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York v. Colvin

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

January 4, 2017

ANGELA YORK, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          PATRICIA L. COHEN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Angela York (“Plaintiff”) seeks review of the decision of the Social Security Commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act.[1] Because the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the decision to deny benefits, the Court affirms the denial of Plaintiff's application.

         I. Background and Procedural History

          On July 3, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits alleging she was disabled as of May 1, 2012[2] as a result of fibromyalgia, blood clots, diabetes, and high blood pressure. (Tr. 58, 124-26). The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Plaintiff's claims, and she filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Tr. 71-78, 82-83)

         The SSA granted Plaintiff's request for review, and an ALJ conducted a hearing on December 12, 2013. (Tr. 30-57, 96-116). At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that she was thirty- one years of age, five feet and seven inches tall, and weighed 290 pounds. (Tr. 23, 50). She explained that she was unable to work because she suffered “fibromyalgia and it affects my back and my hips. I have a history of blood clots, which I have lot of swelling in my leg when I sit or stand for very long periods. I just found out not too long ago I have hepatitis C. I have diabetes. . . . I'm just tired a lot. . . .” (Tr. 36). Plaintiff explained that “standing or sitting for very long periods of time” caused her leg to swell, and she had to “get up and move it around” or “sit down and take breaks.” (Tr. 37-38). Plaintiff stated she generally elevated her leg “probably three to four hours” between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. (Tr. 39). Plaintiff testified that she experienced pain, numbness, and tingling in her hands for about four hours every morning. (Tr. 40-41).

         Plaintiff stated that she controlled her diabetes with “four shots a day, ” Metformin, and “the diabetes diet.” (Tr. 42). Plaintiff also took Oxycodone, Savella, Lasix, and Xanax for her other conditions. (Tr. 44-45). Plaintiff believed the diabetes caused her fatigue, and she usually took two forty-five-minute naps per day. (Tr. 43-44). Plaintiff testified that she was capable of: sitting or standing for forty to forty-five minutes; walking approximately one block; and lifting or carrying ten to fifteen pounds. (Tr. 46). Plaintiff stated that she was able to do buttons and zippers, but she could not reach or bend over. (Tr. 46-47). Plaintiff helped her mother with cooking and cleaning, but needed assistance grocery shopping and, occasionally, getting in and out of the bath tub. (Tr. 49).

         A vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. (Tr. 50-56). The ALJ asked the VE to consider a hypothetical individual of Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience, and the ability to “lift, carry, push and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; could stand and walk a total of six hours out of an eight-hour day; sit six hours out of an eight-hour day; cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; cannot work at unprotected heights or around hazards. All other postural activities can be performed on an occasional basis.” (Tr. 51). The VE testified that such a person could perform Plaintiff's previous jobs as a fast food worker, cashier, and short-order cook, but not as a home healthcare aide. (Tr. 52). When the ALJ asked the VE “what other kinds of jobs might be available?, ” the VE identified the jobs of cashier II, wire wrapping machine operator, and bench assembler. (Tr. 52).

         In a decision dated January 30, 2014, the ALJ applied the five-step evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520[3] and found that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from December 27, 2011, through the date of this decision.” (Tr. 18-25). The ALJ found that Plaintiff, who was age twenty-nine on the alleged date of onset, had the severe impairments of fibromyalgia syndrome, obesity, diabetes mellitus, and history of deep vein thrombosis, and the non-severe impairments of high blood pressure, hepatitis C, toe fractures, and anxiety. (Tr. 20).

         After reviewing Plaintiff's testimony and medical records, the ALJ determined that “the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible[.]” (Tr. 23). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), including the ability to lift, carry, push and pull up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk for 6 hours in an 8 hour workday, and sit for 6 hours in an 8 hour workday. The claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, be at unprotected heights or be around hazards. She can perform all other postural activities occasionally.

(Tr. 21-22). Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a convenience store cashier and fast food worker. (Tr. 24). The ALJ further stated: “Although the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, there are other jobs existing in the national economy that she is also able to perform.” (Id.).

         Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the SSA Appeals Council, which denied review on April 15, 2015. (Tr. 7-14, 1-6). 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 that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's determination that she is not disabled. Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in: (1) finding that Plaintiff performed past relevant work at the substantial gainful activity level; (2) improperly weighing the medical opinion evidence when formulating Plaintiff's RFC; and (3) finding that Plaintiff's allegations of disability were not entirely credible. (ECF No. 16). The Commissioner counters that the ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinion evidence and Plaintiff's credibility and found that Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant number in the national economy. (ECF No. 17).

         A. Past relevant work

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ's decision at step four was not supported by substantial evidence because Plaintiff's earnings records “do not show [she] performed the identified past work at the substantial gainful activity level” and, as a result, those jobs do not constitute “past relevant work” as defined by 20 CFR. § 404.1560(b)(1). (ECF No. 16 at 7). In response, the Commissioner asserts that “[e]ven if those jobs did not amount to past relevant work, …the ALJ found in the alternative that Plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.” (ECF No. 17 at 14).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether claimants are eligible for Social Security disability benefits. Rater v. Chater, 73 F.3d 796, 798 (8th Cir. 1996). “At step four, the ALJ must determine whether or not the claimant is able to return to his or her past relevant work.” Id. The Social Security regulations define “past relevant work” as “work experience [that] was done within the last 15 years, lasted long enough for you to learn to do it, and was substantial gainful activity.”[4] 20 CFR § 404.1565(a). “A claimant's earnings ‘will ordinarily show' that a claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity if the ‘earnings averaged…more than $500 a month in calendar years after 1989.'” Reeder v. Apfel, 214 F.3d 984, 989 (8th Cir. 2000) (quoting 20 CFR § 404.1574(b)(2)(vii))). “Although earnings below the guidelines will ‘ordinarily' show that ...


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