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Kliethermes v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri

February 22, 2019

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



         This is an action under Title 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying the application of Ann Cecelia Kliethermes (“Plaintiff”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. Plaintiff has filed a brief in support of the Complaint (ECF 15), Defendant has filed a brief in support of the Answer (ECF 20), and Plaintiff has filed a reply brief (ECF 21).


         Plaintiff filed her applications for DIB and SSI under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on January 15, 2014 (Tr. 193-205). Plaintiff was initially denied relief on April 17, 2014, and on June 3, 2014, she filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 83-94, 104-108). After a hearing, by a decision dated August 31, 2016, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled (Tr. 22-33). Plaintiff filed Request for Review of Hearing Decision on September 2, 2016 (Tr. 18). On August 15, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-5). Plaintiff appealed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri on October 18, 2017 (ECF 1). As such, the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.


         The ALJ determined Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2006, and Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2003, the alleged onset date of her disability (Tr. 24). The ALJ found Plaintiff has the severe impairments of bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (Tr. 24). The ALJ found no impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 250).

         The ALJ conducted a hearing with Plaintiff, her counsel, and a vocational expert on July 15, 2016 (Tr. 42). At the beginning of the hearing, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff had concurrent claims, but she never testified at a hearing for the prior claim (Tr. 42-44). Plaintiff had also received benefits for a period of time prior to the hearing with an onset date of December 26, 1994 (Tr. 45-46). The benefits terminated in approximately early 2001 (Tr. 45-46).

         At the hearing, Plaintiff testified she lost her brother and a lot of Plaintiff's issues are associated with that “very tough” loss (Tr. 49). Plaintiff lives with her elderly parents who were devastated by the death (Tr. 49). Plaintiff worked as a Registered Nurse at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in Saint Louis from 1980 to approximately 1984 or 1985 (Tr. 29). After leaving Cardinal Glennon, plaintiff moved to California where she worked in a children's hospital until she got pregnant (Tr. 49-50). When Plaintiff was 25 years old, she gave up her daughter for adoption (Tr. 50). Plaintiff testified that as a result of the adoption, she has slowly “gotten more isolated” (Tr. 51). Following the adoption in the mid-1980s, Plaintiff returned to Saint Louis and worked part-time at DePaul Hospital as a psychiatric nurse (Tr. 51). Following her time at DePaul, Plaintiff worked as a homecare nurse (Tr. 51-52). Plaintiff lived on her own from 1983 to 1995, at which point she gave birth to a daughter and moved in with her parents (Tr. 52-53). Plaintiff testified she is prevented from working because of her depression and anxiety (Tr. 54-55). Plaintiff has not been taking her medication as prescribed because her Medicaid was discontinued despite her attempts to reapply for beneifts (Tr. 55). Lithium is the only prescription Plaintiff is currently taking (Tr. 56). In July 2014, Plaintiff spent a few a few days in Arizona at the Arizona Care Center and then the Sunshine Home (Tr. 58). Plaintiff testified her anxiety is caused by social situations, being heavier and older, not having any money for things, needing to clean up her living space before her parents downsize, she has to find a new place to live, and her daughter taking a road trip to Kansas alone (Tr. 59). Plaintiff has a cat named Charlie (Tr. 60). Plaintiff has a drivers license with a glasses restriction (Tr. 61). Plaintiff was in counseling but since the discontinuation of her Medicaid, she can no longer afford to attend counseling (Tr. 63). Plaintiff only socializes a little, leaves the house only once or twice a week, showers approximately once or twice a week, and does not sleep well. She sleeps on the couch in the living room, because her room is “really messed up” (Tr. 64-65). Plaintiff helps with household chores including cleaning, dishes, cooking and errands (Tr. 65). Plaintiff's nursing license has been inactive since approximately 2009 (Tr. 69).

         The vocational expert, Delores Elvira Gonzalez, testified Plaintiff cannot perform any of her past work; however she is able to work as a Cleaner II, a lab equipment cleaner, and a machine feeder (Tr. 77-78). She is not able to do tandem tasks[1] (Tr. 77).

         After considering the entire record, including Plaintiff's testimony, the ALJ determined Plaintiff has the Residual Functioning Capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with limitations (Tr. 26). Plaintiff is limited to noncomplex, non detailed tasks, with only occasional interaction with the public and supervisors. She can have only occasional interaction with co-workers, not involving tandem tasks (Tr. 26). The ALJ found Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work[2] (Tr. 31). The ALJ found there are jobs which exist in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff can perform, including Cleaner II, lab equipment cleaner, and machine feeder (Tr. 32). Thus, the ALJ's conclusion for Plaintiff was “not disabled” (Tr. 32). Plaintiff appeals, arguing the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinions of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist and failed to properly consider Plaintiff's impaired reliability when making a determination of the facts and reaching her conclusion (ECF 15).


         Under the Social Security Act, the Commissioner must follow a five-step process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920, 404.1529. “If a claimant fails to meet the criteria at any step in the evaluation of disability, the process ends and the claimant is determined to be not disabled.” Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 790 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 590-91 (8th Cir. 2004)). In this sequential analysis, first the claimant cannot be engaged in “substantial gainful activity” to qualify for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(b), 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant must have a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(c), 404.1520(c). The Social Security Act defines “severe impairment” as “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. . . .” Id. “‘The sequential evaluation process may be terminated at step two, only when the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments would have no more than a minimal impact on [his or] her ability to work.'” Page v. Astrue, 484 F.3d 1040, 1043 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting Caviness v. Massanari, 250 F.3d 603, 605 (8th Cir. 2001), citing Nguyen v. Chater, 75 F.3d 429, 430-31 (8th Cir. 1996)).

         Third, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has an impairment which meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 404.1520(d). If the claimant has one of, or the medical equivalent of, these impairments, then the claimant is per se disabled without consideration of the claimant's age, education, or work history. Id.

         Fourth, the impairment must prevent the claimant from doing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(f), 404.1520(f). The burden rests with the claimant at this fourth step to establish his or her RFC. Steed v. Astrue, 524 F.3d 872, 874 n.3 (8th Cir. 2008) (“Through step four of this analysis, the claimant has the burden of showing that she is disabled.”). The ALJ will review a claimant's RFC and the physical and mental demands of the work the claimant has done in the past. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

         Fifth, the severe impairment must prevent the claimant from doing any other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(g), 404.1520(g). At this fifth step of the sequential analysis, the Commissioner has the burden of production to show evidence of other jobs in the national economy that can be performed by a person with the claimant's RFC. Steed, 524 F.3d at 874 n.3.

         “The ultimate burden of persuasion to prove disability, however, remains with the claimant.” Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065, 1069 n.5 (8th Cir. 2000). See also Harris v. Barnhart, 356 F.3d 926, 931 n.2 (8th Cir. 2004) (citing 68 Fed. Reg. 51153, 51155 (Aug. 26, 2003)); Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2004) (“The burden of persuasion to prove disability and to demonstrate RFC remains on the claimant, even when the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner at step five.”). Even if a court finds there is a preponderance of the evidence against the ALJ's decision, the decision must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence. Clark v. Heckler, 733 F.2d 65, 68 (8th Cir. 1984). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion.” Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019, 1022 (8th Cir. 2002). See also Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 614, 617 (8th Cir. 2007).

         It is not the job of the district court to re-weigh the evidence or review the factual record de novo. Cox, 495 F.3d at 617. Instead, the district court must simply determine whether the quantity and quality of evidence is enough, so a reasonable mind might find it adequate to support the ALJ's conclusion. Davis v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 962, 966 (8th Cir. 2001) (citing McKinney v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000)). Weighing the evidence is a function of the ALJ, who is the fact-finder. Masterson v. Barnhart, 363 F.3d 731, 736 (8th Cir. 2004). Thus, an administrative decision which is supported by substantial evidence is not subject to ...

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