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Gehring v. Colvin

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

July 31, 2015

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


JOHN M. BODENHAUSEN, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Patricia R. Gehring brings this action for judicial review of an adverse decision by the Social Security Administration, claiming that the Commissioner of Social Security erred in her determination that plaintiff can perform work as it exists in the national economy and is therefore not disabled. Because the Commissioner did not err in this regard, her final decision denying disability benefits is affirmed.[1]

I. Procedural History

In November 2011, plaintiff filed for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq., and §§ 1381, et seq., respectively, claiming that she became disabled on August 24, 2009, because of degenerative disc disease, arthritis of the spine, and damaged discs and vertebrae.[2] At plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on February 27, 2013, at which plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. On April 8, 2013, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claims for benefits, finding vocational expert testimony to support a finding that plaintiff could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 7-22.) On March 21, 2014, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 1-3.) The ALJ's decision is thus the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

In this action for judicial review, plaintiff challenges the testimony of the vocational expert and the ALJ's reliance on this testimony to support his finding that plaintiff is not disabled. Plaintiff specifically contends that the expert failed to consider the extent to which her residual functional capacity (RFC) limitation of "no stooping" erodes the occupational base and, further, provided testimony regarding the availability of jobs that was inconsistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). Plaintiff requests that the Commissioner's final decision be reversed and that the matter be remanded for an award of benefits. In the alternative, plaintiff requests that the matter be remanded for further proceedings to clarify the impact of plaintiff's "no stooping" limitation on the range of existing work.

Because the ALJ did not err in his reliance on vocational expert testimony in this cause, the final decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

II. Legal Standards

To be eligible for DIB and SSI under the Social Security Act, plaintiff must prove that she is disabled. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); Baker v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992). The Social Security Act defines disability as the "inability 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 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual will be declared disabled "only if [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

The Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). The first three steps involve a determination as to whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; whether she has a severe impairment; and whether her severe impairment(s) meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment. At Step 4 of the process, the ALJ must assess the claimant's RFC - that is, the most the claimant is able to do despite her physical and mental limitations, Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 923 (8th Cir. 2011) - and determine whether the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work. Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 790 (8th Cir. 2005) (RFC assessment occurs at fourth step of process). If the claimant is unable to perform such past work, the Commissioner continues to Step 5 and determines whether the claimant can perform other work as it exists in significant numbers in the national economy. If so, the claimant is found not to be disabled, and disability benefits are denied.

The claimant bears the burden through Step 4 of the analysis. If she meets this burden and shows that she is unable to perform her past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at Step 5 to produce evidence demonstrating that the claimant has the RFC to perform other jobs in the national economy that exist in significant numbers and are consistent with her impairments and vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience. Phillips v. Astrue, 671 F.3d 699, 702 (8th Cir. 2012). If the claimant has non-exertional impairments, such as pain or postural limitations, the Commissioner may satisfy her burden at Step 5 through the testimony of a vocational expert. Pearsall, 274 F.3d at 1219.

This Court will affirm the denial of disability benefits if substantial evidence on the record as a whole supports the ALJ's decision. Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 968 (8th Cir. 2010). Substantial evidence is "less than a preponderance but... enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the conclusion." Id. (alteration in original) (quotation marks omitted). Testimony from a vocational expert constitutes substantial evidence if it is based on a properly phrased hypothetical question and is not inconsistent with the DOT. Moore v. Colvin, 769 F.3d 987, 990 (8th Cir. 2014); Porch v. Chater, 115 F.3d 567, 571-72 (8th Cir. 1997); Pickney v. Chater, 96 F.3d 294, 296 (8th Cir. 1996). "When expert testimony conflicts with the DOT, and the DOT classifications are not rebutted, the DOT controls." Porch, 115 F.3d at 572.

III. The ALJ's Decision

Upon review of the evidence of record here, the ALJ found plaintiff not to have engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 14, 2009. The ALJ found plaintiff to have the following severe medically determinable impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and upper spine with bilateral radiculopathy, degenerative joint disease/osteoarthritis of the knees, obesity, fibromyalgia, and insomnia; but determined that these impairments, whether considered singly or in combination, did not meet or medically equal an impairment listed in the Listings of Impairments at 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. (Tr. 12-15.) The ALJ then assessed plaintiff's RFC and determined that plaintiff could perform sedentary work with the following limitations:

[T]he claimant is limited to no climbing ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant is limited to no stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and rotation at the waist. The claimant can have no exposure to extreme heat. The claimant can have occasional exposure to unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts. The claimant should be allowed a 5-minute break per hour, but the claimant would not need to leave the work area to accommodate this break. Although off ...

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