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Seavey v. Berryhill

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

March 14, 2018

PHILLIP A. SEAVEY, 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 Phillip A. Seavey (“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. 16). Because I find substantial evidence to support the decision denying benefits, I will affirm the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application.

         I. Background

         On February 28, 2013, Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging that he has been unable to work since Oct. 3, 2012. (Tr. 12). His application was initially denied on April 19, 2013. Id. Plaintiff filed a Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Id. On March 27, 2015, following a hearing, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not under a “disability” as defined in the Act. Id. Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision with the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. (Doc. 34 at 1). On May 7, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the case. Id. 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.

         The facts related to the issues raised by Plaintiff will be addressed as needed in the discussion 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); 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); 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), 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 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 analysis, the ALJ here found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date, October 3, 2012; that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, hypertension, anxiety, depression, and degenerative joint disease; and that Plaintiff does 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. 14-15). The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), except that he can never perform overhead work with the left upper extremity; can perform frequent, but not constant, reaching or grasping with the non-dominant left upper extremity; can only occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; would be limited to simple routine tasks; can have only occasional contact with the general public and coworkers; and can have only occasional changes in a routine work setting. (Tr. 17). The ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (Tr. 23). However, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that Plaintiff would be able to perform occupations including housekeeping (Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) No. 323.687-014, light exertion level, unskilled, 371, 370 jobs in the national economy), routing clerk (DOT No. 222.687-022, light exertion level, 74, 788 jobs in the national economy); and folding material operator (DOT No. 208.685-014, light exertion level, 119, 960 jobs in the national economy). (Tr. 24). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from October 3, 2012, through the date of his decision. (Tr. 25).

         IV. Discussion

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's decision on three grounds: (1) that the ALJ's RFC finding is too vague to allow meaningful review or to satisfy the specificity required by regulation and policy, because the ALJ limited Plaintiff to “light work” instead of conducting a function-by-function analysis; (2) that the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical source opinions in assessing his physical RFC; and (3) that the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical source opinions in assessing his mental RFC.

         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); 1383(c)(3); 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, 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)).

         B. The RFC Limitation to ...


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