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Buehler v. Berryhill

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

May 7, 2018

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



         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying his applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Because the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, I will affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         Procedural History

         On April 17, 2007, plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., and supplemental security income pursuant to Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq. (Tr. 333, 341). He alleged an amended onset date of March 20, 2007. (Tr. 331-40, 341-43, 274). Plaintiff alleged he became disabled as of March 20, 2007, because of arthritis in his hands, back and knees, chronic epicondylitis, chronic right rotator cuff tendonitis, recurrent knee cyst, plantar fasciitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease, recurrent abscess and cellulitis, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar disorder.

         His applications were denied on initial consideration. (Tr. 147-49). After a hearing, ALJ James Steitz issued a decision denying plaintiff's applications on October 28, 2008. (Tr. 150-62). On October 13, 2010, the Appeals Council granted plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 163-167). The Appeals Council concluded that (1) ALJ Steitz' determination of plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) was not consistent with the record and failed to address plaintiff's physical and mental limitations, (2) the ALJ failed to address a treating physician's medical source opinion, (3) the ALJ failed to obtain testimony from a vocational expert (VE), and (4) subsequent claims filed in June 2009 needed to be combined with plaintiff's original case. Accordingly, the Appeals Council remanded plaintiff's case for further proceedings. (Id.)

         On remand, ALJ Victor Horton held administrative hearings on February 2, 2011, and May 18, 2011. (Tr. 71-128, 38-70). ALJ Horton denied plaintiff's applications on July 5, 2011; this time, the Appeals Council denied review on October 16, 2013. (Tr. 11-37, 1-6). Plaintiff appealed to this Court for judicial review. On March 30, 2015, United States District Judge Carol E. Jackson remanded the case for further proceedings, concluding that ALJ Horton erroneously discounted the opinions of three examining physicians and improperly assessed plaintiff's credibility. (Tr. 1193-1231).

         Plaintiff attended a fourth administrative hearing conducted by ALJ Robin Barber on March 1, 2016. (Tr. 1088-1159). ALJ Barber denied plaintiff's applications on February 16, 2017. (Tr. 1063-1087). The Appeal's Council considered plaintiff's written exceptions to the ALJ's decision, but did not alter the decision. (Tr. 1051-61). Thus, plaintiff has exhausted his administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         In this action for judicial review, plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in her consideration of his residual functional capacity (RFC) and by according improper weight to certain medical evidence in this case. Plaintiff asks that I reverse the Commissioner's final decision and remand the matter for further evaluation or calculation of benefits. For the reasons that follow, I will affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         Medical Records and Other Evidence Before the ALJ

         With respect to the medical records and other evidence of record, I adopt plaintiff's recitation of facts set forth in his Statement of Uncontroverted Material Facts (ECF #17) to the extent they are admitted by the Commissioner (ECF #22). I also adopt the additional facts set forth in the Commissioner's Statement of Additional Material Facts (ECF #22), as they are unrefuted by plaintiff. Together, these statements provide a fair and accurate description of the relevant record before the Court. Additional specific facts will be discussed as needed to address the parties' arguments.

         Legal Standards

         To be entitled to disability benefits, a claimant must prove that he is unable to perform any substantial gainful activity due to a medically-determinable physical or mental impairment that would either result in death or which has lasted or could be expected to last for at least twelve continuous months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(D), (d)(1)(a). To determine whether claimants are disabled, the Commissioner evaluates their claims through five sequential steps. 20. C.F.R. § 404.1520; Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009) (describing the five-step process).

         Steps one through three require that the claimant prove (1) he is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, (2) he suffers from a severe impairment, and (3) his disability meets or equals a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(iii). If the claimant does not suffer from a listed impairment or its equivalent, the Commissioner's analysis proceeds to steps four and five. Step four requires the Commissioner to consider whether the claimant retains the RFC to perform his past relevant work (PRW). Id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating he is no longer able to return to his PRW. Pate-Fires, 564 F.3d at 942. If the Commissioner determines the claimant cannot return to PRW, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show the claimant retains the residual functioning capacity (RFC) to perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         The ALJ is required to evaluate the credibility of a claimant's testimony, including the claimant's subjective complaints of pain. Holmstrom v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 715, 721 (8th Cir. 2001). In so doing, the ALJ is not permitted to ignore the claimant's testimony even if it is inconsistent with objective medical evidence. Basinger v. Heckler, 725 F.2d 1166, 1169 (8th Cir. 1984). After considering the claimant's testimony, the ALJ may disbelieve it if it is inconsistent with the record as a whole. Battles v. Sullivan, 902 F.2d 657, 660 (8th Cir. 1990). To properly evaluate the claimant's subjective complaints, the ALJ must consider the factors enumerated in Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320 (8th Cir. 1984):

[The] claimant's prior work record, and observations by third parties and treating and examining physicians relating to such matters as: (1) the claimant's daily activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of the pain; (3) precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) dosage, effectiveness and side effects of medication; and (5) functional restrictions.

Id. at 1322. While the ALJ must consider the Polaski factors, she need not enumerate them specifically. Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 968 (8th Cir. 2010). When the ALJ explicitly disbelieves the claimant's testimony and gives good reasons for such disbelief, a reviewing court will typically defer to the ALJ's finding. Casey v. Astrue, 503 F.3d 687, 696 (8th Cir. 2007). However, the ALJ retains the responsibility to develop the record fully and fairly in the course of the non-adversarial administrative hearing. Hildebrand v. Barnhart, 302 F.3d 836, 838 (8th Cir. 2002).

         In reviewing the ALJ's denial of Social Security disability benefits, my role is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings comply with the relevant legal requirements and are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Pate-Fires, 564 F.3d at 942. “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion.” Id. In determining whether the evidence is substantial, I must consider evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Id. As long as substantial evidence supports the decision, I may not reverse it merely because substantial evidence exists in the record that would support a contrary outcome or because I would have decided the case differently. See Johnson v. ...

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