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Lawrence v. Berryhill

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

July 18, 2017

RUBY F. LAWRENCE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff Ruby F. Lawrence brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. Because the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, I will affirm the decision.

         Procedural History

         On August 14, 2013, the Social Security Administration denied Lawrence's April 2013 application for DIB, in which she claimed she became disabled on May 10, 2012, because of high blood pressure, depression, and arthritis. At Lawrence's request, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on March 11, 2015, at which Lawrence and a vocational expert testified. On June 17, 2015, the ALJ denied Lawrence's claim for benefits, finding the vocational expert's testimony to support a finding that Lawrence could perform work as it exists in significant numbers in the national economy. On August 16, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Lawrence'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, Lawrence contends that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Lawrence specifically argues that the ALJ erred by according improper weight to certain opinion evidence in this case, which rendered the residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment unsupported by substantial evidence. Lawrence asks that I reverse the Commissioner's final decision and remand the matter for further evaluation. For the reasons that follow, I will affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         Medical Records and Other Evidence Before the ALJ

         With respect to the medical records and other evidence of record, I adopt Lawrence's recitation of facts set forth in her Statement of Uncontroverted Material Facts (ECF #18) to the extent they are admitted by the Commissioner (ECF #23-1). I also adopt the additional facts set forth in the Commissioner's Statement of Additional Material Facts (ECF #23-2), as they are unrefuted by Lawrence. Together, these statements provide a fair and accurate description of the relevant record before the Court.

         Additional specific facts will be discussed as needed to address the parties' arguments.


         A. Legal Standard

         To be eligible for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, Lawrence must prove that she 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 [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] 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 her ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant's impairment(s) is not severe, then she 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, she is conclusively disabled. At the fourth step, the Commissioner establishes whether the claimant can perform her 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 is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Estes v. Barnhart, 275 F.3d 722, 724 (8th Cir. 2002). 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).

         I must consider evidence that supports the Commissioner's decision as well as any evidence that fairly detracts from the decision. McNamara v. Astrue, 590 F.3d 607, 610 (8th Cir. 2010). If, after reviewing the entire record, it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions and the Commissioner has adopted one of those positions, I must affirm the Commissioner's decision. Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 793 (8th Cir. 2012). I may not reverse the Commissioner's decision merely because substantial evidence could also support a contrary outcome. McNamara, 590 F.3d at 610.

         B. ALJ's Decision

         In her written decision, the ALJ found that Lawrence met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017, and that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 10, 2012, the alleged onset date of disability. The ALJ found Lawrence's bilateral osteoarthritis of the hips, carpal tunnel syndrome, and affective disorder to be severe impairments, but determined that they did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 17-18.) The ALJ found Lawrence to have the RFC to perform light work with the following limitations:

[S]he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel and crouch. She should never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, or crawl. She can frequently user her upper extremities for grasping, handling and fingering. She should have only occasional exposure to extremes of cold. Due to her mental impairment, she is capable of performing simple, routine tasks in an environment where there is only occasional contact with supervisors, co-workers and the general public.

(Tr. 19.) The ALJ found Lawrence's RFC to prevent her from performing her past relevant work as an assembly line worker or as a returns clerk. (Tr. 25.)

         Considering Lawrence's RFC and her age, education, and work experience, the ALJ found vocational expert testimony to support a conclusion that Lawrence could perform other work as it exists in significant numbers in the national economy, and specifically as a housekeeper/cleaner, night watchman, and mail room clerk. The ALJ therefore found Lawrence ...

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