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Johnson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division

May 23, 2018

LAURIE JEAN JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          GREG KAYS, CHIEF JUDGE

         This action seeks judicial review of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's (“the Commissioner”) decision denying Plaintiff Laurie Johnson's applications for Social Security disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381- 1383f. The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found Plaintiff had severe impairments of degenerative disk disease of the cervical spine and obesity, but she retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work as a retail price marker, small parts assembler, and collator operator.

         After carefully reviewing the record and the parties' arguments, the Court finds the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. The Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         Procedural and Factual Background

         The complete facts and arguments are presented in the parties' briefs and are repeated here only to the extent necessary.

         Plaintiff filed her applications on May 12, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of July 22, 2011. The Commissioner denied the applications at the initial claim level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. The ALJ held a hearing, and on January 26, 2016, issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 18, 2017, leaving the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and judicial review is now appropriate under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         Standard of Review

         A federal court's review of the Commissioner's decision to deny disability benefits is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Chaney v. Colvin, 812 F.3d 672, 676 (8th Cir. 2016). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but is enough evidence that a reasonable mind would find it sufficient to support the Commissioner's decision. Id. In making this assessment, the court considers evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision, as well as evidence that supports it. Id. The court must “defer heavily” to the Commissioner's findings and conclusions. Wright v. Colvin, 789 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir. 2015). The court may reverse the Commissioner's decision only if it falls outside of the available zone of choice; a decision is not outside this zone simply because the evidence also points to an alternate outcome. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011).

         Discussion

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process[1] to determine whether a claimant is disabled, that is, unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred at Step Four by: (1) failing to include restrictions related to Plaintiff's obesity in the RFC; (2) failing to include limitations for Plaintiff's mental impairments in the RFC; (3) failing to assess Plaintiff's RFC on a function-by-function basis; and (4) relying on his own medical opinion in crafting the RFC. Plaintiff also contends the ALJ erred at Step Five because she cannot perform any of the jobs identified by the vocational expert (“VE”).

         These arguments are without merit.

         I. The ALJ properly determined and described the obesity related restrictions on Plaintiff's RFC.

         To begin, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by not considering the impact of obesity on her musculoskeletal and mental impairments, and also by failing to comply with Social Security Regulation (“SSR”) 02-01 by not identifying which, if any, functional limitations were related to her obesity.

         As a threshold matter, this argument is perplexing. The Court notes that even though Plaintiff never alleged disability on the basis of obesity, R. at 236, the ALJ nonetheless found her obesity to be a severe impairment because he found such evidence in the record, and he was doing his duty to identify all severe impairments supported by the record. R. at 17, 22 (noting Plaintiff was 5'8” tall and weighed 267 pounds, thus her body mass index was 40.6). And Plaintiff now ...


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