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Schuler v. Berryhill

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

April 11, 2019

ROBERT SCHULER, III, 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 Robert Schuler'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. Schuler 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

         Schuler's application was denied at the initial determination level. He then appeared before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ found Schuler was not disabled because his symptoms were not supported by the medical evidence available. Thereafter, Schuler filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration, which was denied. Schuler then filed a complaint with this Court, No. 4:15-cv-1609. In that case, the ALJ's decision was reversed and remanded upon the recommendation of Judge Crites-Leoni. Judge Crites-Leoni concluded the ALJ had failed to properly develop the record sufficient to ascertain Schuler's functional limitations resulting from his physical impairments, particularly his back pain. (Tr. 705). Upon remand, a new ALJ undertook “to develop the record with regard to physical limitations resulting from back pain.” (Tr. 581). The ALJ found Schuler's back pain was not disabling. (Tr. 587, 589-590). 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 Schuler met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2016, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 15, 2011. (Tr. 583). At Step Two, the ALJ found Schuler suffers from eight medically determinable impairments: (1) carpal tunnel syndrome; (2) bilateral Dupuytren's syndrome; (3) mild bilateral lower extremity polyneuropathy; (4) degenerative disc disease; (5) obesity; (6) a learning disability; (7) depression; and (8) anxiety. (Tr. 583).[1]At Step Three, the ALJ concluded Schuler does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the regulations. (Tr. 584).

         Next, in beginning the analysis of Step Four, the ALJ determined Schuler's ...


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