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Coleman v. Berryhill

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

September 1, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Defendant.



         This action is before the Court for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that Plaintiff Sheila Coleman was not disabled, and, thus, not entitled under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) to disability insurance benefits, or Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner will be reversed, and the case remanded for an award of benefits.


         Plaintiff, who was born on April 13, 1983, protectively filed for disability insurance benefits and SSI on September 18, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2011, (age 28) due, inter alia, to learning disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. After Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial administrative level, she requested an evidentiary hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Such hearing was held on November 20, 2014, at which Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified, and after which a vocational expert (“VE”) submitted vocational opinions by means of written answers to interrogatories.

         By decision dated February 12, 2015, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform certain jobs that were available in the national economy, and was therefore not disabled under the Act. Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration was denied on April 12, 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 improperly determined, at step three of the sequential evaluation process, that Plaintiff's intellectual disability did not functionally meet or medically equal the deemed-disabling impairment listed in the Commissioner's regulations at 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, Listing 12.05. Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated Plaintiff's credibility.

         Medical Record and Hearing Testimony

         The Court adopts Plaintiff's recitation of the facts set forth in her brief, ECF No. 14-1 at 2-9, with the exception of Plaintiff's protected filing date which is accurately represented by Defendant's response as September 18, 2012. Defendant represents that aside from the protective filing date, she agrees with all other facts as represented by Plaintiff. These facts present a fair and accurate summary of the medical record and testimony at the evidentiary hearing. The Court will discuss specific facts as they are relevant to the parties' arguments.

         Employment History

         A summary of Plaintiff's FICA earnings from 1998 through 2010, indicates that Plaintiff earned above the substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) level in only two years, 2005 and 2010.[2] ECF No. 13-6 at 15. In two other years she had no earnings, and in five other years she earned less than $1, 000. Id. The consultative examination report, dated November 5, 2007, completed by Lois Mades, Ph.D., states, under employment history designation, “[Plaintiff] has been employed as a restaurant worker and a housekeeper. Her longest period of employment lasted 3 years.” ECF No. 13-8 at 28. Another medical consultation, dated March 6, 2012, conducted by Wendy Magnoli, Ph.D., in response to Plaintiff's request for mental health services while at St. Louis County Jail, noted that Plaintiff claimed that her longest term of employment had been with McDonald's from 2003 to 2006, and that she had been a manager at some point, but was fired for closing early.[3] ECF No. 13-15 at 61.

         Educational History

         The record shows that Plaintiff's test scores in the 3rd grade on the Missouri Mastery and Achievement Tests, resulted in the following rankings: 1st percentile for social studies/civics, 3rd percentile in mathematics, 2nd percentile in language arts, and 1st percentile rankings in two unidentifiable categories. ECF No. 13-7 at 5. Plaintiff's education enrollment history states, “NOT ATTENDING SCHOOL (DROPOUT UNDER 16), ” for three dates while she was in the 9th grade including September 5, 1997, December 11, 1997, and September 16, 1998; “TRANSFER TO SPECIAL ED PROGRAM, ” on December 16, 1998; and “NON-ATTENDANCE (DROPOUT 16 OR OVER), ” on February 25, 1999. Id. at 8.

         Plaintiff's Report Card for kindergarten through eighth grade, indicates that she repeated 1st grade, and that for ages 11 through 14, she was designated as learning disabled and not in an assigned grade. ECF No. 13-7 at 4. Several medical reports noted that Plaintiff reported she attended special education classes. ECF No. 13-8 at 28, 13-10 at 15, 13-10 at 61, 13-15 at 61. Dr. Magnoli's medical examination report noted that Plaintiff reported that she left school in the 11th grade, but had earned a GED. ECF No. 13-15 at 61.

         ALJ's Decision

         In holding that Plaintiff was not disabled, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process established by the Social Security Administration. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirement, and had not engaged in SGA since January 1, 2011, the alleged disability onset date. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as these impairments had been diagnosed by several medical sources and the evidence showed they had more than a minimal harmful effect on Plaintiff's ability to do basic work.

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the deemed-disabling impairments listed in the Commissioner's regulations. Specifically, as relevant here, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not meet or medically equal the criteria of Listing 12.05 (intellectual disability). To meet the requirements of this listing, a claimant must demonstrate that she suffers from deficits in adaptive functioning that initially manifested during the developmental period (before age 22), and that she meets the requirements of one of the four subsections, A through D, of the listing. These are separate and independent requirements. Ash v. Colvin, 812 F.3d 686, 690 (8th Cir. 2016) (citing 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.00A). To meet subsection B, a claimant must have a valid verbal, performance, or full scale IQ of 59 or less. To meet subsection C, a claimant must have an IQ in the range of 60 through 70 and a physical or other mental impairment imposing an additional and significant work-related limitation of function.

         Here, the ALJ stated that Plaintiff had a full scale IQ of 59 (based on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Fourth Edition (“WAIS-IV”) test, conducted by Shea Voelker, Psy.D., on January 26, 2013), [4] which satisfied the subsection B criteria for Listing 12.05, but concluded that Plaintiff failed to establish that she had deficits in adaptive functioning that manifested prior to the age of 22. The ALJ reasoned that aside from Plaintiff's testimony, there were no indications that ...

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