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Chismarich v. Berryhill

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

February 6, 2017

STEPHEN P. CHISMARICH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,[1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CATHERINE D. PERRY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Stephen P. Chismarich brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405 seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying his claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. Because Chismarich's allegations of error fail, I will affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         I. Procedural History

         On July 20, 2012, the Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Chismarich's June 2012 application for DIB, in which Chismarich claimed he became disabled on July 31, 2010, because of bipolar disorder, drug and alcohol addiction, knee injury, and attention deficit hypertension disorder. Chismarich later amended his alleged onset date to August 1, 2012. At Chismarich's request, hearings were held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on February 13 and April 30, 2014, at which Chismarich, a medical expert, and two vocational experts testified. On May 30, 2014, the ALJ denied Chismarich's claim for benefits, finding vocational expert testimony to support a finding that he could perform work as it exists in significant numbers in the national economy. On September 12, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Chismarich's request for review of the ALJ's decision. The ALJ's decision is thus the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         In this action for judicial review, Chismarich asserts that the ALJ committed legal error in three respects, namely, that his residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment is inconsistent with other findings in his decision; that he did not resolve conflicts between vocational expert testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT); and that he failed to consider the opinion of Chismarich's spouse, who is a doctor, to be a medical opinion. Chismarich requests that the matter be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits or for further proceedings.

         II. Legal Standard

         To be eligible for DIB under the Social Security Act, Chismarich must prove that he 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). An individual will be declared disabled "only if his physical or mental impairment or 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).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). The Commissioner begins by deciding whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. If the claimant is working, disability benefits are denied. Next, the Commissioner decides whether the claimant has a “severe” impairment or combination of impairments, meaning that which significantly limits his ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant's impairment(s) is not severe, then he is not disabled. The Commissioner then determines whether claimant's impairment(s) meets or equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. If claimant's impairment(s) is equivalent to one of the listed impairments, he is conclusively disabled. At the fourth step, the Commissioner establishes whether the claimant can perform his past relevant work. If so, the claimant is not disabled. Finally, the Commissioner evaluates various factors to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing any other work in the economy. If not, the claimant is declared disabled and becomes entitled to disability benefits.

         I must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it not based on legal error and if there is substantial evidence on the record as a whole to support the conclusion. Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 963 (8th Cir. 2010). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but enough that a reasonable person would find it adequate to support the conclusion. Johnson v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1145, 1147 (8th Cir. 2001). Determining whether there is substantial evidence requires scrutinizing analysis. Coleman v. Astrue, 498 F.3d 767, 770 (8th Cir. 2007).

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ found Chismarich to meet the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2015. He further found Chismarich not to have engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2012, the alleged onset date of disability. The ALJ found Chismarich's residuals of left knee surgery, bipolar disorder, history of learning disorder, and mood disorder to be severe impairments but not to meet or medically equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         The ALJ then assessed Chismarich's RFC and determined him to have exertional and non-exertional limitations, including:

The claimant is able to understand, remember, and carry out at least simple instructions and non-detailed tasks; can respond appropriately to supervisors and co-workers in a task-oriented setting where contact with others is casual and infrequent; can adapt to routine and simple work changes on an infrequent basis; can perform work at a normal pace without production quotas; should not work in a setting which includes constant, regular contact with the general public; and should not perform work which includes more than infrequent handling of customer complaints.

(Tr. 18.) The ALJ found Chismarich's RFC to preclude performance of his past relevant work as a shipping clerk, commercial driver, or service coordinator. Considering Chismarich's RFC, age, education, and work experience, the ALJ determined vocational expert testimony to support a finding that Chismarich could perform other work as it exists in significant numbers in the national economy, and specifically as a cleaner/janitor and mail clerk. The ALJ thus found Chismarich not to be under a disability at any time from August 1, 2012, through the date of the decision.

         IV. Discussion

         When conducting judicial review of an ALJ's decision to deny benefits, I must determine whether the decision is based on legal error, and whether the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Wildman, 596 F.3d at 963. As noted above, Chismarich asserts only that the ALJ committed legal error in denying benefits. Accordingly, while I have reviewed the administrative record in its entirety, a full factual summary of the record is not necessary for me to address Chismarich's claims. Specific facts relevant to disposition of the claims are included in this discussion.

         A. Spouse's Third ...


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