United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
STEPHEN N. LIMBAUGH, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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
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.
Disability Determination-Five Steps
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).
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).
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. §§
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).
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).
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.
The ALJ's Decision
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
the ALJ assessed Coleman's RFC. The ALJ found that
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.
Standard of Review
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).
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.
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
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.
Using the Grids at Step Five
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.
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.
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 ...