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Timmons v. Berryhill

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

March 29, 2018

ROLLINE TIMMONS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JOHN A. ROSS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying Rolline Timmons's applications for disability insurance benefits under Title II and supplemental social security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq.

         I. Background

         On January 15, 2014, Timmons protectively filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental social security income, alleging disability beginning April 1, 2013, [2] due to a history of Hepatitis C and affective disorder. (Tr. 23-25.) After her application was denied at the initial administrative level, Timmons requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 6.) A hearing was held on March 13, 2015. (Tr. 23.) Thereafter, Timmons underwent a consultative examination. (Tr. 629-640.) The ALJ issued a written decision denying Timmons's application on June 2, 2015. (Tr. 23-27.) On August 8, 2016, the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration denied Timmons's request for review. (Tr. 1-3.) Thus, the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. See Sims v. Apfel, 560 U.S. 103, 107 (2000).

         Timmons filed this appeal on October 12, 2016. (Doc. 1.) The Commissioner filed an Answer. (Doc. 12.) Thereafter, Timmons filed a Brief in Support of her Complaint (Doc. 19), and the Commissioner filed a Cross Brief in Support of the Answer (Doc. 24).

         II. Facts

         The Court adopts Timmons's Statement of Facts (Doc. 19 at 1-8), as supplemented by the Commissioner's Response to Timmons's Statement of Facts (Doc. 24-1), and the Commissioner's Statement of Additional Facts (Doc. 24-2). The Court's review of the record shows that the adopted facts are accurate and complete. Specific facts will be discussed as part of the analysis.

         III. Standards

         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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also Brantley v. Colvin, 2013 WL 4007441, at *2 (E.D. Mo. Aug. 2, 2013). The impairment must be "of such severity that [the claimant] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] 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 [s]he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for [her], or whether [s]he would be hired if [s]he applied for work." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         Under the Social Security Act, the Commissioner has established a five-step process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a), 404.1520(a). "If a claimant fails to meet the criteria at any step in the evaluation of disability, the process ends and the claimant is determined to be not disabled." Goffv. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 790 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 590-91 (8th Cir. 2004)).

         First, the claimant must not be engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a), 404.1520(a). Second, the claimant must have a "severe impairment, " defined as "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(c), 404.1520(c). "The sequential evaluation process may be terminated at step two only when the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments would have no more than a minimal impact on her ability to work." Page v. Astrue, 484 F.3d 1040, 1043 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting Caviness v. Massanari, 250 F.3d 603, 605 (8th Cir. 2001). Third, the claimant must establish that her impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in the Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 404.1520(d). If the claimant has one of, or the medical equivalent of, these impairments, then she is per se disabled without consideration of her age, education, or work history. Id.

         Disability claims based on mental disorders are evaluated in essentially the same manner as claims based on physical impairments. If the mental impairment is severe, the ALJ must determine whether it meets or exceeds and of the Listings of mental impairments. The Listings consist of three sets of "criteria"-the paragraph A criteria (a set of medical findings), paragraph B criteria (a set of impairment-related functional limitations), and paragraph C criteria (additional functional criteria applicable to certain Listings). The paragraph A criteria substantiate medically the presence of a particular mental disorder. The paragraphs B and C criteria describe the impairment-related functional limitations that are incompatible with the ability to work. There are four areas in which the ALJ rates the degree of functional limitation: (1) activities of daily living; (2) social functioning; (3) concentration, persistence, and pace; and (4) episodes of decompensation (the "paragraph B criteria"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c)(3). A claimant can satisfy the paragraph C criteria by showing: (1) extended episodes of decompensation; (2) a "residual disease process that has resulted in such marginal adjustment that even a minimal increase in mental demands or change in the environment would be predicted to cause the individual to decompensate, " or (3) a "[c]urrent history of 1 or more years' inability to function outside a highly supportive living arrangement." 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.00(C). The paragraph C criteria are assessed only if the paragraph B criteria are not satisfied. If the claimant satisfies the A and B, or A and C criteria, she will be considered disabled. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.00(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a (detailing evaluation of mental impairments).

         Before considering step four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). RFC is defined as "the most a claimant can do despite her limitations." Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)). At step four, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can return to her past relevant work by comparing the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(f); McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir. 2011). If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, she will not be found to be disabled; if the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id.

         At step five, the ALJ considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to see if she can make an adjustment to other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, then she will be found to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(a)(4)(v). Through step four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove that she is disabled. Brantley, 2013 WL 4007441, at *3 (citation omitted). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that the claimant maintains the RFC to perform a significant number of jobs within the national economy. Id. "The ultimate burden of persuasion to prove disability, however, remains with the claimant." Meyerpeter v. Astrue, 902 F.Supp.2d 1219, 1229 (E.D. Mo. 2012) (citations omitted).

         The Court's role on judicial review is to determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009). In determining whether the evidence is substantial, the Court considers evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Andrews v. Colvin,791 F.3d 978, 983 (8th Cir. 2015); Cox v. Astrue,495 F.3d 614, 617 (8th Cir. 2007). As long as substantial evidence supports the decision, the Court may not reverse it merely because substantial evidence exists in the record that ...


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