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Woods v. Saul

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

September 3, 2019

VINETTA J. WOODS, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff Vinetta J. Woods brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1383 seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her claim for supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. Because the Commissioner's final decision is not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, I will reverse the decision and remand the matter for further proceedings.

         Procedural History

         On January 28, 2015, the Social Security Administration denied Woods' October 2014 application for SSI in which she claimed she became disabled on November 1, 2011, because of arthritis in both hands and right elbow, migraines, curvature of the spine, pressure on discs, depression, and deterioration of the spine.[2] Woods later amended her alleged onset date to October 10, 2014. At Woods' request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on March 10, 2017, at which Woods and a vocational expert testified. On September 1, 2017, the ALJ denied Woods' claim for benefits, finding that she could perform work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. On June 27, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Woods' request to review 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, Woods claims that the ALJ erred in classifying her as a “younger individual” when determining her ability to perform work. Woods also claims that the ALJ erred in discounting her subjective complaints. For the reasons that follow, I will reverse the ALJ's decision and remand this matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         Relevant Background

         Woods' birthdate is January 2, 1968. In determining Woods' ability to perform work, the ALJ classified Woods as a “younger individual, ” reasoning that Woods was 46 years old when she filed her application in October 2014. When the ALJ rendered her decision in September 2017, however, Woods was 49 years old and was four months away from turning 50. This scenario placed Woods in a “borderline age situation” under the Social Security Regulations, which required the ALJ to consider applying the higher age category of “closely approaching advanced age” for persons aged 50 to 54. Woods argues that the ALJ's failure to consider her borderline age situation rendered the decision of non-disability unsupported by substantial evidence.

         With respect to the medical records and other evidence of record, I adopt Woods' recitation of facts set forth in her Statement of Uncontroverted Facts (ECF 12-1) and note that they are admitted in toto by the Commissioner. (ECF 17-1.) I also adopt the factual statements set out in the Commissioner's Statement of Additional Material Facts (ECF 17-2), which Woods admits in their entirety. (ECF 19-1.) These statements provide a fair and accurate description of the relevant record before the Court. Additional specific facts are discussed as needed to address the parties' arguments.


         A. Legal Standard

         To be eligible for SSI under the Social Security Act, Woods 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). The first three steps involve a determination as to whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; whether she has a severe impairment; and whether her severe impairment(s) meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment. At Step 4 of the process, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) - that is, the most the claimant is able to do despite her physical and mental limitations, Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 923 (8th Cir. 2011) - and determine whether the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work. Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 790 (8th Cir. 2005) (RFC assessment occurs at fourth step of process). If the claimant is unable to perform her past work, the Commissioner continues to Step 5 and determines whether the claimant, with her RFC and other vocational factors, can perform other work as it exists in significant numbers in the national economy. If so, the claimant is found not disabled, and disability benefits are denied.

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         In her written decision here, the ALJ found that Woods had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 10, 2014, the alleged onset date of disability. The ALJ found that Woods' degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with L5-S1 facet osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, obesity, and depression/mood disorder due to medical condition were severe impairments but that ...

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