United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Northern Division
SHEILA P. WELLS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
SHIRLEY PADMORE MENSAH, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review
of the final decision of Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, the
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying in part the
application of Plaintiff Sheila P. Wells
(“Plaintiff”) for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security
Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. (the
“Act”). The parties consented to the jurisdiction
of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(c). (Doc. 13). Because I find the decision denying
benefits was supported by substantial evidence, I will affirm
the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application.
Factual Background 
was born April 20, 1959. (Tr. 37). On April 22, 2015,
Plaintiff testified at a hearing before the ALJ. (Tr. 37-56).
On November 10, 2012, at the age of 53, Plaintiff suffered a
stroke. (Tr. 37). Since then, she has had headaches a couple
of times a week that involve extreme pressure, lasting
between a couple of hours and over a day. (Tr. 40-41). She
has also had memory problems since the stroke; she will put
something on the stove and walk away and forget it, and she
has trouble remembering conversations and instructions. (Tr.
41). A few months after the stroke, she developed weakness
and pain in both of her arms and shoulders. (Tr. 41-42). She
has trouble sleeping because of the pain. (Tr. 43). She has
had physical therapy that made her shoulder pain worse, and
injections that helped somewhat. (Tr. 44). She took narcotic
pain medications, but stopped because she was getting immune
to them. (Tr. 45). She uses ice and heat on her shoulder
several times a week. (Tr. 46). She can lift about the weight
of a gallon of milk in each hand. (Tr. 44-45). Plaintiff also
has had problems with her left leg since a
“botched” vein surgery. (Tr. 46-47). Her leg
burns every day, and it swells up when she is on her feet for
less than an hour. (Tr. 47-48). She has carpal tunnel
syndrome in her left hand and still has numbness two or three
times a day. (Tr. 48-49). She has a lot of pain in her lower
back, especially when bending or squatting. (Tr. 50).
her stroke, Plaintiff has had weekly therapy sessions. (Tr.
50). She also sees a psychiatrist every two months. (Tr. 55).
She gets overwhelmed very easily, and when she cannot
remember or understand something, she has anxiety attacks,
gets depressed, and starts crying. The crying has improved
with medication and occurs four times a week. (Tr. 51-52).
Plaintiff has depression and anxiety and takes medications
for them. (Tr. 52). She fears drowning when taking a bath and
fears accidents when in a car. (Tr. 53). She gets confused
easily and does not like being in crowds. (Tr. 56).
medical records show that on November 11, 2012, Plaintiff
suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage and spent nine days in the
hospital. (Tr. 353-54). In the eighteen months following her
stroke, Plaintiff frequently sought treatment for a number of
physical and mental problems, including anxiety, fear of
having another stroke, depression, crying episodes, problems
sleeping, balance problems, headaches, carpal tunnel
syndrome, lower extremity weakness, and bilateral shoulder
and arm pain. In addition to seeing her primary care
physician, a neurologist, a psychiatrist, and a physical
therapist, she has had weekly therapy sessions with a
counselor, Betty Bockhorst, M.A., L.P.C.
record contains opinion evidence from two sources. On
September 18, 2013, state agency consulting psychologist Mark
Altomari, Ph.D., completed a mental residual functional
capacity assessment. (Tr. 76-78). Dr. Altomari found that
Plaintiff had the ability to understand, remember, and carry
out simple instructions; could relate appropriately to
coworkers and supervisors; could adapt to most changes in a
competitive work setting; and could make simple work-related
decisions. (Tr. 78).
January 16, 2015, Plaintiff's counselor, Betty Bockhorst,
completed a Medical Source Statement of Ability to Do
Work-Related Activities (Mental) for Plaintiff. Ms. Bockhorst
opined that Plaintiff had extreme limitations in the ability
to understand and remember complex instructions; moderate
limitations in the ability to understand and remember simple
instructions, carry out complex instructions, make judgments
on complex work decisions, interact appropriately with the
public, and respond appropriately to usual work situations
and to changes in a routine work setting; and mild or no
limitations in the ability to carry out simple instructions,
make judgments on simple work-related decisions, and interact
appropriately with supervisors and co-workers. (Tr. 108-09).
Ms. Bockhorst noted that she had to write down any
suggestions given to Plaintiff and that if Plaintiff did not
have a suggestion written down, she would not remember it.
(Tr. 109). Ms. Bockhorst also opined that Plaintiff would be
off-task 25% of the time or more; would miss work more than
four days per month; and would need to take unscheduled
breaks three to four times a day. (Tr. 109-10). She noted
that the symptoms causing a need for breaks were panic
attacks, crying spells, anxiety, and depression. (Tr. 110).
She opined that Plaintiff's disability began November 10,
2012. (Tr. 110).
January 10, 2013, Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging that
she had been unable to work since November 10, 2012 due to
depression, anxiety, a subarachnoid brain hemorrhage, left
leg nerve damage, hyperglycemia, memory loss, and fatigue.
(Tr. 200-01, 215). Plaintiff's claim was initially
denied. (Tr. 85-89). On May 18, 2015, following a hearing,
the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision finding
Plaintiff was not disabled prior to April 19, 2014, but was
disabled after that date. (Tr. 25). On August 20, 2015, the
Social Security Administration's Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-6). Plaintiff has
exhausted all administrative remedies, and the decision of
the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner of
the Social Security Administration.
Standard for Determining Disability Under the Act
eligible for benefits under the Social Security Act, a
claimant must prove he or she is disabled. Pearsall v.
Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001);
Baker v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955
F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992). The Social Security Act
defines as disabled a person who is unable “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
twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see
also Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010).
The impairment must be “of such severity that [the
claimant] 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, regardless of whether such
work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or
whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he
would be hired if he applied for work.” 42 U.S.C.
determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner
engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a); see also McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605,
611 (8th Cir. 2011) (discussing the five-step process). At
Step One, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is
currently engaging in “substantial gainful
activity”; if so, then he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At
Step Two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant
has a severe impairment, which is “any impairment or
combination of impairments which significantly limits [the
claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities”; if the claimant does not have a severe
impairment, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c); McCoy, 648 F.3d at
611. At Step Three, the Commissioner evaluates whether the
claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the
impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix
1 (the “listings”). 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iii); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the
claimant has such an impairment, the Commissioner will find
the claimant disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds with
the rest of the five-step process. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(d); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.
to Step Four, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's
“residual functional capacity”
(“RFC”), which is “the most a claimant can
do despite [his or her] limitations.” Moore v.
Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20
C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)); see also 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(e). At Step Four, the Commissioner determines
whether the claimant can return to his past relevant work, by
comparing the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental
demands of the claimant's past relevant work. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f); McCoy,
648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant can perform his past
relevant work, he is not disabled; if the claimant cannot,
the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id. At Step
Five, the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, age,
education, and work experience to determine ...