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Stufflebean v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Central Division

March 28, 2017

CLARENCE STUFFLEBEAN, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER REMANDING CASE TO COMMISSIONER FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS

          GREG KAYS, CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         This action seeks judicial review of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's (“the Commissioner”) decision denying Plaintiff Clarence Stuffelbean Jr.'s (“Plaintiff”) application for Social Security disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found Plaintiff had severe impairments, including a history of strokes with mild residual left-sided weakness, cognitive disorder, and depression, but retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to work as an electronic components bonder, patcher, and woodworking inspector.

         After carefully reviewing the record and the parties' arguments, the Court finds the ALJ's decision does not give good reasons for discounting the neuropsychologist's opinion. Because this deficiency is outcome determinative, the Court REMANDS this case to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         Procedural and Factual Background

         The complete facts and arguments are presented in the parties' briefs and are repeated here only to the extent necessary.

         It appears to the Court Plaintiff filed his application for disability insurance benefits on January 3, 2013, [1] alleging a disability onset date of November 8, 2012.

         The Commissioner denied the application at the initial claim level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. The ALJ held a hearing, and on April 18, 2014, issued her decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on September 23, 2015, leaving the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and judicial review is now appropriate under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Standard of Review

         A federal court's review of the Commissioner's decision to deny disability benefits is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Chaney v. Colvin, 812 F.3d 672, 676 (8th Cir. 2016). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but is enough evidence that a reasonable mind would find it sufficient to support the Commissioner's decision. Id. In making this assessment, the court considers evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision, as well as evidence that supports it. Id. The court must “defer heavily” to the Commissioner's findings and conclusions. Wright v. Colvin, 789 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir. 2015). The court may reverse the Commissioner's decision only if it falls outside of the available zone of choice; a decision is not outside this zone simply because the evidence also points to an alternate outcome. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011).

         Discussion

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process[2] to determine whether a claimant is disabled, that is, unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred at step four because she: (1) improperly discounted the opinion of a neuropsychologist; and (2) improperly discounted Plaintiff's credibility.

         I. The ALJ did not give good reasons for discounting the neuropsychologist's opinion.

         The parties agree Plaintiff had a series of minor strokes in the fall of 2012 leaving him with weakness on the left side of his body and some cognitive impairments. The issue in this case concerns the extent of these cognitive impairments and their impact on his RFC.

         Roughly a year after suffering these strokes, Plaintiff's treating doctor referred him to a neuropsychologist, Dr. Kim Dionysus, Psy. D. (“Dr. Dionysus”), for a psychological examination. R. at 442. Dr. Dionysus conducted extensive psychological and cognitive testing of Plaintiff over two days in December of 2013. R. at 441-42. ...


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