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Heintzelman v. Berryhill

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

September 18, 2017

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



         This action is before the court for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security that plaintiff Brian Heintzelman was not disabled, and, thus, not entitled to disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. The parties have consented to the exercise of plenary authority by the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.


         Plaintiff was born in 1971. (Tr. 170). On October 1, 2012, he filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging an onset date of September 14, 2012. (Id.). Plaintiff alleged disability due to a neck injury, a back injury, and neck and back surgeries. (Tr. 67, 206). The claim was denied initially in September 2013. (Tr. 112-16). Plaintiff received a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on April 1, 2015. (Tr. 29-31, 119). At this hearing, plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. (Tr. 29-66). On April 8, 2015, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled.

         The Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration denied plaintiff’s request for a review of the ALJ’s decision. Therefore, the ALJ’s decision is the final decision of the Commissioner that is now subject to judicial review.


         In reviewing a final decision denying Social Security disability benefits, the court may not reconsider the administrative record and make its own findings and conclusions on whether or not plaintiff is disabled. Locher v. Sullivan, 968 F.2d 725, 727 (8th Cir. 1992). Rather, the court must decide whether the ALJ’s decision is based upon substantial evidence on the record as a whole and the ALJ applied the applicable legal standards. 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.” Id. Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id. (citations omitted).

         To be entitled to disability benefits under the Act, a claimant must prove he is unable to perform any substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that would either result in death or which has lasted or could be expected to last for at least twelve continuous months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(D), (d)(1)(A).

         By regulations adopted under the Act, the Commissioner has established a five-step process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At Step One the Commissioner decides whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 404.1520(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, at Step Two the Commissioner decides whether the claimant has a severe impairment or a combination of impairments that qualifies as severe. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c). “Severe impairment” is defined as any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits the claimant’s physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. Id. If the claimant has a severe impairment that meets the duration requirement, the Commissioner determines at Step Three whether the claimant’s impairment meets or is medically equal to one of the deemed-disabling impairments listed in the Commissioner’s regulation. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d).

         If not so listed, at Step Four the Commissioner decides whether the claimant has the RFC to perform his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). A claimant’s RFC is the most he can still do in a daily work-related environment despite his limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); Masterson v. Barnart, 363 F.3d 731, 737 (8th Cir. 2004.

         If the claimant can perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If he cannot perform his past relevant work, at Step Five the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that the claimant retains the RFC to perform other work that is available in substantial numbers in the national economy and that is consistent with the claimant’s vocational factors of age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v); Halverson v. Astrue, 600 F.3d 922, 929 (8th Cir. 2010).


         The court accepts and adopts the parties’ unopposed statements of relevant facts and descriptions of plaintiff’s medical record. The court will discuss specific evidence from the medical record as needed.

         ALJ HEARING

         At the hearing before the ALJ, plaintiff testified to the following facts. In 2011, he was working in a dump truck at a road construction site when a tractor trailer hit him. (Tr. 36-38). He worked through 2011, then had a surgical fusion in his lower back and a disk replaced in his neck. (Tr. 38). After these surgeries, his neck “feels great,” with “no more shooting pain” down his arm, and his legs no longer have constant pain or fall out from underneath him. (Tr. 39). However, he is still having low back problems when he is on his feet for more than 45 minutes. (Tr. 39-40). He has to alternate between standing and sitting. (Tr. 40). When sitting “it’s not so bad,” if he can bend the chair backward a bit, but it depends on the chair. (Tr. 40). He is able to drive and does so, but he prefers not to, because he does not like being on the road with tractor trailers. (Tr. 41). In 2014, plaintiff earned about $7,600 working for Quality Building Products, filling in for a worker who had quit. Plaintiff drove a forklift and loaded trucks. (Tr. 43). The manager of the company is a friend of plaintiff’s and accommodated plaintiff’s restrictions. (Tr. 42-43). Plaintiff was allowed to sit in the break room or leave at will. (Tr. 43). He would generally work four to seven hours per day. (Tr. 45).

         Plaintiff testified that since the accident, he has a shooting or stabbing head pain “constantly . . . it’s not every minute of every day, but it’s all day long . . . it comes and it goes.” (Tr. 47). He has experienced only 23 days in 4 years when he felt no head pain. Severe head pain ranges from five to ten minutes at a time to lasting one to two days. (Tr. 47). He gets severe migraines one to two times a month. During these severe migraines, he is irritable, and he lies down but cannot sleep without medication. (Tr. 48-49).

         During a typical day, plaintiff alternates between sitting in a recliner and watching television and going downstairs and walking on a treadmill for up to 20 minutes. Once a week, he does loads of laundry and folds clothes, though he does not carry the laundry baskets up and down the stairs. He helps his children with their homework unless he is having a bad day, and he will prepare microwave meals for them. Plaintiff does no yard work, but continues to occasionally work for his friend at Quality Building Products. (Tr. 50-52).

         The VE testified that a person with plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience, who can lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally; who can push or pull 25-30 pounds occasionally; who occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; who can occasionally work with up to 15 pounds overhead; who must avoid working around hazards like unprotected heights or dangerous machinery; who can perform simple, routine tasks with occasional changes in a routine work setting; and who must alternate between sitting and standing on an hourly basis while remaining at the work station could not perform plaintiff’s past relevant work as a tow-truck driver, dump truck driver, or highway maintenance worker. (Tr. 58-60). However, the VE testified that such an individual could still work as an inspector or as a cashier. (Tr. 60). The VE testified that these jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. ...

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