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Topalovic v. Saul

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

September 11, 2019

DZEMILA TOPALOVIC, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          E. RICHARD WEBBER, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         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 Dzemila Topalovic (“Plaintiff”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. Plaintiff has filed a brief in support of the Complaint (ECF No. 18) and Defendant has filed a brief in support of the Answer, along with a Statement of Uncontroverted Material Facts (ECF No. 23).

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed her application for DIB under Title II of the Social Security Act on September 26, 2014. (Tr. 138-44) Plaintiff claimed she became disabled on August 11, 2011 because of a heart condition, knee problems, and frequent dizziness. (Tr. 65) Plaintiff was initially denied relief on December 10, 2014. (Tr. 73-78) At Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on October 24, 2016, at which Plaintiff, one witness, and a vocational expert testified. (Tr. 83, 32-64) After the hearing, by a decision dated July 18, 2017, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 16-26) On April 18, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 1-6) Thus, the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         In this action for judicial review, Plaintiff claims the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Specifically, Plaintiff argues: (1) the ALJ erred in failing to properly evaluate the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Farzana;(2) the ALJ erred in failing to properly evaluate the Plaintiff's complaints of pain; and (3) the ALJ erred in failing to properly consider the Plaintiff's obesity.

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

         II. Medical Records and Other Evidence Before the ALJ

         With respect to the medical records and other evidence of record, the Court notes Plaintiff did not file a Statement of Uncontroverted Facts. However, Plaintiff's Brief thoroughly summarizes Plaintiff's hearing testimony and the medical evidence in the record, which the Court adopts. (ECF No. 18) The Court also adopts the facts set forth in the Commissioner's Statement of Uncontroverted Material Facts (ECF 23-1) and notes they are unrefuted by Plaintiff. Together, evidence set forth in Plaintiff's Brief and the Commissioner's statement provide a fair and accurate description of the relevant record before the Court.

         Additional specific facts will be discussed as needed to address the parties' arguments.

         III. Discussion

         A. Legal Standard

         To be eligible for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must prove 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(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. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         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(a), 404.1520(a). ‘“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)). First, the claimant must not be engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a), 404.1520(a).

         Second, the claimant must have a “severe impairment, ” defined as “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(c), 404.1520(c). ‘“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 claimant must establish his or her impairment meets or equals an impairment 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.

         Before considering step four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). RFC is defined as “the most a claimant can do despite her limitations.” Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)). At step four, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can return to her past relevant work by comparing the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(f); McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir. 2011). If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, she will not be found to be disabled; if the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step. McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

         At step five, the ALJ considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to see if the claimant can make an adjustment to other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, then she will be found to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(a)(4)(v). Through step four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove she is disabled. Brantley v. Colvin, No. 4:10CV2184 HEA, 2013 WL 4007441, at *3 (E.D. Mo. Aug. 2, 2013) (citation omitted). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish the claimant maintains the RFC to perform a significant number of jobs within the national economy. Id. “The ultimate burden of persuasion to prove disability, however, remains with the claimant.” Meyerpeter v. Astrue, 902 F.Supp.2d 1219, 1229 (E.D. Mo. 2012) (citations omitted).

         The Court 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); Estes v. Barnhart, 275 F.3d 722, 724 (8th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but enough that a reasonable person would find it adequate to support the conclusion. Johnson v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1145, 1147 (8th Cir. 2001). Determining whether there is substantial evidence requires scrutinizing analysis. Coleman v. Astrue, 498 F.3d 767, 770 (8th Cir. 2007).

         The Court must consider evidence which 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 positions and the Commissioner has adopted one of those positions, the Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision. Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 793 (8th Cir. 2012). The Court 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 ...


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