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Christopher v. Colvin

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

September 12, 2016

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



         Gwenelda Christopher (“Plaintiff”) appeals the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant”) denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. Because Defendant's decision is supported by substantial evidence and correctly applies the governing law, as discussed below, it is affirmed. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. Background

         Plaintiff is a fifty-four year-old woman who claims that she became disabled on July 9, 2012, due to several disorders, including fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, protruding discs in her lower back, high blood pressure, hypothyroidism, sleep apnea, obesity, mitro-valve prolapse, and paralysis of her diaphragm on the right side. (Tr. 198, 238) Plaintiff has prior work experience as a caseworker for the Missouri Division of Family Services. (Tr. 233)

         Plaintiff applied for disability benefits on July 17, 2012. Her initial claim was denied on October 3, 2012. (Tr. 99) Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) to contest the denial. (Tr. 111-12) On February 27, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff appeared (with counsel) and testified, along with a vocational expert (“VE”). (Tr. 33-76) On April 7, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 15-27) On May 7, 2014, Plaintiff petitioned for review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 8-9) The Appeals Council denied review on July 10, 2015. (Tr. 1-6) The decision of the ALJ is therefore final and the case is ready for disposition in this Court. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         In arriving at her decision, the ALJ followed the required five step inquiry. At step one, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 9, 2012. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity, degenerative disc disease, and fibromyalgia.[2] At step three, the ALJ held Plaintiff's impairments did not rise to the level of a Listing. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 17, 19)

         Before arriving at step four, the ALJ reviewed the entire record and concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform a range of work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567 except she can frequently lift and carry 10 pounds; she can occasionally lift and carry 20 pounds; she can stand or walk for approximately 2 hours out of an 8-hour day; she can sit for up to approximately 6 hours out of an 8-hour day; she can sit for 2 hours at one time and then she needs to stand or walk around no more than 5 minutes, provided that she is not off task more than 10 percent; she can occasionally push or pull or operate foot controls with bilateral lower extremities; she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; she cannot climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; she can occasionally balance; she occasionally can stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; she must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat and humidity; and she must avoid workplace hazards, which is defined as unshielded moving machinery and unprotected heights.

(Tr. 20)

         In making this RFC determination, the ALJ made several credibility findings and analyzed several pieces of opinion evidence. First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her impairments were “not credible.” (Tr. 21) In substance, Plaintiff's testimony asserted disabling levels of symptomatology, such as a constant need to lie down, constant “hot burning pain” in her back, and the inability to do her past work because her fibromyalgia medications impair her concentration. (Tr. 40-46) Plaintiff also testified that her depression symptoms were “so bad” that it would be “merciful” if her boyfriend would “just shoot [her].” (Tr. 50) The ALJ found these assertions to be “not credible.” (Tr. 21)

         As to the opinion evidence, the ALJ discounted the opinion of Dr. Linda Hunt, M.D. (Tr. 23) Plaintiff saw Dr. Hunt for treatment of her fibromyalgia on one occasion, and submitted a medical source statement and a fibromyalgia questionnaire that asserted Plaintiff had disabling limitations. (Id.) On the other hand, the ALJ gave “significant weight” to two state agency medical consultants who reviewed Plaintiff's medical records: Dr. Rebecca Wotherspoon, M.D. (whose opinion generally tracked the findings of the ALJ's RFC) and Dr. John Pataki, M.D. (who opined that Plaintiff could work at the Sedentary level and opined that Plaintiff's depression was non-severe). (Id.)

         After determining Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ asked the vocational expert (“VE”) whether someone with those limitations could perform their past work, and the VE testified affirmatively. (Tr. 71) At step four, therefore, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing all of her relevant past work. (Tr. 24) This includes work as an administrative clerk, supervisor, survey worker and caseworker. (Tr. 25) The ALJ then made an alternative finding at step five. Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing other jobs in the national economy, including work as a general clerk, a file clerk, and a route delivery clerk. (Tr. 26) Therefore, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the law. (Id.)

         As noted above, after the ALJ's ruling, Plaintiff sought review in the Appeals Council, and submitted arguments in support of the appeal. (Tr. 7-11) The Appeals Council considered Plaintiff's legal brief, but found that it did not provide a basis to review the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 1-6) Plaintiff then appealed to this Court, urging reversal of the ALS's decision.[3]

         II. Standard of Review and Legal Framework

         “To be eligible for [disability] benefits, [Plaintiff] must prove that [she] is disabled… .” Baker v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 955 F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992); see also Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001). A disability is defined 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) and 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant will be found to have a disability “only if his physical or mental impairments are of such severity that he 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.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423 (d)(2)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(B); see also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987).

         Per regulations promulgated by the Commissioner, the ALJ follows a five-step process in determining whether a claimant is disabled. “During the process the ALJ must determine: ‘1) whether the claimant is currently employed; 2) whether the claimant is severely impaired; 3) whether the impairment is, or is comparable to, a listed impairment; 4) whether the claimant can perform past relevant work; and if not 5) whether the claimant can perform any other kind of work.'” Andrews v. Colvin, 791 F.3d 923, 928 (8th Cir. 2015) (quoting Hacker v. Barnhart, 459 F.3d 934, 936 (8th Cir. 2006)). “If, at any point in the five-step process the claimant fails to meet the criteria, the claimant is determined not to be disabled and the process ends.” Id. (citing Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 790 (8th Cir. 2005)); see also Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 921 (8th Cir. 2011).

         The Eight Circuit has repeatedly emphasized that a district court's review of an ALJ's disability determination is intended to be narrow and that courts should “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions of the Social Security Administration.” Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Howard v. Massanari, 255 F.3d 577, 581 (8th Cir. 2001)). The ALJ's findings should be affirmed if they are supported by “substantial evidence” on the record as a whole. See Finch v. Astrue, 547 F.3d 933, 935 (8th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence is “less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept it as adequate to support a decision.” Juszczyk v. Astrue, 542 F.3d 626, 631 (8th Cir.2008).

         Despite this deferential stance, a district court's review must be “more than an examination of the record for the existence of substantial evidence in support of the Commissioner's decision.” Beckley v. Apfel,152 F.3d 1056, 1059 (8th Cir. 1998). The district court must “also take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from that decision.” Id. Specifically, in reviewing ...

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