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Weiser v. Berryhill

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

September 26, 2017

DONNA WEISER, Plaintiff,
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 Donna Weiser 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 February 15, 1962, filed her application for benefits on February 15, 2013, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2009, due to emphysema, breathing issues, chemically induced asthma, spinal deterioration, bone thinning, and hypersensitivity to citric acid. On June 12, 2013, Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial administrative level, and she thereafter requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).

         A hearing was held on November 17, 2014, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. Following the hearing, the ALJ submitted written interrogatories to the VE, and permitted Plaintiff's counsel, upon review of the VE's responses, to submit additional interrogatories to the VE and/or to request a supplemental hearing with an opportunity to question the VE. Tr. 256. By decision dated June 18, 2015, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “light work” as defined by the Commissioner's regulations, except:

[Plaintiff] should never climb ropes, ladders or scaffolds but is able to occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She is able to occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. [She] should avoid all exposure to citric acid and derivatives thereof, as well as lung irritants such as smoke, fumes and dust. She should avoid all exposure to unprotected heights, unprotected moving parts of machinery and unprotected hazards. [She] is limited to routine, repetitive tasks with occasional to no direct interaction with the public, and occasional interaction with supervisors. [Her] ability to interact with co-workers is limited to contact that is casual and infrequent.

Tr. 16.

         The ALJ next found that Plaintiff could perform certain light unskilled jobs listed in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) (mail sorter, stamper/marker, and router), which the VE had stated by interrogatory response that a hypothetical 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 July 21, 2016. Plaintiff has thus exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the final agency action now under review.

         The single argument Plaintiff makes before this Court is that the ALJ “failed to precisely describe the Plaintiff's impairments in the hypotheticals offered to the [VE].” ECF No. 18 at 16. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the following limitation included in the ALJ's hypothetical question to the VE (and in the RFC the ALJ ultimately assigned to Plaintiff) was impermissibly vague: “occasional to no direct interaction with the public.” Plaintiff argues that the hypothetical was faulty because it made “no clear statement as to whether the interaction with the public is limited to occasional or to none at all-the limitation cannot be both.” Id. at 17. Because the hypothetical question was improper, Plaintiff argues, the ALJ erred in relying on the VE's response to it in determining that jobs exist in significant numbers which a person with Plaintiff's RFC could perform.

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

         The Court adopts the statement of facts set forth in Plaintiff's brief (ECF No. 18 at 2-15), as amended by Defendant (ECF No. 25-1), except for paragraph 72, in which Plaintiff states that on July 24, 2012, she was evaluated by Wayne Stillings, M.D. “who concluded that Plaintiff did have a panic disorder and adjustment disorder with depression.” ECF No. 18 at 15. As Defendant correctly notes in response to Plaintiff's statement of facts, the portion of the record cited by Plaintiff reflects that Dr. Stillings concluded that Plaintiff's panic disorder and adjustment disorder with depression were both “resolved, pre-existing.” Dr. Stillings further assigned Plaintiff a global assessment of functioning (“GAF”) score of 80-85, [2] indicating “no psychiatric symptoms/functioning well from an emotional standpoint).” Tr. 818-19. The Court also adopts Defendant's unopposed statement of additional facts (ECF No. 25-2). 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) (citations omitted). Put another way, a court should ‚Äúdisturb the ALJ's decision only if it falls outside the available ...

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