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Meyer v. Berryhill

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

March 29, 2019

KRISTINA G. MEYER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          STEPHEN N. LIMBAUGH, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denied plaintiff Kristina Meyer's applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. Meyer now seeks judicial review. The Commissioner opposes the motion. The issues being fully briefed, and for the reasons set forth, this Court will AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.

         I. Procedural History

         Meyer's application was denied at the initial determination level. She then appeared before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ found Meyer was not disabled because her symptoms were not supported by the medical evidence available. Thereafter, Meyer filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration, which was denied. Meyer then filed a complaint with this Court, No. 1:15-cv-00006. In that case, Judge Ross reversed and remanded the decision of the ALJ. Judge Ross concluded the ALJ had “failed to address Meyer's moderate limitations in concentration and persistence in his hypothetical, ” therefore “the vocational expert's testimony was based on a deficient hypothetical [that] cannot constitute substantial evidence.” (Tr. 1173). Upon remand, a new ALJ undertook to include “specific moderate limitations related to concentration and persistence in addition to those related to pace in a hypothetical question so that the vocational expert might accurately determine the claimant's ability to work.” (Tr. 1044). Despite this additional inquiry, the ALJ concluded Meyer was not disabled. (Tr. 1058). Upon filing a second case, this matter now returns to this Court once more for review of the ALJ's determination pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Disability Determination-Five Steps

         A disability is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant has a disability “only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are 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[.]” Id. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential process when evaluating whether the claimant has a disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(1), 416.920(a)(1). First, the Commissioner considers the claimant's work activity. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i).

         Second, if the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner looks to see “whether the claimant has a severe impairment that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities.” Dixon v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 602, 605 (8th Cir. 2003); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). “An impairment is not severe if it amounts only to a slight abnormality that would not significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 404.1520a(d), 416.920(c), 416.920a(d).

         Third, if the claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner considers the impairment's medical severity. If the impairment meets or equals one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the regulations, the claimant is considered disabled, regardless of age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d); 416.920(a)(3)(iii), (d).

         Fourth, if the claimant's impairment is severe, but it does not meet or equal one of the presumptively disabling impairments, the Commissioner assesses whether the claimant retains the “residual functional capacity” (RFC) to perform his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1545(a)(5)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.945(a)(5)(i). An RFC is “defined wholly in terms of the claimant's physical ability to perform exertional tasks or, in other words, what the claimant can still do despite his or her physical or mental limitations.” Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir. 2003)

         (internal quotations omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). While an RFC must be based “on all relevant evidence, including the medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and an individual's own description of his limitations, ” an RFC is nonetheless an “administrative assessment”-not a medical assessment-and therefore “it is the responsibility of the ALJ, not a physician, to determine a claimant's RFC.” Boyd v. Colvin, 831F.3d 1015, 1020 (8th Cir. 2016). Thus, “there is no requirement that an RFC finding be supported by a specific medical opinion.” Hensley v. Colvin, 829 F.3d 926, 932 (8th Cir. 2016). Ultimately, the claimant is responsible for providing evidence relating to his RFC and the Commissioner is responsible for developing the claimant's “complete medical history, including arranging for a consultative examination(s) if necessary, and making every reasonable effort to help [the claimant] get medical reports from [the claimant's] own medical sources.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a)(3). If, upon the findings of the ALJ, it is determined the claimant retains the RFC to perform past relevant work, he or she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv).

         Fifth, if the claimant's RFC does not allow the claimant to perform past relevant work, the burden of production to show the claimant maintains the RFC to perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy shifts to the Commissioner. See Bladow v. Apfel, 205 F.3d 356, 358-59 n.5 (8th Cir. 2000); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, the Commissioner finds the claimant not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the Commissioner finds the claimant disabled. Id. At Step Five, even though the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner, the burden of persuasion to prove disability remains on the claimant. Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2004).

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         At Step One, the ALJ found Meyer met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2011, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 17, 2006. (Tr. 1047). At Step Two, the ALJ found Meyer suffers from nine severe, medically-determinable impairments: (1) degenerative joint disease of the knees; (2) degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spines; (3) obesity; (4) heel spurs and plantar fasciitis post-surgery; (5) depressive disorder; (6) bipolar disorder; (7) generalized anxiety disorder; (8) panic disorder; and (9) obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Tr. 1047).[1] At Step Three, the ALJ concluded ...


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