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Whiteaker v. Berryhill

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

March 29, 2019

MICHAEL A. WHITEAKER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Operations for Social Security,[1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          E. RICHARD WEBBER SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         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 Michael Whiteaker (“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 No. 18), and Defendant has filed a brief in support of the Answer (ECF No. 23).

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed his applications for DIB and SSI under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on July 3, 2014. Plaintiff claimed he became disabled on March 20, 2014, because of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, back pain, a bulging disk, headaches, diabetes, high blood pressure, reflux, and breathing problems. (Tr. 366.) Plaintiff was initially denied relief on November 3, 2014. (Tr. 283-289). At Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held on February 24, 2016, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. (Tr. 178-214.) After the hearing, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled from March 20, 2014, through the date of his decision, dated May 10, 2016. (Tr. 135-152.) On June 3, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 1-7.) Thus, the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.[2]

         In this action for judicial review, Plaintiff claims the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that: 1) the ALJ erred in rejecting the medical opinion of treating physician, Dr. Erin Humphrey; and 2) on remand, the ALJ should consider the new and material evidence Plaintiff submitted to the Appeals Council on July 8, 2016.

         For the reasons that follow, the ALJ did not err in his determination.

         II. Medical Records and Other Evidence Before the ALJ

         With respect to the medical records and other evidence of record, the Court adopts Plaintiff's recitation of facts set forth in his Statement of Uncontroverted Facts (ECF 18-1) and notes that they are admitted in their entirety by the Commissioner (ECF 23-1). The Court also adopts the additional facts set forth in the Commissioner's Statement of Additional Facts (ECF 23-2) and notes they are unrefuted by Plaintiff. Together, these statements provide a fair and accurate description of the relevant record before the Court.

         Additional specific facts will be discussed as needed to address the parties' argument.

         III. Discussion

         A. Legal Standard

         To be eligible for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must prove that he is disabled. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); Baker v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992). The Social Security Act defines disability as the “inability 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). An individual will be declared disabled “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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         Under the Social Security Act, the Commissioner has established a five-step process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a), 404.1520(a). ‘“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)). First, the claimant must not be engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a), 404.1520(a).

         Second, the claimant must have a “severe impairment, ” defined as “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(c), 404.1520(c). ‘“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] his 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)). Third, the claimant must establish that his or his impairment meets or equals an impairment 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.

         Before considering step four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). RFC is defined as “the most a claimant can do despite his limitations.” Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)). At step four, the ALJ 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), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(f); McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir. 2011). If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, he will not be found to be disabled; if the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step. McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

         At step five, the ALJ considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to see if the claimant can make an adjustment to other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, then he will be found to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(a)(4)(v). Through step four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove that he is disabled. Brantley v. Colvin, No. 4:10CV2184 HEA, 2013 WL 4007441, at *3 (E.D. Mo. Aug. 2, 2013) (citation omitted). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that the claimant maintains the RFC to perform a significant number of jobs within the national economy. Id. “The ultimate burden of persuasion to prove disability, however, remains with the claimant.” Meyerpeter v. Astrue, 902 F.Supp.2d 1219, 1229 (E.D. Mo. 2012) (citations omitted).

         The Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Estes v. Barnhart, 275 F.3d 722, 724 (8th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but enough that a reasonable person would find it adequate to support the conclusion. Johnson v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1145, 1147 (8th Cir. 2001). Determining ...


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