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O'Reilly v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division

July 9, 2019

JANICE M. O'REILLY, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Pending is Plaintiff's appeal of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and the case is remanded with the instruction to award benefits to Plaintiff.


         The Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to a determination of whether the decision is “supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but…enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the conclusion.” Andrews v. Colvin, 791 F.3d 923, 928 (8th Cir. 2015) (citations omitted). “As long as substantial evidence in the record supports the Commissioner's decision, we may not reverse it because substantial evidence exists in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome, or because we would have decided the case differently.” Cline v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 1098, 1102 (8th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). Though advantageous to the Commissioner, this standard also requires the Court consider evidence that fairly detracts from the final decision. Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 793 (8th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). Substantial evidence means “more than a mere scintilla” of evidence; it is relevant evidence a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Gragg v. Astrue, 615 F.3d 932, 938 (8th Cir. 2010).

         The Court has the authority to affirm, modify, or reverse the decision of the ALJ, “with or without remanding the case for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Ordinarily, when an ALJ's decision denying benefits is reversed, the “abundant deference” owed to the ALJ counsels in favor of remanding the case for further administrative proceedings. Buckner v. Apfel, 213 F.3d 1006, 1011 (8th Cir. 2000) (quoting Cox v. Apfel, 160 F.3d 1203, 1210 (8th Cir. 1998)). Accordingly, the Court “may enter an immediate finding of disability only if the record ‘overwhelmingly supports' such a finding.” Id. (quoting Thompson v. Sullivan, 957 F.2d 611, 614 (8th Cir. 1992)). Remand for further administrative proceedings is not appropriate where “further proceedings would serve no useful purpose” and “would merely delay receipt of benefits.” Olson v. Shalala, 48 F.3d 321, 323 (8th Cir. 1995); Cline v. Sullivan, 939 F.2d 560, 569 (8th Cir. 1991).


         Plaintiff, who was born in 1964, filed an application for disability insurance benefits on December 16, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of August 16, 2013. R. at 15, 31, 168-69, 401. Plaintiff's claim was initially denied, and after a hearing, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Christina Young Mein found Plaintiff was not disabled. R. at 15-26. Plaintiff unsuccessfully appealed the decision to the Appeals Council. R. at 1-4. She then appealed to this Court. O'Reilly v. Berryhill, No. 16-CV-6098-ODS.

         In October 2017, the Court reversed Commissioner's decision, and remanded the matter for additional administrative proceedings. R. at 496-98. Upon remand, the Court ordered the ALJ to (1) consider whether work performed by Plaintiff in 2014 should be deemed unsuccessful work attempts or substantial gainful activities; (2) obtain a consultative examination to determine the extent of Plaintiff's physical and mental limitations; (3) reformulate the RFC, and when doing so, consider the consultative examinations, include limitations related to Plaintiff's motor coordination, manual dexterity, and grip strength consistent with Dr. Price's findings or explain why no such limitations are included in the RFC, and include limitations related to Plaintiff's cognitive impairments or specify why no such limitations are included in the RFC; (4) propose a hypothetical to the vocational expert (“VE”) accounting for the limitations set forth in the reformulated RFC; (5) re-evaluate Plaintiff's credibility; and (6) consider new evidence properly before the ALJ. Id.

         Upon remand, ALJ Christina Young Mein held another hearing. R. at 423-48. On July 31, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. R. at 401-14. The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: history of seizures, multiple sclerosis, a cognitive disorder, depression, and obsessive behavior. R. at 404. She also concluded Plaintiff had the following limitations:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that she cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds or work at unprotected heights or around hazardous machinery. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. The claimant can occasionally balance on uneven surfaces. The claimant should avoid more than occasional vibration. The claimant cannot use foot controls more than occasionally. The claimant can frequently reach, handle, finger, feel and push or pull. The claimant cannot read very small print but can read ordinary newspaper or book print. The claimant cannot work in extremes of cold and heat. The claimant can work in moderate noise levels. The claimant can occasionally operate a motor vehicle, tolerate wetness and humidity, and tolerate exposure to fumes, odors, dust, and pulmonary irritants. The claimant can understand, remember and carry out simple, routine tasks that may entail detailed instructions but not complex tasks or fast-paced production quotas that may be too demanding or stressful. The claimant cannot interact with the public in the performance of job duties but can occasionally interact with coworkers. The claimant can adapt to occasional changes in a work setting.

R. at 406. Based upon Plaintiff's RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform work as a document specialist, cafeteria attendant, or cleaner and polisher. R. at 413-14, 444-46.


         A. Failure to Meet Burden at Step Five

          Plaintiff asks the Court to reverse the ALJ's decision and award her benefits because the ALJ failed to sustain her burden at step five. When determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ employs a five-step process. Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 968 (8th Cir. 2010). An ALJ “must determine whether the claimant is able to do any other work considering her residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.” R. at 403. “If the claimant is not able to do other work and meets the duration requirement, she is disabled.” Id. While the claimant generally has the burden of demonstrating she is disabled, at step five, “a limited burden of going forward with the evidence shifts to the Social Security Administration.” Id. To support a finding that Plaintiff is not disabled at step five, “the Social Security Administration is responsible for ...

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