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Hardin v. Berryhill

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

May 30, 2017

NYANA HARDIN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          ROBERT E. LARSEN United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Nyana Hardin seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiff's application for disability benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in (1) finding plaintiff's limited intellectual abilities and depression are not severe impairments, (2) finding that plaintiff's mental impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of listing 12.05(c) (mental retardation), and (3) failing to make a function-by-function analysis of plaintiff's physical residual functional capacity. I find that the substantial evidence in the record as a whole does not support the ALJ's finding that plaintiff is not disabled. Therefore, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment will be granted, the decision of the Commissioner will be reversed, and this case will be remanded for an award of benefits.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On October 1, 2013, plaintiff applied for disability benefits alleging that she had been disabled since January 1, 2011. Plaintiff's application was denied on November 13, 2013. On December 17, 2014, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge. On January 13, 2015, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not under a “disability” as defined in the Act. On March 22, 2016, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. Therefore, the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         II. STANDARD FOR JUDICIAL REVIEW

         Section 205(g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), provides for judicial review of a “final decision” of the Commissioner. The standard for judicial review by the federal district court is whether the decision of the Commissioner was supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Mittlestedt v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 847, 850-51 (8th Cir. 2000); Johnson v. Chater, 108 F.3d 178, 179 (8th Cir. 1997); Andler v. Chater, 100 F.3d 1389, 1392 (8th Cir. 1996). The determination of whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence requires review of the entire record, considering the evidence in support of and in opposition to the Commissioner's decision. Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951); Thomas v. Sullivan, 876 F.2d 666, 669 (8th Cir. 1989). “The Court must also take into consideration the weight of the evidence in the record and apply a balancing test to evidence which is contradictory.” Wilcutts v. Apfel, 143 F.3d 1134, 1136 (8th Cir. 1998) (citing Steadman v. Securities & Exchange Commission, 450 U.S. 91, 99 (1981)).

         Substantial evidence means “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. at 401; Jernigan v. Sullivan, 948 F.2d 1070, 1073 n. 5 (8th Cir. 1991). However, the substantial evidence standard presupposes a zone of choice within which the decision makers can go either way, without interference by the courts. “[A]n administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.” Id.; Clarke v. Bowen, 843 F.2d 271, 272-73 (8th Cir. 1988).

         III. BURDEN OF PROOF AND SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         An individual claiming disability benefits has the burden of proving he is unable to return to past relevant work by reason of a medically-determinable physical or mental impairment 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). If the plaintiff establishes that he is unable to return to past relevant work because of the disability, the burden of persuasion shifts to the Commissioner to establish that there is some other type of substantial gainful activity in the national economy that the plaintiff can perform. Nevland v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 853, 857 (8th Cir. 2000); Brock v. Apfel, 118 F.Supp.2d 974 (W.D. Mo. 2000).

         The Social Security Administration has promulgated detailed regulations setting out a sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. These regulations are codified at 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1501, et seq. The five-step sequential evaluation process used by the Commissioner is outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 and is summarized as follows:

1. Is the claimant performing substantial gainful activity?
Yes = not disabled.
No = go to next step.
2. Does the claimant have a severe impairment or a combination of impairments which significantly limits his ability to do basic work activities?
No = not disabled.
Yes = go to next step.
3. Does the impairment meet or equal a listed impairment in Appendix 1?
Yes = disabled.
No = go to next step.
4. Does the impairment prevent the claimant from doing past relevant work?
No = not disabled.
Yes = go to next step where burden shifts to Commissioner.
5. Does the impairment prevent the claimant from doing any other work?
Yes = disabled. No = not disabled.

         IV. THE RECORD

         The record consists of the testimony of plaintiff and documentary evidence admitted at the hearing.

         A. ADMINISTRATIVE REPORTS

         The record contains the following administrative reports:

         Earnings ...


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