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Campbell v. Saul

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

August 22, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          GREG KAYS, JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Maretha Campbell petitions for review of a partially favorable decision by Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security. Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34, 1381-85. The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that Plaintiff has been disabled since August 4, 2014, due to her age, but not prior thereto. Plaintiff appeals this aspect of the ALJ's decision.

         After carefully reviewing the parties' arguments and the record as a whole, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's opinion that Plaintiffs' impairments do not meet or medically equal a listing. The Court also finds, however, that the ALJ failed to adequately explain his conclusion with respect to Plaintiff's RFC. The Commissioner's decision is therefore AFFIRMED IN PART and REMANDED for further explanation.

         Procedural Background

         The complete facts and arguments are presented in the parties' briefs and are repeated here only to the extent necessary. Plaintiff filed for disability insurance and supplemental security income in 2010, alleging a disability onset date of November 20, 2009. The Commissioner denied the applications at the initial-claim level, and Plaintiff appealed the denial to an ALJ. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff then appealed the Commissioner's decision to this Court, which, upon Defendant's motion, remanded the case under § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         While that appeal was pending, Plaintiff filed two additional disability claims-identical to the first-which the Commissioner also initially denied. The Appeals Council directed the ALJ to consolidate these and the remanded claims and issue a new decision. The ALJ held two hearings and, in November 2017, issued a “partially favorable” decision. He found that Plaintiff had been disabled since August 4, 2014, but not prior thereto. The Appeals Council again declined to review the matter, and so judicial review is now appropriate. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         Standard of Review

         A federal court's review of the Commissioner's decision to deny disability benefits is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Chaney v. Colvin, 812 F.3d 672, 676 (8th Cir. 2016). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but enough that a reasonable mind would find it sufficient to support the Commissioner's decision. Id. In making this assessment, a court considers evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Id. A court must “defer heavily” to the Commissioner's findings and conclusions, Wright v. Colvin, 789 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir. 2015), and may reverse the Commissioner's decision only if it falls outside of the available zone of choice. Buckner v. Astrue, 646 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2011). A decision is not outside this zone simply because the evidence also points to an alternate outcome. Id.


          The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process[1] to determine whether a claimant is disabled, that is, unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from several severe impairments, including, among others, morbid obesity, fibromyalgia, and sleep apnea. The ALJ concluded that these impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment, and he found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a limited range of light work. He also concluded that Plaintiff became disabled on August 4, 2014, when she turned fifty.

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in finding that her obesity and fibromyalgia did not meet listings 1.02A and 14.09D, respectively, whether considered individually or in combination with her other impairments. She also argues that the ALJ erred in formulating her RFC.

         I. The ALJ properly determined that Plaintiff's impairments were not medically equivalent to a listed impairment.

         At step three, the ALJ determines whether a claimant “meets or equals an impairment described in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Carlson v. Astrue, 604 F.3d 589, 592 (8th Cir. 2010) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii)). “The listings define impairments that would prevent an adult, regardless of his age, education, or work experience, from performing any gainful activity, not just ‘substantial gainful activity.'” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 532 (1990) (emphasis in original). Hence, they “should not be read expansively.” Johnson v. Astrue, 816 F.Supp.2d 752, 774 (W.D. Mo. 2011) (internal quotation and citation omitted). To establish that an unlisted impairment, or combination of impairments, equals a listing, the claimant “must present medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the one most similar listed impairment.” Sullivan, 493 U.S. at 531 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.926(a)).

         A. Plaintiff's obesity was not medically ...

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