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Smith v. Saul

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

August 30, 2019

ADRIENNE SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL[1], Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          STEPHEN N. LIMBAUGH, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denied plaintiff Adrienne Smith's application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review (#14). The Commissioner opposes the motion (#19), and the issue is ripe.

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff Smith was born in 1982, reported two years of college education, and alleges that her disability began February 2, 2015. Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial determination level. She then appeared before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), who found that plaintiff had severe impairments that included degenerative cervical disc disease, obesity, a major depressive disorder, and an anxiety disorder. However, the ALJ found that those impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment.

         The ALJ then determined that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except she cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and cannot crawl. She is limited to occasionally climbing ramps or stairs, as well as balancing, stooping, kneeling, and crouching. She can frequently reach, handle, finger, and feel, and can perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. The ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments would not preclude her from performing work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, including sedentary and unskilled work as an optical goods assembler and circuit board touch-up worker. Consequently, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled.

         On June 5, 2018, the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's request for review. Thus, plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies, and the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review.

         II. Disability Determination-Five Steps

         A disability is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment 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). A claimant has a disability “only if his physical 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[.]” Id. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential process when evaluating whether the claimant has a disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(1), 416.920(a)(1). First, the Commissioner considers the claimant's work activity. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i).

         Second, if the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner looks to see “whether the claimant has a severe impairment that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities.” Dixon v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 602, 605 (8th Cir. 2003); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). “An impairment is not severe if it amounts only to a slight abnormality that would not significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 404.1520a(d), 416.920(c), 416.920a(d).

         Third, if the claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner considers the impairment's medical severity. If the impairment meets or equals one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the regulations, the claimant is considered disabled, regardless of age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d); 416.920(a)(3)(iii), (d).

         Fourth, if the claimant's impairment is severe, but it does not meet or equal one of the presumptively disabling impairments, the Commissioner assesses whether the claimant retains the “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) to perform his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1545(a)(5)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.945(a)(5)(i). An RFC is “defined wholly in terms of the claimant's physical ability to perform exertional tasks or, in other words, what the claimant can still do despite his or her physical or mental limitations.” Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir. 2003) (internal quotations omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). While an RFC must be based “on all relevant evidence, including the medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and an individual's own description of his limitations, ” an RFC is nonetheless an “administrative assessment”-not a medical assessment-and therefore “it is the responsibility of the ALJ, not a physician, to determine a claimant's RFC.” Boyd v. Colvin, 831F.3d 1015, 1020 (8th Cir. 2016). Thus, “there is no requirement that an RFC finding be supported by a specific medical opinion.” Hensley v. Colvin, 829 F.3d 926, 932 (8th Cir. 2016). Ultimately, the claimant is responsible for providing evidence relating to his RFC and the Commissioner is responsible for developing the claimant's “complete medical history, including arranging for a consultative examination(s) if necessary, and making every reasonable effort to help [the claimant] get medical reports from [the claimant's] own medical sources.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a)(3). If, upon the findings of the ALJ, it is determined the claimant retains the RFC to perform past relevant work, he or she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv).

         Fifth, if the claimant's RFC does not allow the claimant to perform past relevant work, the burden of production to show the claimant maintains the RFC to perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy shifts to the Commissioner. See Bladow v. Apfel, 205 F.3d 356, 358-59 n.5 (8th Cir. 2000); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, the Commissioner finds the claimant not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the Commissioner finds the claimant disabled. Id. At Step Five, even though the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner, the burden of persuasion to prove disability remains on the claimant. Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2004).

         III. The ...


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