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Coleman v. Berryhill

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

December 15, 2017

SANDRA FAYE COLEMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          STEPHEN N. LIMBAUGH, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denied plaintiff Sandra Coleman's applications for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act and Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Coleman now seeks judicial review (#15). The Commissioner opposes the motion (#20), and the issue is ripe. The Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole and is affirmed.

         I. Procedural History

         Coleman's applications were denied at the initial determination levels. She then appeared before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ found that Coleman is not disabled because she can perform work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. Coleman now appeals that decision.

         II. Disability Determination-Five Steps

         A claimant is disabled if unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months . . . .” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is disabled if he is “not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education and work experience engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists . . . in significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.” Id. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process when evaluating whether a claimant has a disability. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007). First, the Commissioner considers a claimant's work activity. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i).

         Second, if the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner looks to see “whether the claimant has a severe impairment that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities.” Dixon v. Barnhart, 343 F.3d 602, 605 (8th Cir. 2003). “An impairment is not severe if it amounts only to a slight abnormality that would not significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Kirby, 500 F.3d at 707; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(c), 416.921(a).

         Third, if the claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner considers the impairment's medical severity. If the impairment meets or equals one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the regulations, the claimant is considered disabled, regardless of age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d); Kelley v. Callahan, 133 F.3d 583, 588 (8th Cir. 1998).

         Fourth, if the claimant's impairment is severe, but it does not meet or equal one of the presumptively disabling impairments, the Commissioner assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to determine the claimant's ability to perform his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.945(a)(4). “RFC is a medical question defined wholly in terms of the claimant's physical ability to perform exertional tasks or, in other words, what the claimant can still do despite his or her physical or mental limitations.” Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir. 2003) (internal quotations omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). If a claimant retains the RFC to perform past relevant work, he or she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv).

         Fifth, if the claimant's RFC does not allow the claimant to perform past relevant work, the burden to show that the claimant maintains the RFC to perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy shifts to the Commissioner. See Bladow v. Apfel, 205 F.3d 356, 358-59 n.5 (8th Cir. 2000); Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, the Commissioner finds the claimant not disabled. If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the Commissioner finds the claimant disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). At Step Five, even though the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner, the burden of persuasion to prove disability remains on the claimant. Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2004).

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         At Step One, the ALJ found that Coleman met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2012, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 15, 2011. At Step Two, the ALJ found that Coleman suffers from three severe physical impairments. The ALJ also found that Coleman's mental impairments (stemming from depression and substance abuse) are not severe. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded that Coleman does not have an impairment that meets or equals one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the regulations.

         Next, the ALJ assessed Coleman's RFC. The ALJ found that Coleman

has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), in that the claimant can lift and carry up to twenty pounds occasionally and lift or carry up to ten pounds frequently; stand and/or walk for two hours out of an eight-hour workday; and sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday, except the claimant's standing and walking would be limited to no more than 15-20 minutes at a time, but the claimant would remain at the workstation and on task. The claimant can occasionally use of foot controls on the left, climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, couch and crawl, but should never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant cannot perform work at unprotected heights or work involving moving mechanical parts, and can occasionally work in an environment with vibration.

(Tr. 19). At Step Four, the ALJ relied on vocational expert (“VE”) testimony and found that Coleman cannot perform any past relevant work. At Step Five, the ALJ analyzed whether Coleman can successfully adjust to other work. The ALJ noted that, if Coleman had the RFC to perform the full range of light work (if her RFC matched perfectly the light work Grid rule), the Grids would direct a finding of not disabled. But additional limitations impede Coleman's ability to perform all or substantially all of the light work requirements. Thus, the ALJ relied on VE testimony to determine the extent to which these limitations erode Coleman's occupational base to perform light work. The VE testified that Coleman is able to perform work as a mail clerk, marker II, and router I, even after considering all of the limitations in Coleman's RFC. The ALJ then found that these jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy and concluded that Coleman is not disabled.

         IV. Standard of Review

         The Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Estes v. Barnhart, 275 F.3d 722, 724 (8th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence but enough that a reasonable person would find it adequate to support the conclusion. Johnson v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1145, 1147 (8th Cir. 2001). This “substantial evidence test, ” however, is “more than a mere search of the record for evidence supporting the [Commissioner's] findings.” Coleman v. Astrue, 498 F.3d 767, 770 (8th Cir. 2007) (alteration in original) (quoting Gavin v. Heckler, 811 F.2d 1195, 1199 (8th Cir. 1987)). The Court must also consider any evidence that fairly detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Id. “[I]f there is substantial evidence on the record as a whole, [the Court] must affirm the administrative decision, even if the record could also have supported an opposite decision.” Weikert v. Sullivan, 977 F.2d 1249, 1252 (8th Cir. 1992).

         V. Discussion

         Coleman claims the ALJ committed three errors. First, she claims the ALJ really found that Coleman has the RFC to perform sedentary work; thus, the Medical Vocational Guidelines (“the Grids”) require the ALJ to find Coleman disabled. Second, she argues the ALJ violated the Program Operations Manual System (“POMS”), the primary source of information Agency employees use when processing claims for Social Security benefits. Third, she claims the ALJ erred in finding her mental impairments not severe at Step Two. The Court takes each in turn.

         A. Despite Internal Inconsistencies, Coleman's RFC Still Fell Somewhere in the Middle of Light and Sedentary Work, and the ALJ's Decision to Call the VE Was Proper and Is Supported by Substantial Evidence

         Coleman correctly points out an internal inconsistency in the ALJ's RFC finding. She claims this inconsistency shows that she has the RFC to perform only sedentary, not light, work. And given her RFC to perform sedentary work, the Grids require the ALJ to find her disabled. The Court will first explain how ALJs use the Grids before noting the differences between light and sedentary work.

         1. Using the Grids at Step Five

         If the ALJ holds at Step Four that a claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the burden to show that the claimant maintains the RFC to perform a significant number of jobs within the national economy shifts to the Commissioner at Step Five. Bladow v. Apfel, 205 F.3d 356, 358-59 n.5 (8th Cir. 2000). The Commissioner may meet this burden in one of two ways: by eliciting testimony from a VE, or, “[i]f [a claimant's] impairments are exertional (affecting the ability to perform physical labor), . . . by referring to the medical-vocational guidelines or ‘grids, ' which are fact-based generalizations about the availability of jobs for people of varying ages, educational backgrounds, and previous work experience, with differing degrees of exertional impairment.” Stone v. Colvin, No. 4:14-CV-494-ACL, 2015 WL 1433469, at *8 (E.D. Mo. Mar. 27, 2015) (first and second alterations in original) (quoting Holley v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1088, 1093 (8th Cir. 2001)).

         The Grids provide the types and numbers of jobs that exist in the national economy where a claimant's RFC corresponds to the job requirements that a particular rule identifies. Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 461-62 (1983). Thus, the ALJ need not rely on VE testimony when the Grids apply. Id. The Grids apply and direct a conclusion-disabled or not disabled-where the ALJ's findings of fact relating to the claimant's vocational factors and RFC match all of the criteria of a particular rule (for sedentary work, light work, etc.) on one of the Grids. King v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 978, 980 (8th Cir. 2009); 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 2, § 200.00(a). When the Grids and the findings of fact do not match perfectly, the Grids do not direct a conclusion, and the ALJ uses the Grids as a framework. SSR 83-12, 1983 WL 31253 (Jan. 1, 1983).

         When using the Grids as a framework (that is, where an individual's exertional RFC does not match perfectly with the definition of any one of the ranges of work that corresponds to a Grid rule), the claimant's occupational base-the number of occupations the individual is capable of performing given his or her RFC, SSR 83-10, 1983 WL 31251, at *6 (Jan. 1, 1983)-is affected. SSR 83-12, 1983 WL 31253, at *2. The ...


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