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Norwood v. Saul

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

September 5, 2019

CARMEN NORWOOD, 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 Carmen Norwood's applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. Norwood now seeks judicial review. The Commissioner opposes the motion. The issues being fully briefed, and for the reasons set forth, this Court will REVERSE and REMAND the Commissioner's decision for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         I. Procedural History

         Norwood's application was denied at the initial determination level. She then appeared before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ found Norwood is not disabled because her symptoms were not supported by the medical evidence available. Norwood then filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration. The Appeals Council denied review. Thus, the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. Norwood now seeks review by this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         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 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant has a disability “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[.]” 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 do basic work activities.” Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010); 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)(4)(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 as the most a claimant can still do despite his or her physical or mental limitations.” Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 923 (8th Cir. 2011); 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 Brock v. Astrue, 574 F.3d 1062, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012); 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. Hensley, 829 F.3d at 932.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         At Step One, the ALJ found Norwood met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2016, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2011. (Tr. 17). At Step Two, the ALJ found Norwood suffers from seven medically determinable impairments: (1) post-traumatic stress disorder; (2) depression; (3) borderline intellectual functioning; (4) status post carpal tunnel release surgery; (5) herniated disc at ¶ 5-S1 effacing the S1 nerve roots; (6) morbid obesity; and (7) intermittent migraine headaches. (Tr. 17). At Step Three, the ALJ concluded Norwood does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the regulations. (Tr.18-21).

         Next, in beginning the analysis of Step Four, the ALJ determined Norwood's ...


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