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Altis v. Saul

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

August 27, 2019

DONNA JEAN ALTIS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION REVERSING COMMISSIONER'S FINAL DECISION DENYING BENEFITS AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS

          ORTRIE D. SMITH, SENIOR JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Pending is Plaintiff's appeal of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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).

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1958 and her highest level of education is juris doctor. R. at 34-35. She previously worked as an immigration officer. R. at 18, 38. In October 2015, Plaintiff applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of December 27, 2014. R. at 10. Her application was denied, and she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). A hearing was held in October 2017. R. at 31-50.

         In January 2018, ALJ P. H. Jung issued a decision, finding Plaintiff was not disabled. R. at 10-19. The ALJ found Plaintiff has the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, obesity, hypertension, and osteopenia. R. at 12. The ALJ determined Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except that she can [o]ccasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, ” “can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, ” and “should avoid frequent exposure to extreme cold, wetness, vibration, hazards, machinery, and heights.” R. at 14. Sedentary work is defined as “lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time and occasionally lifting or carrying articles like docket files, ledgers, and small tools.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a). For a sedentary job, “a certain amount of walking and standing is often necessary in carrying out job duties. Jobs are sedentary if walking and standing are required occasionally and other sedentary criteria are met.” Id. Based on the RFC and the vocational expert's (“VE”) testimony at the hearing, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work. R. at 18.

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, which denied her appeal. Plaintiff now appeals to this Court.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff argues the Commissioner's decision must be reversed for several reasons. As set forth infra, the Court agrees, reverse the Commissioner's decision denying benefits, and remands the matter for further proceedings.

         A. Dr. Pratt's Opinion

         Prior to the onset of Plaintiff's alleged disability, one medical provider, Dr. Terrence Pratt, set forth limitations regarding Plaintiff's ability to work. R. at 274. Dr. Pratt opined Plaintiff should not lift more than ten pounds, should not frequently bend or twist, should change positions at thirty- and sixty-minute intervals when necessary, and must be permitted to “supine as necessary.” Id. Dr. Pratt also stated, “it would be best if she could perform activities vocationally related at home.” Id. As Defendant concedes, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) did not consider Dr. Pratt's opinion. #15, at 7. Defendant contends the ALJ's failure to consider and afford weight to Dr. Pratt's opinion equates to harmless error because the ALJ's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “largely accommodates Dr. Pratt's statements.” Id.

         The ALJ's failure to consider and afford weight to Dr. Pratt's opinion is contrary to the applicable regulation. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(b)-(c) (stating “we will always consider the medical opinions in your case” and “[r]egardless of its source, we will evaluate every opinion medical opinion we receive.”). While the ALJ's RFC accounts for Dr. Pratt's opinion that Plaintiff should not lift more than ten pounds, the ALJ's RFC does not account for the other limitations set forth by Dr. Pratt. First, the RFC does not address Plaintiff's need to avoid frequent bending and twisting. Second, the RFC does not account for Plaintiff being able to change her position every thirty to sixty minutes. Third, the RFC does not address Plaintiff being supine when necessary. Finally, the RFC does not indicate the possibility of performing vocational activities at home. Thus, contrary to Defendant's representation, the ALJ's RFC does not “largely” account for Dr. Pratt's opinion as to Plaintiff's functional limitations. Accordingly, Defendant's argument that the ALJ's failure to consider Dr. Pratt's opinion was harmless error fails. Upon remand, the ALJ must consider Dr. Pratt's opinion, and explain the weight, if any, afforded to his opinion.

         B. The ...


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