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Adkins v. Berryhill

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

February 20, 2018

DIANNE M. ADKINS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Dianne Adkins seeks review of the decision of the Acting Social Security Commissioner, Nancy Berryhill, denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act.[1] Because the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the decision to deny benefits, the Court affirms the denial of Plaintiff's application.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         In December 2012, Plaintiff, born February 28, 1954, filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits alleging she was disabled as of January 1, 2000 as a result of bipolar disorder.[2] (Tr. 56-61). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Plaintiff's claims, and she filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 68).

         On October 17, 2014, an ALJ conducted a hearing at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. (Tr. 24-55). In a decision dated November 24, 2014, the ALJ applied the five-step evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520[3] and determined that Plaintiff “was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from January 1, 2000, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2001, the date last insured[.]” (Tr. 19).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered the severe impairment of bipolar disorder. (Tr. 13). Based on his review of the medical opinion evidence, medical records, and testimony, the ALJ determined that, through December 31, 2001, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform a full range of work at all exertional levels” with the following nonexertional limitations: “The claimant shall have limited contact with co-workers, supervisors and the public; and the claimant is limited to understanding, remembering and carrying out simple instructions.” (Tr. 15). The ALJ further found that, through December 21, 2001, Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work, but there existed a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 18).

         Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the SSA Appeals Council, which denied review on February 4, 2016. (Tr. 1-7). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the SSA's final decision. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         II. Standard of Review

         A court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence ‘is less than a preponderance, but enough so that a reasonable mind might find it adequate to support the conclusion.'” Cruze v. Chater, 85 F.3d 1320, 1323 (8th Cir. 1996) (quoting Boerst v. Shalala, 2 F.3d 249, 250 (8th Cir. 1993)). In determining whether the evidence is substantial, a court considers evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009). However, a court “do[es] not reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ and [it] defer[s] to the ALJ's determinations regarding the credibility of testimony, as long as those determinations are supported by good reason and substantial evidence.” Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting Gonzales v. Barnhart, 465 F.3d 890, 894 (8th Cir. 2006)).

         “If, after reviewing the record, the court finds it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the ALJ's findings, the court must affirm the ALJ's decision.” Partee v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2011) (quoting Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 789 (8th Cir. 2005)). The Eighth Circuit has repeatedly held that a court should “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions” of the Social Security Administration. Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010); Howard v. Massanari, 255 F.3d 577, 581 (8th Cir. 2001).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred at step five of the sequential evaluation process, when he found, based upon the VE's testimony, that Plaintiff was capable of performing jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (ECF No. 14). Plaintiff contends the VE's testimony did not provide substantial evidence to support that finding because the: (1) hypothetical question did not contain all of Plaintiff's limitations; (2) VE's testimony conflicted with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”); and (3) VE's testimony lacked a reliable basis. (Id.). In response, Defendant asserts that the ALJ properly relied on the VE's testimony because: (1) the jobs identified by the VE were consistent with Plaintiff's RFC; (2) the VE's testimony was consistent with the DOT; and (3) the VE's testimony was reliable. (ECF No. 19).

         At step five of the sequential analysis, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that the plaintiff maintains the RFC to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv)-(v). See also Singh v. Apfel, 222 F.3d 448, 451 (8th Cir. 2000). “Generally, if the claimant suffers from nonexertional impairments that limit her ability to perform the full range of work described in one of the specific categories set forth in the guidelines, the ALJ is required to utilize testimony of a vocational expert.” Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 971-72 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Reed v. Sullivan, 988 F.2d 812, 816 (8th Cir. 1993)). “Testimony from a vocational expert constitutes substantial evidence only when based on a properly phrased hypothetical question.” Pickney v. Chater, 96 F.3d 294, 296 (8th Cir. 1996).

         At the hearing, the VE testified that he had been working as a vocational consultant with disabled adults “for the past 25 or 30 years.” (Tr. 49). Based on his experience working with individuals suffering bipolar disorder, he stated that whether a person with bipolar disorder is able to work “depends on the severity and the ability to control. In and of itself, bipolar disorder would not preclude a person from working.” (Tr. 50). The VE opined that, when people with bipolar disorder are not able to maintain employment, it is generally due to an inability “to respond appropriately to supervision and coworkers, and even the ...

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