker, and an administrative support addresser.

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 both her applications on September 27, 2012, each of which alleged a disability onset date of January 1, 2012. The Commissioner denied her applications, and she sought an administrative hearing. After conducting a hearing, the ALJ affirmed the Commissioner's denial of benefits. The Social Security Administration Appeals Council subsequently denied review, leaving the ALJ's determination 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 Step Four determination. At Step Four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform sedentary work with a litany of additional restrictions tailored to her specific mental and physical limitations. R. 14. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in formulating her RFC by: (1) failing to find disabling limitations despite Plaintiff suffering from nine severe impairments; (2) relying solely on the erroneous opinion of the state agency consulting physician Stephen Williamson, M.D. ("Dr. Williamson"); and (3) rejecting the opinion of examining psychiatrist Steven Adams, Psy.D. ("Dr. Adams"). The Court addresses each argument in turn.

I. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC formulation at Step Four.

A claimant's RFC is the most that she can still do despite her physical or mental limitations. Leckenby v. Astrue, 487 F.3d 626, 631 n.5 (8th Cir. 2007). In formulating the RFC, the ALJ must consider all the record evidence, including medical records, physicians' opinions, and the claimant's subjective statements about her limitations. Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004). The claimant, however, bears the ultimate burden of demonstrating her RFC. Vossen v. Astrue, 612 F.3d 1011, 1016 (8th Cir. 2010). With these standards in mind, the Court now turns to Plaintiff's specific RFC-related arguments.

A. The RFC formulation is not unsupported by substantial evidence simply because the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from nine severe impairments.

Plaintiff first argues that the RFC formulation is internally inconsistent because the ALJ found nine severe impairments but still found her ...


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