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Cody v. Berryhill

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

March 13, 2018

MELISSA R. CODY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          SHIRLEY PADMORE MENSAH UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This is an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying the application of Plaintiff Melissa R. Cody (“Plaintiff”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., (the “Act”). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 8). Because I find the decision denying benefits was supported by substantial evidence, I will affirm the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         On January 31, 2013, Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging that she had been unable to work since January 1, 2009. (Tr. 242-48). Her application was initially denied. (Tr. 133-38). On March 3, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (Tr. 141-42). On December 24, 2015, after two hearings, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 19-37). On December 19, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-6). 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.

         With regard to Plaintiff's hearing testimony, work, history, and medical records, the Court accepts the facts as provided by the parties in their respective statements of facts and responses. The Court will address specific facts relevant to the issues presented in the parties' briefs, as needed, in the discussion section below.

         II. 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); 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).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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); 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); 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); 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); 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). 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); 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); 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 that the claimant can perform. Id.; Brock v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1062, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012).

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         Applying the foregoing five-step procedure, the ALJ here found that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of January 1, 2009, through her date last insured of December 31, 2014; that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of a mood disorder, an anxiety disorder, a personality disorder, and obesity (as well as several non-severe impairments); and that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 21-26). The ALJ found that through Plaintiff's last date insured, she had the RFC to perform a range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except that she was limited to work that involved only simple, routine tasks and simple work-related decisions; to work involving only occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors; and to low-stress work, defined as work involving only occasional decision making and occasional changes in a routine work setting. (Tr. 26). The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work but that there were other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including representative occupations such as sorter, housekeeper cleaner, and produce weigher. (Tr. 35-36). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined by the Act, at any time from January 1, 2009, through December 31, 2014.

         IV. Discussion

         Plaintiff raises three arguments in support of her claim: (1) that the ALJ violated 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a and Social Security Ruling 96-3p by failing to identify which of Plaintiff's mental health diagnoses constituted severe impairments; (2) that the ALJ violated 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521 and Social Security Ruling 85-15p by failing to perform a careful evaluation of Plaintiff's impairments found to be “not severe”; and (3) that the ALJ failed to make an RFC finding that was supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.

         A. Standard for Judicial Review

         The decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed if it complies with the relevant legal requirements and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009); Estes v. Barnhart, 275 F.3d 722, 724 (8th Cir. 2002). “Substantial evidence ‘is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1063 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting Moore, 572 F.3d at 522). In determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, the court considers both evidence that supports that decision and evidence that detracts from that decision. Id. However, the 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 reasons and substantial evidence.'” Id. at 1064 (quoting Gonzales v. Barnhart, 465 F.3d 890, 894 (8th Cir. 2006)). “If, after reviewing the record, ...


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