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McCormick v. Berryhill

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

March 19, 2018

JASON MCCORMICK, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          STEPHEN N. LIMBAUGH, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denied plaintiff Jason McCormick's application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Coleman now seeks judicial review (#15). The Commissioner opposes the motion (#22), and the issue is ripe. The Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole and is affirmed.

         I. Procedural History

         McCormick's application was denied at the initial determination level. He then appeared before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ found that McCormick is not disabled because he can perform work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. McCormick now appeals that decision.

         II. Disability Determination-Five Steps

         A disability is defined as the “inability 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). A claimant has a disability “only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are 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[.]” Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential process when evaluating whether the claimant has a disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1); Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007). First, the Commissioner considers the claimant's work activity. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i).

         Second, 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. §§ 404.1520(c), 404.1520a(d).

         Third, 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d).

         Fourth, 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. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1545(a)(5)(i). “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. § 404.1545(a)(1). The claimant is responsible for providing evidence relating to his RFC, but the Commissioner is responsible for developing the claimant's “complete medical history, including arranging for a consultative examination(s) if necessary, and making every reasonable effort to help [the claimant] get medical reports from [the claimant's] own medical sources.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). If the claimant retains the RFC to perform past relevant work, he or she is not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv).

         Fifth, 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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the Commissioner finds the claimant disabled. Id. 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. 2004).

         The evaluation process for mental impairments is set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a. The Commissioner “first evaluate[s] [the claimant's] pertinent symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings to determine whether [the claimant] ha[s] a medically determinable mental impairment(s).” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(b)(1). If the Commissioner finds the claimant has a medically determinable mental impairment, the Commissioner “rate[s] the degree of functional limitation resulting from the impairment[.]” Id. § 404.1520a(b)(2). Next, the Commissioner determines the severity of the impairment based on those ratings. Id. § 404.1520a(d). If the impairment is severe, the Commissioner determines if it meets or equals a listed mental disorder. Id. § 404.1520a(d)(2). If the impairment is severe and does not meet or equal a listed mental disorder, the Commissioner prepares an RFC assessment. Id. § 404.1520a(d)(3).

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         At Step One, the ALJ found that McCormick met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2017, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 24, 2012. At Step Two, the ALJ found that McCormick suffers from three severe physical impairments-degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, and pancreatitis-and two severe mental impairments-anxiety disorder and depression. At Step Three, the ALJ concluded McCormick does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the regulations.

         Next, the ALJ assessed Coleman's RFC. She found that McCormick has

the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that the claimant: can occasionally climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, stairs and ramps; can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; can occasionally push, pull, operate hand controls and reach in all directions including overhead with the right upper extremity; must not have concentrated exposure to extreme cold and excessive vibration; and is limited to simple, repetitive and routine tasks with no fast production rate, such as on an assembly line.

(Tr. 32.) As part of this assessment, the ALJ found that McCormick's statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effect of his symptoms were not entirely credible. Two of McCormick's treating physicians also submitted opinions about both his physical and mental health function, but the ALJ gave these opinions little weight. Instead, the ALJ gave significant weight to a non-examining physician's opinion that McCormick's anxiety and depression only mildly limit his social function.

         At Step Four, the ALJ relied on vocational expert (“VE”) testimony and found that McCormick cannot perform any past relevant work. At Step Five, the ALJ analyzed whether McCormick can successfully adjust to other work. She noted if McCormick 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 McCormick'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 McCormick's occupational base to perform unskilled light work. The VE testified that McCormick is able to perform work as a collator operator and merchandise marker, even after considering all of the limitations in McCormick's RFC. The ALJ then found that these jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy and concluded McCormick is not disabled.

         IV. Standard of Review

         The Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 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).

         V. Discussion

         McCormick claims the ALJ's RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence. First, he challenges the ALJ's credibility finding regarding his statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effect of his symptoms. Second, he argues “[t]he Decision does not accurately summarize all of the records and evidence and seems to pick and choose to discuss only the evidence that supports the conclusions and does not address the evidence that detracts from the decision.” (#15 at 3.) The Court will first consider the credibility argument because it affects the weight ...


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