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Tucker v. Berryhill

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

September 29, 2017

MELISSA D. TUCKER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JOHN A. ROSS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This is an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying Melissa D. Tucker's ("Tucker") applications for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq.

         I. Background

         On October 28, 2013, Tucker protectively filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq., alleging disability beginning September 18, 2013, due to connective tissue disease, lupus, memory problems, Graves' disease, and fibromyalgia. After her application was denied at the initial administrative level, Tucker requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). A hearing was held on January 21, 2015. The ALJ issued a written decision denying Tucker's application on January 29, 2015. On March 24, 2016, the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration denied Tucker's request for review. Thus, the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. See Sims v. Apfel, 560 U.S. 103, 107 (2000).

         Tucker filed this appeal on May 16, 2016. (Doc. 1.) The Commissioner filed an Answer. (Doc. 7.) Thereafter, Tucker filed a Brief in Support of her Complaint (Doc. 17), the Commissioner filed a Brief in Support of the Answer (Doc. 22), and Tucker filed a Reply Brief (Doc. 23).

         II. Facts

         The Court adopts Tucker's Statement of Facts (Doc. 17-1) as supplemented by the Commissioner's Response to Tucker's Statement of Facts (Doc. 22-1). The Court's review of the record shows that the adopted facts are accurate and complete. Specific facts will be discussed as part of the analysis.

         III. Standards

         The Social Security Act defines as disabled a person who is "unable 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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also Brantley v. Colvin, 2013 WL 4007441, at *2 (E.D. Mo. Aug. 2, 2013). The impairment must be "of such severity that [the claimant] 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which she lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for her, or whether she would be hired if she applied for work." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         Under the Social Security Act, the Commissioner has established a five-step process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a), 404.1520(a). "If a claimant fails to meet the criteria at any step in the evaluation of disability, the process ends and the claimant is determined to be not disabled." Gaff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 790 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 590-91 (8th Cir. 2004)). First, the claimant must not be engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a), 404.1520(a). Second, the claimant must have a "severe impairment, " defined as "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(c), 404.1520(c). "The sequential evaluation process may be terminated at step two only when the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments would have no more than a minimal impact on [his or] her ability to work." Page v. Astrue, 484 F.3d 1040, 1043 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting Caviness v. Massanari, 250 F.3d 603, 605 (8th Cir. 2001).

         Third, the claimant must establish that his or her impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in the Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 404.1520(d). If the claimant has one of, or the medical equivalent of, these impairments, then the claimant is per se disabled without consideration of the claimant's age, education, or work history. Id.

         Before considering step four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). RFC is defined as "the most a claimant can do despite [her] limitations." Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)). At step four, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can return to her past relevant work, by comparing the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(f); McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir. 2011). If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, she will not be found to be disabled; if the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id.

         At step five, the ALJ considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to see if the claimant can make an adjustment to other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, then she will be found to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(a)(4)(v). Through step four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove that she is disabled. Brantley, 2013 WL 4007441, at *3 (citation omitted). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that the claimant maintains the RFC to perform a significant number of jobs within the national economy. Id. "The ultimate burden of persuasion to prove disability, however, remains with the claimant." Meyerpeter v. Astrue, 902 F.Supp.2d 1219, 1229 (E.D. Mo. 2012) (citations omitted).

         The Court's role on judicial review is to determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009). In determining whether the evidence is substantial, the Court considers evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Andrews v. Colvin,791 F.3d 978, 983 (8th Cir. 2015); Cox v. Astrue,495 F.3d 614, 617 (8th Cir. 2007). As long as substantial evidence supports the decision, the Court may not reverse it merely because substantial evidence exists in the record that ...


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