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Horn v. Colvin

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

December 13, 2016

KAREN HORN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM & ORDER

          PATRICIA L. COHEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Karen Horn (“Plaintiff”) seeks review of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits beginning January 27, 2007.[1]The Court has reviewed the parties' briefs and the entire administrative record, including the hearing transcript and the medical evidence. For the reasons set forth below, the case is reversed and remanded.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         In February 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. (Tr. 138-41). Plaintiff alleged that she was disabled as of January 27, 2007, as a result of: Type II diabetes; hypertension; hyperlipidemia; gout; seizures; left bundle branch block, angina, pacemaker; diabetic neuropathy; hypothyroidism; depression; urinary frequency; and dizziness, balance issues, and memory loss. (Tr. 174). The SSA denied Plaintiff's claims, and she filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 73-77, 84-85).

         The SSA granted Plaintiff's request for review, and an ALJ conducted a hearing on May 2, 2014. (Tr. 86-87, 32-60). In a decision dated May 28, 2014, the ALJ applied the five-step evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520[2] and found that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of January 27, 2007 through December 31, 2012, her date last insured. (Tr. 17-25). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of diabetes with neuropathy and heart disease, status post-pacemaker placement, and the following non-severe impairments: hypertension, obesity and hyperlipidemia, hypothyroidism, carpal tunnel syndrome, left hip degenerative joint disease, sleep apnea, seizures, sciatica, dysuria, and depression. (Tr. 19-20).

         After reviewing Plaintiff's testimony and medical records, the ALJ found that, through Plaintiff's date last insured, she had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to “perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) where the claimant lifted or carried 10 pounds occasionally and five pounds frequently, stood or walked for two of eight hours during the workday, and occasionally climbed stairs.” (Tr. 22). Finally, the ALJ held that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff retained the ability to perform past relevant work as a collector and was therefore “not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from January 27, 2007, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2012, the dated last insured[.]” (Tr. 24-25).

         Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the SSA Appeals Council, which denied review on July 22, 2015. (Tr.1-4, 13). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the SSA's final decision. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         II. Standard of Review

         A court must affirm an ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence ‘is less than a preponderance, but enough so that a reasonable mind might find it adequate to support the conclusion.'” Cruze v. Chater, 85 F.3d 1320, 1323 (8th Cir. 1996) (quoting Boerst v. Shalala, 2 F.3d 249, 250 (8th Cir. 1993)). In determining whether the evidence is substantial, a court considers evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009). However, a court “do[es] not reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ and [it] defer[s] to the ALJ's determinations regarding the credibility of testimony, as long as those determinations are supported by good reason and substantial evidence.” Renstrue v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting Gonzales v. Barnhart, 465 F.3d 890, 894 (8th Cir. 2006)).

         “If, after reviewing the record, the court finds it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the ALJ's findings, the court must affirm the ALJ's decision.” Partee v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2011) (quoting Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 789 (8th Cir. 2005)). The Eighth Circuit has repeatedly held that a court should “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions” of the Social Security Administration. Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010); Howard v. Massanari, 255 F.3d 577, 581 (8th Cir. 2001).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff claims substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's RFC determination because the ALJ erred in: (1) finding that Plaintiff's sleep apnea was a non-severe impairment; and (2) relying on the opinion of a non-doctor, single decision-maker. (ECF No. 12). The Commissioner counters that: (1) Plaintiff failed to demonstrate that her sleep apnea was a severe impairment; and (2) substantial evidence supported the RFC determination. (ECF No. 23).

         A. Sleep apnea

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred at step two of the sequential evaluation when he failed to designate Plaintiff's sleep apnea a severe impairment. In particular, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ improperly based his determination on one doctor's note reporting improvement and overlooked numerous later reports of continued fatigue. In response, the Commissioner argues that the ...


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