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Welch v. Saul

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

September 11, 2019

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



         This is an action under Title 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying the application of John Welch (“Plaintiff”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. Plaintiff filed a brief in support of the Complaint (ECF 21) and Defendant filed a brief in support of the Answer (ECF 26).


         Plaintiff filed his applications for DIB and SSI under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on May 27, 2015 (Tr. 210-215). Plaintiff was initially denied relief on July 30, 2015, and on August 31, 2015, he filed a Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 155-161). After a hearing, by a decision dated April 19, 2017, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled (Tr. 48-59). Plaintiff filed Request for Review of Hearing Decision on April 27, 2017 (Tr. 209). On April 5, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-4). Plaintiff appealed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri on May 24, 2018 (ECF 1). As such, the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.


         The ALJ determined Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2019, and Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 4, 2014, the alleged onset date of his disability (Tr. 50). The ALJ found Plaintiff has the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease with lumbar spondylosis, and failed back syndrome (Tr. 51). The ALJ found no impairment or combination of impairments which meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Tr. 52).

         The ALJ conducted a hearing with Plaintiff, his counsel, and a vocational expert, Mary Schauwecker, on January 24, 2017 (Tr. 101). Plaintiff testified he possesses a current driver's license and drives two or three times a week (Tr. 104). Plaintiff suffered an injury in June 2014 which put him on work restrictions, and only returned to work in mid to late October (Tr. 105). He was terminated by his employer in November 2014 (Tr. 104-106).

         Plaintiff is unable to sit for “very long” before he experiences numbness in his legs (Tr. 107). He testified he is only able to stand about ten or fifteen minutes until his back hurts, and his legs cramp up and fall asleep (Tr. 109). Plaintiff can walk about a half a mile before he has to sit down (Tr. 109). He testified he lays down approximately 60% of the day either in a bed or on a recliner (Tr. 116).

         Plaitniff has tried physical therapy but testified the physical therapist released him and told him “he [could] do no more for [him] (Tr. 109). Palintiff takes medication for anxiety and depression including Xanex, Lexapro, and Gabapentin (Tr. 113). Plaintiff has also been prescribed Oxycodone for pain (Tr. 113). He testified his medications have side effects including making him tired, and making it difficult for him to concentrate and he felt he was being “pushed pills” by doctors Gessling and Rasmussen that “made me crazy” (Tr. 115).

         Plaintiff testified he is unable to bend over to touch his knees, and cannot kneel down to pick something up without falling (Tr. 116). He has had difficulty balancing since his back surfer (Tr. 116).

         Plaintiff testified he suffers from anxiety which causes him to get hot, sweaty, and worked-up where he has to go sit by himself to calm down (Tr. 117). He experiences these symptoms approximately two to three days a week (Tr. 117). Plaintiff experiences depression because he is not able to hold down a job and support his family, which makes him feel “worthless” (Tr. 117).

         The vocational expert, Mary Schauwecker, testified Plaintiff has past work as a production worker at a trailer company, a builder at a door shop, a laborer, a maintenance worker for food industry, and as a welder (Tr. 119). Ms. Schauwecker testified Plaintiff cannot perform any of his past work; however, he is able to work as an information clerk, an addresser, and a document preparer (Tr. 119-132). The vocational expert also noted although the information clerk position was light exertion, it could be performed by Plaintiff because it involved negligible lifting, allowed for a sit/stand option (Tr. 119-132).

         After considering the entire record, including Plaintiff's testimony, the ALJ determined Plaintiff has the Residual Functioning Capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, except he requires a sit/stand option which working which allows a change in position every thirty minutes for a few minutes at a time while remaining at the workstation (Tr. 53). The ALJ noted diagnoses for cholelithiasis, diverticulosis, and anthersclerosis, but concluded the record does not indicate these impairments cause more than minimal vocationally relevant functional limitations, and therefore, the conditions are not severe (Tr. 51). The ALJ also found Plaintiff suffered from medically determinable mental impairments including depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and polysubstance dependence, but these do not cause more than a minimal limitation in Plaintiff's ability to perform basic mental work activities, and are therefore not sever (Tr. 51).

         The ALJ found Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work (Tr. 57). The ALJ found there are jobs which exist in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff can perform, including work as an information clerk, an addresser, and a document preparer (Tr. 58). Thus, the ALJ's conclusion for Plaintiff was “not disabled” (Tr. 59).

         Plaintiff appeals, arguing the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinions of five different medical sources, and erroneously concluded Plaintiff could perform sedentary work.


         Under the Social Security Act, the Commissioner must follow 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, first the claimant 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), citing Nguyen v. Chater, 75 F.3d 429, 430-31 (8th Cir. 1996)).

         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). 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 the claimant from doing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(f), 404.1520(f). The burden rests with the claimant at this fourth step to establish his or her RFC. Steed v. Astrue, 524 F.3d 872, 874 n.3 (8th Cir. 2008) (“Through step four of this analysis, the claimant has the burden of showing that she is disabled.”). The ALJ will review a claimant's RFC and the physical and mental demands of the work the claimant has done in the past to determine if the claimant can perform any past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

         Fifth, the severe impairment must prevent the claimant from doing any other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(g), 404.1520(g). At this fifth step of the sequential analysis, the Commissioner has the burden of production to show evidence of other jobs in the national economy which can ...

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