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Delmater v. Berryhill

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

March 27, 2018

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 applications of Plaintiff Bobbi J. Delmater (“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. 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 May 23, 2013, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging that she had been unable to work since June 2, 2010, due to fibromyalgia, depression, bursitis, chronic pain, headaches, degenerative disc disease, anxiety, restless leg syndrome, overactive bladder, and fatigue. (Tr. 438-45, 446-47, 461). Her applications were initially denied. (Tr. 347, 366, 369-73). Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 377). On August 24, 2015, Plaintiff amended the alleged disability onset date to December 11, 2012. (Tr. 456). On September 14, 2015, following a hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a “disability” as defined in the Act. (Tr. 8-27). On November 3, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision with the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. (Tr. 39). On August 26, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the case. (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.

         At the hearing before the ALJ, held on August 25, 2015, Plaintiff testified as follows. She was 44 years old; was five feet, seven inches tall; and weighed 260 pounds. (Tr. 299, 301). She lived with her husband and sixteen-year-old son. (Tr. 301). She was able to drive herself to appointments and stores. (Tr. 301). She had completed two years of college and could read, write, and do simple math. (Tr. 301-02). She had worked in the past doing secretarial and housekeeping work and also at an insurance company, processing claims. (Tr. 303-04).

         Plaintiff testified that the main reason she has been unable to work is her fibromyalgia, which causes pain in her neck, back, and other areas. (Tr. 306). She also testified that she has degenerative disc disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and restless leg syndrome. (Tr. 312-16, 322). She testified that because of her pain, she has difficulty washing her hair, and it takes her two to three days to clean the house because she has to take breaks. (Tr. 306). She testified that she can stand for seven to ten minutes before having problems and can sit for 20 minutes before she needs to change positions. (Tr. 308). She also testified that her neck surgery helped with her neck pain, but it is still stiff. (Tr. 313-14). She testified that the stimulator that was put in her lower back helps with her back pain in one particular area but that she still has issues with the rest of her back from degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 314-15). She also testified that she has carpal tunnel syndrome in her right wrist and that she often drops things. (Tr. 312, 322). She has fatigue and naps at least once a day. (Tr. 319). She sometimes elevates her feet for half an hour because of swelling, but not every day. (Tr. 320)

         Plaintiff testified that she has trouble concentrating and that her short-term memory is very bad. (Tr. 306, 309). She often sits down to do one task and gets diverted. (Tr. 310). Her short-term memory is so bad that her family has to constantly remind her that she has already told them something or already asked them a question. (Tr. 310). She has depression, feels that she is worthless and cannot do what she has done in the past, and has crying spells at least once or twice a week, lasting for an hour. (Tr. 317-18). She also thinks she has “maybe anxiety as well, too, ” which causes her to worry about bills and other things. (Tr. 318).

         With regard to Plaintiff's medical records and work history, the Court accepts the facts as presented in the parties' respective statements of facts and responses. The Court will discuss specific facts relevant to the parties' arguments 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), 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 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 met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2015; that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 11, 2012, the alleged onset date; and that she had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, fibromyalgia, mild carpal tunnel syndrome status post surgeries, a depressive disorder, an anxiety disorder, and obesity. (Tr. 13). The ALJ found 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. 14). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following RFC:

[Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except the claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and can occasionally climb stairs or ramps. She can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. She should avoid hazards such as unprotected heights and moving and dangerous machinery. She is limited to work involving simple, routine tasks and simple work related decisions. She is limited to work involving only occasional interactions with the public and coworkers. She can perform work that involves only occasional decision making and changes in the work setting. The claimant is also limited to frequent use of her upper extremities for handling, fingering, and reaching.

(Tr. 16-17). At Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not able to perform her past relevant work as a claims processor. (Tr. 25). However, at Step Five, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including representative occupations such as sealer and semi-conductor bonder. (Tr. 26). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from December 11, 2012, through September 14, 2015, the date of his decision. (Tr. 27).

         IV. Discussion

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's decision on two grounds: (1) that the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence; and (2) that the ALJ erred by failing to give controlling weight to the opinions of treating rheumatologist Dr. Chad Ronholm and treating psychiatrist Dr. David Goldman.

         A. Standard for ...

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