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Morris v. Berryhill

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

July 25, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Kenneth Morris (“Plaintiff”) petitions for review of an adverse decision by Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). Plaintiff applied 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 morbid obesity, mild lumbar spondylosis, knee pain and a history of knee surgeries, depression, anxiety, a learning disorder, and a history of alcoholism, but retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work as an electrical assembler, sewing machine operator, and merchandise marker.

         After carefully reviewing the record and the parties' arguments, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed in part and remanded in part. The Commissioner's decision is REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         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 his application on November 2, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of October 1, 2008. The Commissioner denied the application at the initial claim level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. Initially there was a favorable decision by an ALJ, but the Appeals Counsel vacated that decision and remanded to another ALJ. That ALJ held a hearing, and on December 16, 2016, issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for a review, leaving the ALJ's decision as the 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. Andrews v. Colvin, 791 F.3d 923, 928 (8th Cir. 2015). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but 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, and 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).


         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).

         In February 2016, Bryce Gray, Psy.D. (“Dr. Gray”) conducted a consultative examination and wrote a narrative report of that examination. R. at 549-53. Dr. Gray opined that Plaintiff would “most likely” have difficulty understanding and remembering instructions. Additionally, Dr. Gray concluded that Plaintiff would have minimal problems interacting socially and adapting to his work environment.

         Then in May 2016, Dr. Gray completed a Medical Source Statement-Mental (“MSS-M”) concerning Plaintiff's mental limitations. R. at 556-59. Dr. Gray concluded that Plaintiff was moderately limited working with complex instructions and making complex decisions, but only mildly limited working with simple instructions and making simple decisions. Regarding Plaintiff's social functioning, Dr. Gray concluded he was moderately limited in interacting with supervisors and co-workers, and moderately limited in responding appropriately to usual work situations and changes in routine work setting. R. at 556.

         The ALJ gave “partial weight” to Dr. Gray's narrative opinion because the diagnoses were consistent with the medical evidence in the record but seemed to reject the narrative's opinions as to Plaintiff's social functioning. The ALJ “adopted” Dr. Gray's MSS-M opinion that Plaintiff had mild issues with simple decision-making, and moderate difficulty with social functioning, because those finding were generally consistent with the record. R. at 24.

         The ALJ noted that Dr. Grey's narrative opinion conflicted with the MSS-M in regards to Plaintiff's ability to understand simple work related decision-making and social functioning. The ALJ explained he adopted the MSS-M opinions as to these functions ...

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