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Landers v. Berryhill

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

March 21, 2019

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



         This is an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying the application of Plaintiff Sandra Landers (“Plaintiff”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. (the “Act”). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 5). Because I find the decision denying benefits was supported by substantial evidence, I will affirm the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application.

         I. Procedural Background

         In June 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging that she had been unable to work since October 1, 2012 due to bipolar disorder, depression, dementia, learning disability, and dyslexia. (Tr. 152-55, 179). Her application was initially denied. (Tr. 94-97). On November 12, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 98-99). On August 8, 2016, the ALJ held a hearing. (Tr. 51-79). On October 3, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 32-50). On November 7, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision with the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. (Tr. 147-51). On October 10, 2017, the Appeals Council declined to review the case. (Tr. 1-7). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

         II. Factual Background

         At the hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff testified as follows. Plaintiff was born on November 10, 1955. (Tr. 58). She graduated from high school. (Tr. 59). She last worked in 2012, cleaning a courthouse; she was fired because she was too slow at the job. (Tr. 60, 64-65). In that job, she emptied trash, cleaned bathrooms, and cleaned floors. (Tr. 64-65). She tried working for one day in 2013, but her arms could not do the lifting required due to her carpal tunnel syndrome. (Tr. 61). Plaintiff testified that she did not think she could work a full-time job due to her right knee and her inability to concentrate. (Tr. 66). She has problems concentrating on cleaning and making supper; she is “dumbfounded when it comes to it.” (Tr. 68-69). She testified that her concentration issues began around January 2013, when she had a nervous breakdown. (Tr. 67). She testified that aside from her concentration problems, she feels okay mentally as long as she is taking her medicine. (Tr. 68). She also testified that she has thyroid problems and migraine headaches. (Tr. 69, 71).

         Plaintiff testified that she sometimes cannot find places when she is driving. (Tr. 72). She has no friends. (Tr. 73). She spends most of her time at home, sitting or lying down. (Tr. 74). She sometimes has trouble sleeping. (Tr. 74-75).

         Plaintiff's Function Report was completed by her husband on June 13, 2014. (Tr. 191-98). Plaintiff's husband reported, inter alia, that Plaintiff was “unable to function normally in any social construct” (Tr. 191); that she has problems with oral and written communication skills (Tr. 191); that she has memory lapses (Tr. 191); that she becomes combative and argumentative under any kind of normal stress (Tr. 191); that she is easily overwhelmed with any simple mental challenge (Tr. 191); that she quickly loses her temper and becomes aggressive when confronted (Tr. 191); that she has problems with hygiene and grooming (Tr. 191-92); that she has difficulty motivating herself to improve her condition (Tr. 191); that she has to be constantly cajoled to clean herself up to feel better (Tr. 193); that she needs occasional reminders to take medicine (Tr. 193); that she prepares her own meals occasionally, such as sandwiches and snacks, but is totally unmotivated to cook other things (Tr. 193); that she must be strongly urged to assist with household chores (Tr. 193); that she shops and drives (Tr. 194); that she is not able to pay bills because she forgets important payments and gets confused about amounts (Tr. 194); that she cannot do simple math (Tr. 194); that she used to have friends, take walks, and cross-stitch, but now watches television constantly (Tr. 195); that she does not spend time with others (Tr. 195); that she is no longer the person she was starting about four years ago (Tr. 195); that she has problems understanding and following instructions, paying attention, and getting along with others (Tr. 196); and that she could be a danger to herself and others while operating a motor vehicle. (Tr. 198).

         With regard to the medical records and other records in the administrative transcript, the Court accepts the facts as presented in the parties' respective statements of fact. The Court will cite specific portions of the transcript as necessary to address the parties' arguments.

         III. Standard for Determining Disability Under the Act

         To be eligible for benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must prove he or she is disabled. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); Baker v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992). The Social Security Act defines as disabled a person who is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010). The impairment must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); see also McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir. 2011) (discussing the five-step process). At Step One, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in “substantial gainful activity”; if so, then he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment, which is “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities”; if the claimant does not have a severe impairment, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Three, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “listings”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant has such an impairment, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds with the rest of the five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

         Prior to Step Four, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), which is “the most a claimant can do despite [his or her] limitations.” Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). At Step Four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can return to his past relevant work, by comparing the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant can perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled; if the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id. At Step Five, the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine whether the claimant can make an adjustment to other work in the national economy; if the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the claimant will be found disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

         Through Step Four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove that he is disabled. Moore, 572 F.3d at 523. At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that, given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience, there are a significant number of other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.; Brock v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1062, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012).

         IV. The ALJ's Decision

         Applying the foregoing five-step analysis, the ALJ here found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2012, the alleged onset date; that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of bipolar disorder and alcohol dependence; and that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 37-38). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following RFC:

[Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: [Plaintiff] is limited to work involving simple, routine tasks and simple work-related decisions that is low stress work, defined as work involving no interaction with the public, occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors, occasional changes in work setting, and occasional decision making.

(Tr. 39). At Step Four, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a housekeeper (Dictionary of Occupational Titles No. 323.687-014). (Tr. 44). In the alternative, the ALJ found at Step Five that there were other jobs existing in the national economy that Plaintiff was able to perform. (Tr. 45). Again relying on the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform occupations such as hotel maid (Dictionary of Occupational Titles No. 323.687-014). (Tr. 45). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability from October 1, 2012, through the date of his decision. (Tr. 45).

         V. Discussion

         Plaintiff argues that the RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence and that the ALJ did not consider all of the evidence as he was required to do under Eighth Circuit law, the regulations, and the relevant Social Security rulings. Plaintiff appears to argue that (1) the ALJ did not perform an adequate analysis of Plaintiff's symptoms, as required by Social Security Ruling 16-3p and 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3); (2) the ALJ erred in his assessment of the opinions of a consultative psychological examiner, Dr. Lauretta Walker, Ph.D.; (3) the ALJ erred by relying on his own inferences from the medical reports rather ...

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