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Briegel v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division

December 6, 2017

JAMES B. BRIEGEL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          GREG KAYS, CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT.

         Plaintiff James B. Briegel (“Plaintiff”) petitions for review of an adverse decision by Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found Plaintiff had the severe impairment of chronic pancreatitis, but retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his past relevant work as a computer security specialist.

         After carefully reviewing the record and the parties' arguments, the Court finds the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. The Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         Procedural and Factual Background

         The complete facts and arguments are presented in the parties' briefs and are repeated here only to the extent necessary.

         Plaintiff filed his application on March 7, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of January 9, 2013. The Commissioner denied the application at the initial claim level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. The ALJ held a hearing, and on November 6, 2014, issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council reviewed the ALJ's decision and corrected the date last insured from January 31, 2014 to December 31, 2014. While the Appeals Council found this left an unadjudicated period from January 31, 2014 to December 31, 2014, it determined this made no change to the ALJ's decision to deny benefits, affirming all other aspects of the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and judicial review is now appropriate under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Standard of Review

         A federal court's review of the Commissioner's decision to deny disability benefits is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Andrews v. Colvin, 791 F.3d 923, 928 (8th Cir. 2015). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough evidence that a reasonable mind would find it sufficient to support the Commissioner's decision. Id. In making this assessment, the court considers evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision, as well as evidence that supports it. Id. The court must “defer heavily” to the Commissioner's findings and conclusions. Wright v. Colvin, 789 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir. 2015). The court may reverse the Commissioner's decision only if it falls outside of the available zone of choice, and a decision is not outside this zone simply because the evidence also points to an alternate outcome. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011).

         Discussion

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process[1] to determine whether a claimant is disabled, that is, unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in: (1) formulating the RFC; (2) weighing the medical opinions; (3) discounting Plaintiff's credibility; and (3) failing to make explicit findings of the demands of Plaintiff's past relevant work. After reviewing the record and the applicable law, the Court finds these arguments are without merit.

         I. The ALJ did not err in formulating the RFC.

         Plaintiff makes several arguments relating to the ALJ's formulation of his RFC: (1) the ALJ failed to assess the RFC on a function-by-function basis; (2) the RFC does not include all of Plaintiff's mental limitations; and (3) the ALJ mischaracterized a third-party statement from Plaintiff's mother.

         First, Plaintiff argues under SSR 96-8p, the ALJ is required to conduct a function-by-function assessment before expressing the RFC in terms of exertional level. See SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 (July 2, 1996). SSR 96-8p requires an ALJ to consider all relevant evidence, and then explain how the evidence supports his conclusions in a narrative description. It does not require the ALJ to discuss every possible functional limitation. See Depover v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 563, 567 (8th Cir. 2003) (holding no violation of SSR 96-8p where ALJ made explicit findings in the RFC assessment, despite not making explicit findings with respect to sitting, standing, and walking). A review of the ALJ's decision shows the ALJ ...


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