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Townsend v. Saul

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

August 2, 2019

JOYCE TOWNSEND, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION, MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          HENRY EDWARD AUTREY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court, pursuant to the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3), authorizing judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's Title II application for disability insurance benefits and Title XVI application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1385. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed.

         Plaintiff originally filed a claim for benefits under Title II and Title XVI on March 16, 2015. Plaintiff alleged an onset date of February 28, 2015. After the claim was denied Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing.

         On May 4, 2017 a hearing was conducted by ALJ Robin J. Barber in Creve Coeur, Missouri. Plaintiff appeared in person and with counsel. The Vocational Expert was Steven Coon.

         Plaintiff was born on May 8, 1976. She was 41 on the date of the hearing. She was 38 years old as of the date of the onset of the alleged disability. She alleged she became disabled as the result of suffering a heart attack and two subsequent open heart surgeries. Plaintiff asserted she suffered from headaches that were affecting her vision. Plaintiff testified that she and her daughter lived with her sister. Plaintiff has a high school education. There was no testimony in the record from the Vocational Expert although he is referenced early in the record.

         The ALJ held, on December 27, 2017, that Plaintiff had severe impairments which included nonischemic cardiomyopathy and anemia. The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) (Tr. 22). Considering the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC in conjunction with the medical-vocational guidelines, 20 C.F.R. pt 404, subpt P, app. 2, the ALJ found there were jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. Consequently, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled.

         On June 25, 2018, the Social Security Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies, and the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review.

         Statement of the Issues

         Generally the issues in a Social Security case are whether the final decision of the Commissioner is consistent with the Social Security Act, regulations, and applicable case law, and whether the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. The issues here are whether the ALJ properly evaluated the medical evidence and whether she properly assessed Plaintiff's RFC. As explained below, the Court has considered the entire record in this matter. The decision of the Commissioner is not supported by substantial evidence and it will be reversed.

         Standard for Determining Disability

         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 phrase ‘substantial evidence' is a ‘term of art' used throughout administrative law to describe how courts are to review agency factfinding ... Under the substantial-evidence standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains ‘sufficien[t] evidence' to support the agency's factual determinations.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 2019 WL 1428885, at *3 (2019) (citations omitted). “And whatever the meaning of ‘substantial' in other contexts, the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high. Substantial evidence, this Court has said, is “‘more than a mere scintilla.'” Biestek at *3 (citations omitted). “It means-and means only- ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Biestekat *3 (citations omitted).

         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)).

         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, then he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I), 416.920(a)(4)(I); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment, which is “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities”; if the claimant does not have a severe impairment, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) (4)(ii), 404.1520(c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Three, the ALJ evaluates whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the ...


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