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Mudge v. Saul

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

July 29, 2019

DEBORAH MUDGE, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CATHERINE D. PERRY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Deborah Mudge brings this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405 and 1383 for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision finding that her disability ended January 8, 2016. Because the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, I must affirm the decision.

         Procedural History

         On February 24, 2015, the Social Security Administration denied Mudge's January 2015 applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI), in which Mudge claimed she became disabled on December 13, 2014, because of multiple sclerosis (MS), increased slurred speech, worsening vision, difficulty typing and writing, and numbness on the right side of her body. At Mudge's request, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on January 4, 2017, at which Mudge and a vocational expert testified. On July 21, 2017, the ALJ found that Mudge was under a disability from December 13, 2014, through January 8, 2016, but not thereafter. The ALJ determined that medical improvement occurred as of January 9, 2016, and that Mudge's disability ended as of that date given that she could then perform work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. On March 31, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Mudge's request for review of the ALJ's decision. The ALJ's decision is thus the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         In this action for judicial review, Mudge contends that the ALJ's decision that she sustained medical improvement as of January 9, 2016, is not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Mudge specifically argues that the ALJ erred when he failed to include a limitation in the residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment regarding potential difficulty with oral work instructions. Mudge contends that the ALJ should have at least explained why he did not include this limitation in the RFC given that he credited medical evidence that included an opinion that Mudge would be so limited. Mudge also contends that the ALJ erred when he relied on vocational expert testimony that was based upon a hypothetical that did not include the oral instruction limitation. Finally, Mudge argues that the ALJ erred in discounting the opinion of her treating neurologist regarding her need to take unscheduled breaks and her potential absences from work. Mudge asks that I modify the Commissioner's final decision to find that she did not sustain medical improvement and thus continued to be disabled on and after January 9, 2016.

         For the following reasons, I will affirm the decision.

         Medical Records and Other Evidence Before the ALJ

         With respect to the medical records and other evidence of record, I adopt Mudge's recitation of facts set forth in her Statement of Uncontroverted Material Facts (ECF 11-1) to the extent they are admitted by the Commissioner (ECF 18-1). I also adopt the additional facts set forth in the Commissioner's Statement of Additional Material Facts (id.), which Mudge does not dispute. 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' arguments.

         Discussion

         A. Legal Standard

         To be eligible for DIB and SSI under the Social Security Act, Mudge must prove that she 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual will be declared disabled “only if [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] 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), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         If there has been a medical improvement after a determination of disability, and such improvement relates to the claimant's ability to work, the disability will be found to have ended if the claimant is able to engage in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(a), (b)(3); 416.994(a), (b)(1)(iii).[2] “Medical improvement” is any decrease in the medical severity of the claimant's impairments which were present at the time of the most recent favorable medical decision that the claimant was disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(b)(1), 416.994(b)(1)(i). To find that medical improvement ended a claimant's disability, the Commissioner must demonstrate that “the conditions which previously rendered the claimant disabled have ameliorated, and the improvement . . . is related to claimant's ability to work.” Nelson v. Sullivan, 946 F.2d 1314, 1315 (8th Cir. 1991) (per curiam) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(2)-(5)).

         In determining medical improvement, the severity of the claimant's current condition is compared with the severity of her condition as of the date she was last found to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(b)(7), 416.994(b)(1)(vii). Once it has been established that there has been a medical improvement, the Commissioner must determine if it relates to the claimant's ability to work, that is, whether there has been a decrease in the severity of the claimant's impairments and an increase in her functional capacity to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(b)(3), 416.994(b)(1)(iii). In making this determination, the Commissioner assesses the claimant's RFC and whether, with this RFC, the claimant can perform her past work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(c)(2), 416.994(b)(2); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(7), 416.994(b)(5)(vi). If the claimant can perform such work, the Commissioner will find the disability to have ended. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(7), 416.994(b)(5)(vi). If the claimant cannot engage in her past relevant work, the ...


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