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Music v. Berryhill

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

March 13, 2018

AHMET MUSIC, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This is an action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying the application of Plaintiff Ahmet Music (“Plaintiff”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. (the “Act”). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 16). Because I find the decision denying benefits was supported by substantial evidence, I will affirm the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application.

         I. Procedural Background

         On March 11, 2013, Plaintiff applied for SSI and DIB, alleging that he had been unable to work since October 12, 2010. (Tr. 73, 185-98). His applications were initially denied. (Tr. 100-04). Plaintiff filed a Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Tr. 107-08). On September 23, 2015, after two hearings, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 6-25). On August 24, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-4). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

         II. Factual Background

         Plaintiff testified at two hearings before the ALJ. (Tr. 26-52, 53-70). At the first, held on March 31, 2015, Plaintiff testified that he has problems including back pain and left knee pain that limit his ability to sit, stand, and walk (Tr. 36-39); sleep problems (Tr. 39, 42-43); swelling in his fingers (Tr. 40); numbness in his elbows (Tr. 40); and pain in his left shoulder and neck that causes him difficulty in lifting his arm overhead and forward. (Tr. 41-42). Plaintiff worked most recently as a machine operator for nine years, which involved moving up to 150 pounds. (Tr. 44-45). He stopped working because of his knee injury. (Tr. 45). At the second hearing, held on September 15, 2015, Plaintiff testified that since the prior hearing, he had begun taking medicine for depression and cholesterol issues and had been trying to do back exercises at home. (Tr. 59, 61).

         On April 29, 2013, Plaintiff completed a Function Report. (Tr. 253-60). He indicated that his conditions affected his ability to lift, squat, bend, stand, walk, sit, kneel, climb stairs, remember, concentrate, understand, follow instructions, and complete tasks; he did not indicate problems with reaching. (Tr. 258). He stated that he can only lift eight pounds because his shoulder hurts. (Tr. 258).

         On July 8, 2013, Charles Mannis, M.D., conducted a consultative examination of Plaintiff. (Tr. 391-401). Plaintiff's chief complaints were left knee pain, back pain, and shoulder pain. (Tr. 391). Plaintiff reported fairly constant knee pain and intermittent knee swelling that interfered with his ability to squat and go up and down stairs. (Tr. 391). It was noted that there was “no definitive history of injury to his neck, shoulders or back, although he complains of diffuse pain in the upper back and the lower back and pain in his shoulders when he lifts.” (Tr. 391-92). Plaintiff attributed this in some part to heavy work over a period of time. (Tr. 392). On examination, Plaintiff had a slightly stiff-legged gait on the left with lack of normal heel/toe push-off; exhibited diffuse tenderness throughout the thoracic area and lower lumbar area; had full motion of his neck and shoulders (but complained of pain with internal rotation of both shoulders); had diffuse edema of all fingers and was unable to make a complete fist; showed diffuse tenderness in the lumbar spine; and had global tenderness in the left knee. (Tr. 392). His grip strength was 4/5 bilaterally. (Tr. 392). Dr. Mannis's diagnoses were degenerative arthritis of the left knee, probable degenerative arthritis of the lumbar spine, and bilateral shoulder pain. (Tr. 393). Dr. Mannis completed a Medical Source Statement in which he opined that Plaintiff could lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; could sit for 30 minutes at a time without interruption and for five hours in an eight-hour workday; could stand for 30 minutes at a time and for two hours in an eight-hour workday; could walk for 20 minutes at a time and one hour in an eight-hour workday; could frequently reach (other than overhead); and could occasionally reach overhead, handle, finger, feel, and push/pull. (Tr. 394-96).

         A review of Plaintiff's medical treatment records dated during and shortly before his alleged disability onset date shows Plaintiff has sought treatment for knee pain, lower back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain, headaches, sleep problems, hyperlipidemia, esophageal reflux, and mental symptoms. The Court will address additional specific records relevant to the issues presented by the parties' briefs, as needed, in the discussion section below.

         III. Standard for Determining Disability Under the Act

         To be eligible for benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must prove he or she is disabled. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); Baker v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992). 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010). The impairment must be “of such severity that 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 the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a); see also McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir. 2011) (discussing the five-step process). At Step One, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in “substantial gainful activity”; if so, then he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment, which is “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities”; if the claimant does not have a severe impairment, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Three, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “listings”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant has such an impairment, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds with the rest of the five-step process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

         Prior to Step Four, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), which is “the most a claimant can do despite [his or her] limitations.” Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). At Step Four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can return to his 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, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant can perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled; if the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id. At Step Five, the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine whether the claimant can make an adjustment to other work in the national economy; if the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the claimant will be found disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

         Through Step Four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove that he is disabled. Moore, 572 F.3d at 523. At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that, given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience, there are a significant number of other jobs in the national economy ...

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