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Mahan-Hilden v. Colvin

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

July 23, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


GREG KAYS, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff Twylah M. Mahan-Hilden petitions for review of an adverse decision by Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"). Plaintiff applied 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. An administrative law judge ("ALJ") found she had multiple severe impairments, but retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work as an assembler of plastic products, a personal and home care companion, or a final inspector. The ALJ thus found her not disabled.

Because the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


A complete summary of the record is presented in the parties' briefs and repeated here only to the extent necessary. Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits in 2007, the denial of which was eventually appealed to this Court. Mahan-Hilden v. Astrue, No. 11-4143-CV-C-DGK-SSA (W.D. Mo. filed May 31, 2011). The Court remanded.

Relevant to this appeal, Plaintiff's applications for Title II and Title XVI benefits allege a disability onset date of April 9, 2005. Her date of last insured is December 31, 2010. After the Commissioner denied her applications, Plaintiff requested an ALJ hearing. On January 23, 2013, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. The Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied her request for review on June 25, 2014, 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), 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. Bernard v. Colvin, 774 F.3d 482, 486 (8th Cir. 2014). 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. Id. The court must "defer heavily" to the Commissioner's findings and conclusions. Wright v. Colvin, ___ F.3d ___, No. 14-2834, 2015 WL 3650732, at *4 (8th Cir. June 15, 2015). The court may reverse the Commissioner's decision only if it falls outside of the available zone of choice; a decision is not outside this zone simply because the evidence also points to an alternate outcome. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011).


The Commissioner follows a 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). This five-step process considers whether: "(1) the claimant was employed; (2) he was severely impaired; (3) his impairment was, or was comparable to, a listed impairment; (4) he could perform past relevant work; and if not, (5) if he could perform any other kind of work." Bernard, 774 F.3d at 486.

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to: (1) properly consider her severe impairments at Step Two; (2) properly weigh the evidence of record in formulating her RFC at Step Four; and (3) pose a proper hypothetical question to the vocational expert ("VE") at Step Five.

I. Plaintiff fails to establish that she had more severe impairments than the ALJ found.

Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by failing to classify as severe impairments her fibromyalgia, shoulder dysfunction, radiculopathy, coronary artery disease, and Crohn's disease. The claimant has two obligations at Step Two. First, she must establish that the affliction at issue is an "impairment" under the Regulations, meaning it "result[s] from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508, 416.908. That medical evidence must consist of "signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by [the claimant's] statement of symptoms." Id. For fibromyalgia specifically, one form of acceptable medical evidence is a finding of fibromyalgia made consistent with either of two sets of criteria delineated by the American College of Rheumatology; a mere diagnosis is insufficient. SSR 12-2p, 2012 WL 3104869, at *2 (July 25, 2012).

Second, the claimant must establish that the impairment is "severe, " meaning it "significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). "Severity is not an onerous requirement for the claimant to meet, but it is also not a toothless standard...." ...

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