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Baker v. Berryhill

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

May 17, 2019

JAMES H. BAKER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that Plaintiff is not disabled and thus not entitled to disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income under Title II, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. § 1381-1385, respectively. For the reasons set forth below the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

         Background and Procedural History

          Plaintiff filed his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II on August 5, 2014, and his application for SSI under Title XVI on August 8, 2014. Plaintiff was born in 1967, and alleged disability beginning June 1, 2014. In his Disability Report, Plaintiff alleged disability due to manic depressive condition, back pain, sciatica, and high blood pressure. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially. Following an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge Thomas Auble on September 15, 2016, Plaintiff's claims were denied in a written opinion by an ALJ, dated April 19, 2017. On January 5, 2018, the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's request for review. Thus, the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         The ALJ's Decision

         ALJ Auble found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2015. He found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of June 1, 2014.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and major depressive disorder. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments of hypertension and carpal tunnel syndrome to be non-severe. The ALJ did not find that Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments listed in or medically equal to one contained in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. In making this determination, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease under the requirements of Listing 1.04, and Plaintiff's mental impairments under the requirements of Listing 12.04. In both cases, the ALJ found that the requirements were not met.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). Plaintiff can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can no more than occasionally climb stairs or ramps, and occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Plaintiff can have no exposure to excessive vibration, unprotected heights, or hazardous machinery. He is limited to work involving simple, routine tasks. Plaintiff can work only in a low stress job, defined as having only occasional decision making and only occasional changes in work setting. Plaintiff cannot work with a production quota, meaning no strict production standard and no rigid production pace. He can have only occasional interaction with the general public and coworkers. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments would not preclude him from performing work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, those jobs including the sedentary and unskilled jobs of small product assembler, product sorter, and product mounter.

         With respect to Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease and depression, the ALJ found that those impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, but that Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record. For example, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff's physical examinations frequently showed full strength and intact sensation, and often showed that Plaintiff's gait was normal. The ALJ also noted inconsistencies in the record regarding Plaintiff's drug use.

         Standard of Review

         The standard of review here is limited to a determination of whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. See Milam v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 978, 983 (8th Cir. 2015). Substantial evidence is less than preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion. See id.

         The Court must consider evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision but cannot reverse the decision because substantial evidence also exists in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome, or because it would have decided the case differently. See Andrews v. Colvin, 791 F.3d 923, 928 (8th Cir. 2015). If the Court finds that the evidence supports two inconsistent positions and one of those positions represents the Commissioner's findings, the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision. Wright v. Colvin, 789 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir. 2015). The Eighth Circuit has stated that “[w]e defer heavily to the findings and conclusions of the Social Security Administration.” Id. (quoting Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010)).

         Standard for Determining Disability

          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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir.2010). The impairment must be “of such severity that [the claimant] 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         A five-step regulatory framework is used to determine whether an individual claimant qualifies for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a); see also McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir.2011) (discussing the five-step process). At Step One, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in “substantial gainful activity”; if so, ...

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