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Schlager v. Berryhill

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

March 26, 2019

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



         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Because the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, I will affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         Procedural History

         On August 19, 2014, Plaintiff Kimberly Schlager filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) pursuant to Titles II and XVI, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. and 1381 et seq. These claims were initially denied on March 5, 2015. Schlager filed a written request for hearing on March 25, 2015. Schlager alleged an onset date of February 3, 2015, and a disability based on low back disc herniation with radiculopathy, diffuse myofascial pain, headaches, panic attacks, and depression. (Tr. 224).

         After a hearing, an ALJ denied Schlager's application on March 10, 2017. The Appeals Council denied Schlager's request for review on November 7, 2017. Schlager filed a complaint in this Court on January 1, 2018.

         In this action for judicial review, Schlager argues that the ALJ erred in failing to fully and fairly develop the record supporting denial and failing to properly consider her residual functional capacity (RFC). Schlager asks that I reverse the Commissioner's final decision and remand the matter for further consideration. For the reasons that follow, I will affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         Medical Records and Other Evidence Before the ALJ

         With respect to the medical records and other evidence of record, I adopt Schlager's recitation of facts set forth in her Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (ECF No. 20) to the extent they are admitted by the Commissioner (ECF No. 25-1).[1] I also adopt the additional facts set forth in the Commissioner's Statement of Additional Material Facts (ECF No. 25-2), as they are unrefuted by Schlager. Additional specific facts will be discussed as needed to address the parties' arguments.

         Legal Standards

         To be entitled to disability benefits, a claimant must prove that she is unable to perform any substantial gainful activity due to a medically-determinable physical or mental impairment that would either result in death or which has lasted or could be expected to last for at least twelve continuous months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(D), (d)(1)(a). To determine whether claimants are disabled, the Commissioner evaluates their claims through five sequential steps. 20. C.F.R. § 404.1520; Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009) (describing the five-step process).

         Steps one through three require that the claimant prove (1) she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, (2) she suffers from a severe impairment, and (3) her disability meets or equals a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(iii). If the claimant does not suffer from a listed impairment or its equivalent, the Commissioner's analysis proceeds to steps four and five. Step four (4) requires the Commissioner to consider whether the claimant retains the RFC to perform her past relevant work. Id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating she is no longer able to return to her past relevant work. Pate-Fires, 564 F.3d at 942. If the Commissioner determines the claimant cannot return to past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show the claimant retains the residual functioning capacity (RFC) to perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         The ALJ is required to evaluate the credibility of a claimant's testimony, including the claimant's subjective complaints of pain. Holmstrom v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 715, 721 (8th Cir. 2001). In so doing, the ALJ is not permitted to ignore the claimant's testimony even if it is inconsistent with objective medical evidence. Basinger v. Heckler, 725 F.2d 1166, 1169 (8th Cir. 1984). After considering the claimant's testimony, the ALJ may disbelieve that testimony, if it is inconsistent with the record as a whole. Battles v. Sullivan, 902 F.2d 657, 660 (8th Cir. 1990). To properly evaluate the claimant's subjective complaints, the ALJ must consider the factors enumerated in Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320 (8th Cir. 1984):

[The] claimant's prior work record, and observations by third parties and treating and examining physicians relating to such matters as: (1) the claimant's daily activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of the pain; (3) precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) dosage, effectiveness and side effects of medication; and (5) functional restrictions.

Id. at 1322. While the ALJ must consider the Polaski factors, she need not enumerate them specifically. Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 968 (8th Cir. 2010). When the ALJ explicitly disbelieves the claimant's testimony and gives good reasons for such disbelief, a reviewing court will typically defer to the ALJ's finding. Casey v. Astrue, 503 F.3d 687, 696 (8th Cir. 2007). However, the ALJ retains the responsibility to develop the record fully and fairly in the ...

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