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Cooper v. Berryhill

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

April 25, 2018

JEFFREY COOPER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          AUDREY G. FLEISSIG, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This action is before this Court for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that Plaintiff Jeffrey Cooper was not disabled, and thus not entitled to disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner will be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, who was born on January 27, 1965, filed his application for benefits on May 7, 2015, alleging disability beginning February 18, 2012, due to anxiety, hyperactive thyroid, high cholesterol, insomnia, and bipolar disorder. On June 19, 2015, Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial administrative level, and he thereafter requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).

         A hearing was held on May 20, 2016, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. The ALJ also obtained interrogatory responses from a different VE on August 7, 2016.[1] By decision dated October 7, 2016, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease and bipolar disorder. The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary unskilled work, as defined by the Commissioner's regulations, except that Plaintiff was further limited as follows:

he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but is unable to climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. He can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. He is unable to reach overhead bilaterally. He must avoid exposure to extreme vibration, all operational control of moving machinery, working at unprotected heights, and the use of hazardous machinery. He is limited to occupations that involve only simple, routine and repetitive tasks. In a low stress job defined as requiring only occasional decision making and only occasional changes in the work setting with only casual and infrequent contact with co-workers.

Tr. 27 (emphasis added).

         The ALJ next found that Plaintiff could perform the following sedentary unskilled jobs listed in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”), which the VE stated by interrogatory response that a hypothetical person with Plaintiff's RFC and vocational factors (age, education, work experience) could perform and that were available in significant numbers in the national economy: assembler (DOT 706.684-030, 1991 WL 679052), optical goods assembler (DOT 713.687-018, 1991 WL 679271), and circuit board screener (DOT 726.684-110, 1991 WL 679616). The VE also checked “no” in response to an interrogatory as to whether there were any conflicts between her response regarding the hypothetical person noted above and the occupational information contained in the DOT. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed a timely request for review by the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration, which was denied on March 2, 2017. Plaintiff has thus exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the final agency action now under review.

         Plaintiff asserts only one argument before this Court: that the ALJ failed to identify or resolve the apparent conflict between the VE's interrogatory responses and the DOT and its companion volume, the Selected Characteristics of Occupations (“SCO”). Specifically, Plaintiff argues that a conflict existed in that the VE stated that a hypothetical individual with no ability to reach overhead bilaterally could perform three jobs that the DOT/SCO describes as requiring “frequent” reaching. Plaintiff asks that the ALJ's decision be reversed and that the case be remanded in order for the ALJ to identify and resolve this apparent conflict.

         Agency Records, Medical Records, Evidentiary Hearing, and ALJ's Decision

          The Court adopts the statement of facts set forth in Plaintiff's Statement of Uncontroverted Facts (ECF No. 16-1), as amended by Defendant to exclude a legal argument and to clarify that the ALJ's non-disability determination was limited to the time period between Plaintiff's alleged onset date and his date last insured (ECF No. 19-1); as well as Defendant's Statement of Additional Facts (ECF No. 19-2), which have been admitted by Plaintiff (ECF No. 20-1). Together, these statements provide a fair description of the record before the Court. Specific facts will be discussed as needed to address the parties' arguments.

         DISCUSSION

         Standard of Review and Statutory Framework

          In reviewing the denial of Social Security disability benefits, a court must review the entire administrative record to determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Johnson v. Astrue, 628 F.3d 991, 992 (8th Cir. 2011). The court “may not reverse merely because substantial evidence would support a contrary outcome. Substantial evidence is that which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citations omitted). A reviewing court “must consider evidence that both supports and detracts from the ALJ's decision. If, after review, [the court finds] it possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the Commissioner's findings, [the court] must affirm the decision of the Commissioner.” Chaney v. Colvin, 812 F.3d 672, 676 (8th Cir. 2016) (citations omitted). Put another way, a court should ‚Äúdisturb the ALJ's decision only if it falls outside the available ...


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