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Peters v. Berryhill

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

April 18, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Operations, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Christa Peters seeks review of the decision of Defendant Nancy Berryhill, Deputy Commissioner of Operations, Social Security Administration (SSA), denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act.[1] (ECF No. 10). Because the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the decision to deny benefits for the period in question, the Court affirms the denial of Plaintiff's application.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         On May 3, 2013, Plaintiff, then thirty-eight years of age, filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits alleging she was disabled as of August 15, 2011 as a result of: rheumatoid arthritis; osteoarthritis; bipolar disorder; attention deficit disorder; and depression. (Tr. 88, 192). The SSA denied Plaintiff's claims, and she filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Tr. 1-5, 10).

         The SSA granted Plaintiff's request for review, and an ALJ conducted a hearing on February 25, 2015. (Tr.52-87, 114-21). After ordering a consultative physical examination and obtaining additional medical evidence, the ALJ held a “supplemental hearing” on August 7, 2015. (Tr. 29-51). In a decision dated September 2, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from August 15, 2011, the alleged onset date, through March 31, 2015, the date last insured[.]” (TR. 23).

         In her decision, the ALJ applied the five-step evaluation set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 and found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; inflammatory arthritis; fibromyalgia; hypothyroidism; anxiety disorder and depression. (Tr. 16). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

[p]erform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except the claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel and crouch; she should never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds or crawl; she can frequently use her upper extremities for reaching in all directions; she should avoid even occasional exposure to extremes of cold and vibration. She should avoid all exposure to hazards, such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. She is capable of performing simple, routine tasks in a low stress environment, defined as an environment with only occasional workplace changes and where contact with supervisors, co-workers and the general public is occasional. In addition, the claimant must be allowed to alternate between sitting and standing one to three (1-3) minutes every hour, but she would be able to remain at the workstation.

(Tr. 17). Finally, the ALJ concluded: “[C]onsidering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the claimant was capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy.” (Tr. 22).

         Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision with the SSA Appeals Council, which denied review on July 5, 2016. (ECF No. 1-5). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the SSA's final decision. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         II. Standard of Review

         A court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence ‘is less than a preponderance, but enough so that a reasonable mind might find it adequate to support the conclusion.'” Cruze v. Chater, 85 F.3d 1320, 1323 (8th Cir. 1996) (quoting Boerst v. Shalala, 2 F.3d 249, 250 (8th Cir. 1993)). In determining whether the evidence is substantial, a court considers evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009). However, a 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 reason and substantial evidence.” Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012) (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)). The Eighth Circuit has repeatedly held that a court should “defer heavily to the findings and conclusions” of the Social Security Administration. Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010); Howard v. Massanari, 255 F.3d 577, 581 (8th Cir. 2001).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred in: (1) relying upon the vocational expert's opinion, which lacked a reasonable basis; and (2) formulating a hypothetical question that was not sufficiently specific. (EF No. 10). Defendant counters that the ALJ “presented a proper hypothetical question to the vocational expert and properly relied on the vocational ...

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