United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division
ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S
KAYS, CHIEF JUDGE
action seeks judicial review of the Acting Commissioner of
Social Security's (“the Commissioner”)
decision denying Plaintiff Donna James' application for
Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Act
(“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f.
The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found
Plaintiff had severe impairments of bilateral hammertoe
contractures, fibromyalgia, and degenerative disk disease of
the lumbar and cervical spine, but she retained the residual
functional capacity to perform work as an office helper,
routing clerk, and ticketer.
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.
and Factual Background
complete facts and arguments are presented in the
parties' briefs and are repeated here only to the extent
filed her current application on January 18, 2012, alleging a
disability onset date of November 9, 2009. The Commissioner
denied the application at the initial claim level, and an ALJ
denied the application after a hearing. The Appeals Council
subsequently remanded the case on April 14, 2015, for further
proceedings before an ALJ.
remand, the ALJ held a hearing and on January 29, 2016,
issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The
Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on
May 17, 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. § 1383(c)(3).
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).
Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation
process 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 Two by
failing to find that she had severe mental impairments of
major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and
panic disorder without agoraphobia. Plaintiff notes the
standard of proof for a severe impairment is low, and she
contends she met it. She contends this portion of the
ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence.
order to meet the Step Two “severity”
requirement, Plaintiff had the burden of showing she had: (1)
a “medically determinable” impairment or
combination of impairments which (2) significantly limited
her physical or mental ability to perform basic work
activities without regard to age, education, or work
experience, for the required twelve-month duration. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 416.920(c), 416.921(a); King v. Astrue,
564 F.3d 978, 979 n.2 (8th Cir. 2009). Although severity is
not an onerous requirement, it is not a toothless standard
either. Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 708 (8th Cir.
substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that
Plaintiff's mental impairments did not more than
minimally limit her ability to perform basic mental work
activities during the relevant period. The ALJ analyzed
Plaintiff's depression using the regulations'
“special technique” for evaluating mental
impairments which consider the claimant's degree of
functional limitation in four areas: activities of daily
living; social functioning; concentration, persistence, or
pace; and episodes of decompensation. R. at 17-18; 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.920a. The ALJ found Plaintiff had only mild
limitations in the first three areas and no episodes of
decompensation, thus her depression was non-severe. R. at
17-18; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(d)(1) (“If we rate the
degree of your functional limitation in the first three
functional areas as “none” or “mild”
and “none” in the fourth area, we will generally
conclude that your impairment(s) is not severe, unless the
evidence otherwise indicates that there is more than a
minimal limitation in your ability to do basic work
activities (see § 416.921).”).
record supports these findings and the ALJ's conclusions.
The Court will not go into all the evidence but, as an
example, in the area of activities of daily living, the ALJ
noted Plaintiff performed her own self-care tasks as well as
caring for pets and performing common household chores. R. at
18, 347-50, 522. Plaintiff also reported that her mother was
fairly dependent on her for tasks such as taking her to the
doctor and running errands. R. at 18, 348. The ALJ found that
any limitations Plaintiff had in this area ...