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Hallemann v. Saul

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

September 4, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff John R. Hallemann brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405 seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying his claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. Because the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole, I must affirm the decision.

         Procedural History

         On January 8, 2015, the Social Security Administration denied Hallemann's December 2014 application for DIB in which he claimed he became disabled on August 11, 2014, because of left knee surgeries and replacement, right knee surgeries, arthritis, left knee stiffness, depression, anxiety, learning disability, and trouble reading and writing. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on November 10, 2016, at which Hallemann, his spouse, and a vocational expert testified. On June 1, 2017, the ALJ denied Hallemann's claim for benefits, finding that vocational expert testimony supported a conclusion that Hallemann could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. On February 15, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Hallemann's request for review of 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, Hallemann claims that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Specifically, Hallemann argues that the ALJ erred in finding him to have engaged in substantial gainful activity from August to December 2014, and further erred in finding him to have a limited education. Hallemann claims he is illiterate. Hallemann also argues that the ALJ erred in finding that his complaints of knee pain were not consistent with other evidence of record. Hallemann also contends that the ALJ's finding that he can perform light work is inconsistent with the specific limitations found by the ALJ. Finally, Hallemann argues that the Appeals Council failed to consider new, material, and relevant evidence submitted after the ALJ's decision. Hallemann asks that I reverse the ALJ's decision and award benefits or, alternatively, remand for further consideration.

         For the reasons that follow, the ALJ did not err in his determination.

         Medical Records and Other Evidence Before the ALJ

         When Hallemann filed his application for DIB, he was thirty-nine years old. He has an 8th grade education. Hallemann has worked as a laborer since 1999, going up and down ladders and stairs on a daily basis while carrying heavy loads of up to 100 pounds. He began reporting knee problems in the early 2000's, when he was in his late twenties, and thereafter had several arthroscopic surgeries on both knees. In August 2014, he had a total left knee replacement. Hallemann claims that he has been unable to work since the August 2014 surgery because of pain, swelling, and instability of his left knee, as well as continued problems with his right knee. He also claims that his depression worsened in November 2014 when he could not return to work.

         Both Hallemann and the Commissioner have provided the Court with separate statements of fact summarizing the medical records and other evidence of record. Each party objects to, denies, or admits with several qualifications the statement provided by their opponent. Given the numerous discrepancies between the parties' statements, I cannot adopt them for purposes of this memorandum. Instead of providing an independent and comprehensive summary of the record, however, I will discuss only those facts as needed from the record to address the parties' specific arguments.


         A. Legal Standard To be eligible for DIB under the Social Security Act, Hallemann must prove that he 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. § 423(d)(1)(A). An individual will be declared disabled “only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 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 he has a severe impairment; and whether his 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 RFC - that is, the most the claimant is able to do despite his physical and mental limitations, Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 923 (8th Cir. 2011) - and determine whether the claimant is able to perform his 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 his past work, the Commissioner continues to Step 5 and determines whether the claimant can perform other work as it exists in significant numbers in the national economy. If so, the claimant is found not to be disabled, and disability benefits are denied.

         The claimant bears the burden through Step 4 of the analysis. If he meets this burden and shows that he is unable to perform his past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at Step 5 to produce evidence demonstrating that the claimant has the RFC to perform other jobs in the national economy that exist in significant numbers and are consistent with his impairments and vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience. Phillips v. Astrue, 671 F.3d 699, 702 (8th Cir. 2012). If the claimant has nonexertional limitations, the Commissioner may satisfy his burden at Step 5 through the testimony of a vocational expert. King v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 978, 980 (8th Cir. 2009).

         I must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 968 (8th Cir. 2010). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but enough that a reasonable person would find it adequate to support the conclusion. Jones, 619 F.3d at 968. Determining whether there is substantial evidence requires scrutinizing analysis. Coleman v. Astrue, 498 F.3d 767, 770 (8th Cir. 2007).

         I must consider evidence that supports the Commissioner's decision as well as any evidence that fairly detracts from the decision. McNamara v. Astrue, 590 F.3d 607, 610 (8th Cir. 2010). If, after reviewing the entire record, it is possible to draw two inconsistent conclusions and the Commissioner has adopted one of those conclusions, I must affirm the Commissioner's decision. Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 793 (8th Cir. 2012). I may not reverse the Commissioner's decision merely because substantial evidence could also support a contrary outcome. McNamara, 590 F.3d at 610.

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ found that Hallemann met the requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2019, and that he engaged in substantial gainful activity through December 31, 2014, but not thereafter. The ALJ found that Hallemann's osteoarthritis of the left knee, status post left total knee replacement, right knee chondromalacia, anxiety, and depression were severe impairments but that they did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 286-87.) The ALJ found that Hallemann had the RFC to perform light work but with the following limitations:

[T]he claimant can lift up to 15 pounds occasionally; lift/carry up to 10 pounds frequently. He can stand/walk for about two hours and sit for up to six hours in an eight hour work day, with normal breaks. He can never climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes or scaffolds. He can occasionally balance with a hand held device as in a cane. He can occasionally stoop and crouch, but never kneel or crawl. He should avoid unprotected heights and hazardous machinery. His work is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks. His work should be in a low stress job, defined as having only occasional changes in the work setting.

(Tr. 288-89.) The ALJ determined that Hallemann's RFC precluded him from performing his past relevant work as a mixing foreman. (Tr. 296.)

         Considering Hallemann's RFC, age (younger individual), work experience, and limited education, the ALJ found vocational expert testimony to support a conclusion that Hallemann could perform work as it exists in significant numbers in the national economy, and specifically, as a hand packer or production worker/ assembler. The ALJ thus found Hallemann not to be under a disability from August 11, 2014, through the date of the decision. (Tr. 296-97.)

         C. Substantial Gainful Activity

         A social security claimant will not be found disabled if he is engaged in substantial gainful activity. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1571. “Substantial gainful activity means work that -- (a) Involves doing significant and productive physical or mental duties; and (b) Is done (or intended) for pay or profit.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1510. For purposes of determining substantial gainful activity, the Social Security Administration's primary consideration is the earnings derived from work activity. “We will use your earnings to determine whether you have done substantial gainful activity unless we have information from you, your employer, or others that shows that we ...

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