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Turner v. Saul

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

September 6, 2019

PATTY R. TURNER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.[1]

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          RONNIE L. WHITE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying the application of Patty Turner ("Turner") for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act.

         I. Background

         On June 2, 2014, Turner filed an application for SSI, alleging disability beginning on May 2, 2013. (Tr. 18, 213-27, 254-55). Turner alleged she became disabled because of a torn tendon in her left ankle, Graves' disease, muscle spasms, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), depression, and anxiety attacks. (Tr. 254-55). Turner's claim was initially denied on July 24, 2014. (Tr. 125). Turner's request for a hearing was granted and hearings before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) were held on March 10, 2016 and November 10, 2016. (Tr. 41-102; 132-33).[2] The ALJ issued a written decision on March 24, 2017, upholding the denial of benefits. (Tr. 18-33). The Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration denied Turner's request for review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 1-3). The decision of the ALJ thus stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 107 (2000).

         Turner filed this appeal on April 16, 2018. (ECF No. 1). On July 27, 2018, Turner filed a Brief in Support of her Complaint. (ECF No. 10). The Commissioner filed a Brief in Support of the Answer on November 1, 2018. (ECF No. 19). Turner filed a Reply to Defendant's Brief in Support of the Answer on November 12, 2018. (ECF No. 20). The Commissioner filed a Sur-Reply to Plaintiffs Reply to Defendant's Brief in Support of the Answer on December 7, 2018. (ECF No. 26).

         II. Decision of the ALJ

         The ALJ found that Turner had the following severe impairments: posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), depression, substance abuse (marijuana), obesity, Graves' disease, and hyperthyroidism. (Tr. 20). The ALJ, however, determined that Turner did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 21). The ALJ found that Turner had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform medium work, except simple, routine and repetitive tasks; occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers and the general public. The ALJ further found that Turner was capable of tolerating routine workplace changes. (Tr. 22). In sum, the ALJ determined that Hill was not disabled. (Tr. 33).

         III. Legal Standard

         Under the Social Security Act, the Commissioner has established a five-step process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920, 404.1529. '"If a claimant fails to meet the criteria at any step in the evaluation of disability, the process ends and the claimant is determined to be not disabled.'" Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 790 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 590-91 (8th Cir. 2004)). In this sequential analysis, the claimant first cannot be engaged in "substantial gainful activity" to qualify for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(b), 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant must have a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(c), 404.1520(c). The Social Security Act defines "severe impairment" as "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities ... ." Id. "The sequential evaluation process may be terminated at step two only when the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments would have no more than a minimal impact on [his or] her ability to work." Page v. Astrue, 484 F.3d 1040, 1043 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting Caviness v. Massanari, 250 F.3d 603, 605 (8th Cir. 2001).

         Third, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has an impairment which meets or equals one of the impairments listed in the Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 404.1520(d); Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. If the claimant has one of, or the medical equivalent of, these impairments, then the claimant is per se disabled without consideration of the claimant's age, education, or work history. Id.

         Fourth, the impairment must prevent claimant from doing past relevant work.[3] 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(e), 404.1520(e). At this step, the burden rests with the claimant to establish his RFC. Steed v. Astrue, 524 F.3d 872, 874 n.3 (8th Cir. 2008); see also Eichelberger, 390 F.3d at 590-91; Masterson v. Barnhart, 363 F.3d 731, 737 (8th Cir. 2004). RFC is defined as what the claimant can do despite his or her limitations, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a), and includes an assessment of physical abilities and mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(b)-(e). The ALJ will review a claimant's RFC and the physical and mental demands of the work the claimant has done in the past. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If it is found that the claimant can still perform past relevant work, the claimant will not be found to be disabled. Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to Step 5.

         At the fifth and last step, the ALJ considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to see if the claimant can make an adjustment to other work. 20 C.F.R. § 4l6.92O(a)(4)(v). If it is found that the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the claimant will be found to be disabled. Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g). At this step, the Commissioner bears the burden to "prove, first that the claimant retains the RFC to perform other kinds of work, and, second that other work exists in substantial numbers in the national economy that the claimant is able to perform." Goff, 421 F.3d at 790; Nevland v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 853, 857 (8th Cir. 2000). The Commissioner must prove this by substantial evidence. Warner v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 428, 431 (8th Cir. 1983).

         If the claimant satisfies all of the criteria of the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ will find the claimant to be disabled. "The ultimate burden of persuasion to prove disability, however, remains with the claimant." Id.; see also Harris v. Barnhart, 356 F.3d 926, 931 n.2 (8th Cir. 2004) (citing 68 Fed. Reg. 51153, 51155 (Aug. 26, 2003)).

         This Court reviews the decision of the ALJ to determine whether the decision is supported by "substantial evidence" in the record as a whole. See Smith v. Shalala, 31 F.3d 715, 717 (8th Cir. 1994). "Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion." Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019, 1022 (8th Cir. 2002); see also Cox v. Astrue,495 F.3d 614, 617 (8th Cir. 2007). Therefore, even if a court finds that there is a preponderance of the evidence against the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's decision must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial ...


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