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Barron v. Berryhill

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

August 9, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         This action is before this Court for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that Plaintiff Cynthia Barron was not disabled, and thus not entitled to disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.


         Plaintiff, who was born on March 31, 1964, protectively filed her application for benefits on June 11, 2013, alleging disability beginning May 25, 2012, due to depression, degenerative disc disease in her back, arthritis, and memory loss. On October 3, 2013, Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial administrative level, and on November 19, 2013, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). A hearing was held on October 23, 2014, at which Plaintiff testified, but the ALJ who conducted the hearing became unavailable prior to issuing a decision. Therefore, a new ALJ reviewed the entire evidence of record, including the hearing transcript, and also held a supplemental hearing on February 19, 2015, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified.

         By decision dated March 6, 2015, the ALJ found that Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2012; that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period of her alleged onset date of May 25, 2012, through her date last insured of December 31, 2012; that, during this time, Plaintiff had the severe impairments of mild lumbar degenerative disc disease, a depressive disorder, and an anxiety disorder; but that no impairment or combination of impairments met or medically equaled the severity of one of the deemed-disabling impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work as a cashier, as well as certain unskilled light jobs listed in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) (fast-food worker and housekeeper) that the VE had stated a person with Plaintiff's RFC and vocational factors (age, education, work experience) could perform and that were available in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act.

         Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration was denied on April 19, 2016. Plaintiff has thus exhausted all administrative remedies and the ALJ's decision stands as the final agency action now under review.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence in the record. More specifically, Plaintiff argues that, even though the ALJ gave “significant weight” to the opinion of state consulting physician, Barry Burchett, M.D., the ALJ did not properly incorporate all aspects of Dr. Burchett's opinion into Plaintiff's RFC. Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ erred by failing to properly identify and resolve conflicts between the occupational evidence provided by the VE and the information in the DOT and its companion volume, the Selected Characteristics of Occupations (“SCO”). Plaintiff asks that the ALJ's decision be reversed and that she be awarded benefits, or alternatively, that the case be remanded for further development of the record.

         Agency Records, Medical Records, Evidentiary Hearing, and ALJ's Decision

         The Court adopts the unopposed facts set forth in Plaintiff's Statement of Uncontroverted Material Facts (ECF No. 13-1), as amended by Defendant (ECF No. 18-1), and in Defendant's Statement of Additional Material Facts (ECF No. 18-2), as amended by Plaintiff (ECF No. 19-1). Together, these statements provide a fair description of the record before the Court. Specific facts will be discussed as needed to address the parties' arguments.


         Standard of Review and Statutory Framework

         In reviewing the denial of Social Security disability benefits, a court must review the entire administrative record to determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Johnson v. Astrue, 628 F.3d 991, 992 (8th Cir. 2011). The court “may not reverse . . . merely because substantial evidence would support a contrary outcome. Substantial evidence is that which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citations omitted). A reviewing court “must consider evidence that both supports and detracts from the ALJ's decision. If, after review, [the court finds] it possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the Commissioner's findings, [the court] must affirm the decision of the Commissioner.” Chaney v. Colvin, 812 F.3d 672, 676 (8th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted). Put another way, a court should “disturb the ALJ's decision only if it falls outside the available zone of choice.” Papesh v. Colvin, 786 F.3d 1126, 1131 (8th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). A decision does not fall outside that zone simply because the reviewing court might have reached a different conclusion had it been the finder of fact in the first instance. McNamara v. Astrue, 590 F.3d 607, 610 (8th Cir. 2010).

         To be entitled to benefits, a claimant must demonstrate an inability to engage in substantial gainful activity which exists in the national economy, by reason of a medically determinable impairment which has lasted or can be expected to last for not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Commissioner has promulgated regulations, found at 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, establishing a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability. The Commissioner begins by deciding whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. If not, the Commissioner decides whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments.

         If the impairment or combination of impairments is severe and meets the duration requirement, the Commissioner determines at step three whether the claimant's impairment meets or is equal to one of the deemed-disabling impairments listed in the Commissioner's regulations. If not, the Commissioner asks at step four whether the claimant has the RFC to perform his past relevant work. If the claimant cannot perform his past relevant work, the burden of proof shifts at step five to the Commissioner to demonstrate that the claimant retains the RFC to perform work that is available in the national economy and that is consistent with the claimant's vocational factors - age, education, and work experience. See, e.g., Halverson v. Astrue, 600 F.3d 922, 929 (8th Cir. 2010). When a claimant cannot perform the full range of work in a particular ...

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