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Bryant v. Berryhill

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

March 30, 2018

RONI R. BRYANT, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's request for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of Defendant denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1385. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will affirm the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's applications.

         Facts and Background

         On September 24, 2013, following a hearing, in a partially favorable decision, an ALJ found the Plaintiff was disabled beginning December 18, 2009, but was not disabled prior to that. On May 12, 2014, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ. On April 16, 2015, following a hearing, an ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a “disability” as defined in the Act during any portion of the period of alleged disability.

         On February 6, 2015, Administrative Law Judge Dennis LeBlanc conducted a video hearing from Columbia, Missouri to Hannibal, Missouri. Plaintiff appeared in Hannibal, Missouri. Ms. Denise Weaver, Vocational Expert also appeared.

         Plaintiff resided in Louisiana, Missouri at the time of the hearing. Plaintiff is single and has four children. She was 37 years old at the time of the hearing. Plaintiff completed two years of college.

         Plaintiff, since 2009, has suffered from headaches and nausea due to her sensitivity to light. She also experiences thoracic outlet syndrome, which she suggests is like being knotted up in her neck and the sensation/ pain goes to her head and shoulders. She believes there might be a relationship between this pain and the headaches. The Plaintiff also testified she has difficulty with the use of her right hand in that it cramps up, gets cold and sometimes loses feeling in the fingertips. She believes she has been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in regard to her hand.

         On further examination by counsel for Plaintiff and the ALJ, Plaintiff testified that she has difficulty with her left ankle. Her ankle had been broken and required a plate with screws to repair the break. Three surgeries were performed but the ankle is still troubling for her. It gets swollen from time to time and is painful on a daily basis. Plaintiff also testified that she has seizures while sleeping and sometimes during the daylight hours.

         With regard to her mental health Plaintiff stated she has been diagnosed with depression, AD/HD and OCD. For these conditions Plaintiff takes Adderall for AD/HD, Flexeril, Benadryl to help her sleep, Keppra for seizures and speech issues, Lamictal for seizures, Norco for pain, and Nexium for acid reflux. She also takes Prozac for depression and Restoril.

         There was testimony from Denise Weaver, the Vocational Expert. Ms. Weaver testified regarding Plaintiff, who had no relevant past work, and consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational titles. Based upon that consideration and the stated hypotheticals of the ALJ, including stated limitations, the Vocational Expert concluded there was work in the national economy available for Plaintiff as a folding machine operator in the clerical work environment. The Vocational Expert also testified there was work available as a garment sorter in the garment industry. There was also work available as a mail clerk.

         Upon adding additional limitations of handling and fingering in occasional use, the Vocational Expert found work available in the recreational industry as an usher and in the wood products industry as a laminating machine off bearer.

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not entitled to a finding of disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on September 23, 2016. The decision of the ALJ is now the final decision for review by this court.

         Statement of Issues

         The issues in a Social Security case are whether the final decision of the Commissioner is consistent with the Social Security Act, regulations, and applicable case law, and whether the findings of fact by the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Here the Plaintiff asserts the specific issues in this case are: whether (1) the ALJ properly developed the record; (2) appropriately considered Plaintiff's “severe” impairments at step two of the sequential evaluation process; (3) properly evaluated the consistency of Plaintiff's subjective complaints with the record as a whole; (4) correctly considered Plaintiff's RFC; and (5) whether the testimony of the vocational expert constitutes substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's determination.

         Standard for Determining Disability

         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 Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir.2010). The impairment must be “of such severity that [the claimant] 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         A five-step regulatory framework is used to determine whether an individual claimant qualifies for disability benefits. 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 ALJ 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 ALJ 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 ALJ 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). If the claimant has such an impairment, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled; if not, the ALJ 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 ALJ must assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), which is “the most a claimant can do despite [his] 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 ALJ 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 ALJ 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 the claimant maintains the RFC to perform a significant number of jobs within ...

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