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Dzafic v. Saul

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

September 16, 2019

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



         This is an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying the application of Plaintiff Nefiza Dzafic (“Plaintiff”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. (the “Act”). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 14). Because I find the decision denying benefits was supported by substantial evidence, I will affirm the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application.

         I. Procedural Background

         On November 28, 2014, Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging that she had been unable to work since July 21, 2014. (Tr. 158-59). Her application was initially denied. (Tr. 95-99). On May 19, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) (Tr. 102-03). On February 16, 2017, the ALJ held a hearing. (Tr. 34-77). On June 28, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 13-30). On August 20, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision with the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. (Tr. 154). On April 3, 2019, the Appeals Council declined to review the case. (Tr. 1-6). The decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

         II. Factual Background

         On February 16, 2017, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before the ALJ. Plaintiff was born August 1, 1963, and she has an eighth-grade education. (Tr. 39). She moved to the United States from Bosnia in 1994. (Tr. 39). She has worked in the past in assembly line production, making lamps, but she was laid off. (Tr. 44). That job involved being on her feet all of the time and lifting up to 30 pounds. (Tr. 45). After that, Plaintiff worked at St. Anthony's, supplying, cleaning, and picking up medical equipment. (Tr. 45). That job also involved lifting 30 or more pounds. (Tr. 45-46). At the same time as that job, she had a second job cleaning offices. (Tr. 46-47). Plaintiff stopped cleaning offices because she could not do it anymore, but she continued working at St. Anthony's for a while. (Tr. 47-48). She eventually stopped working because she could not do the things she was asked to do, both because of her feet and because of emotional issues, concentration problems, and forgetfulness. (Tr. 48-50).

         Plaintiff has panic attacks at night and cannot sleep; this makes her tired and sleepy the next day. (Tr. 51). She takes medications for panic attacks every day. (Tr. 60). It seems to help; she still has the attacks but only once or twice a month for three to five minutes at a time. (Tr. 60). She also experiences dizziness. (Tr. 51). Plaintiff has also had issues hearing voices, but medications have stopped those. (Tr. 53). She is not comfortable being around people. (Tr. 53). She feels scared a lot. (Tr. 54). Plaintiff has problems with her feet, including numbness and burning pain; she has had treatment for those problems. (Tr. 55-57). She has to put ice on them three times for 20 minutes during the day. (Tr. 56). She could be on her feet standing and walking for maybe an hour or an hour and a half. (Tr. 56). Plaintiff also has back pain and leg pain if she sits too long. (Tr. 57). She has carpal tunnel syndrome and would not be able to lift a gallon of milk over and over because she would have problems with her hands. (Tr. 58-59). She wears a brace at night. (Tr. 59).

         With regard to the medical records, the Court accepts the facts as presented in the parties' respective statements of fact. The Court will cite to specific records as needed in the discussion below.

         III. Standard for Determining Disability Under the Act

         To be eligible for benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must prove he or she is disabled. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); Baker v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992). The Social Security Act defines as disabled a person who is unable “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); see also Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010). The impairment must be “of such severity that he [or she] is not only unable to do his [or her] previous work but cannot, considering his [or her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he [or she] lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him [or her], or whether he [or she] would be hired if he [or she] applied for work.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); see also McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir. 2011) (discussing the five-step process). At Step One, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in “substantial gainful activity”; if so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment, which is “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities”; if the claimant does not have a severe impairment, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Three, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “listings”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant has such an impairment, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds with the rest of the five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

         Prior to Step Four, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), which is “the most a claimant can do despite [his or her] limitations.” Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). At Step Four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can return to his or 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); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled; if the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id. At Step Five, the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine whether the claimant can make an adjustment to other work in the national economy; if the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the claimant will be found disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 404.1560(c)(2); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

         Through Step Four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove that he is disabled. Moore, 572 F.3d at 523. At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that, given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience, there are a significant number of other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.; Brock v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1062, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2).

         IV. The ALJ's Decision

         Applying the foregoing five-step analysis, the ALJ here found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 21, 2014, the alleged onset date; that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of depression, generalized anxiety disorder, plantar fasciitis, and tibeal or Achilles tendonitis; and that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 18-19). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following RFC:

The claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except for the following additional limitations. The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. The claimant can never crawl. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch. Bilaterally, the claimant can frequently handle, finger and feel. She must avoid vibration. She can perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements and with few if any work place changes. The claimant can occasionally interact with the public, co-workers, and supervisors.

(Tr. 21). At Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a lamp wirer and central supply worker. (Tr. 25). However, at Step Five, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including representative occupations such as housekeeper/cleaner (Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) No. 323.687-104), photo copy machine operator (DOT No. 207.685-014), and usher (DOT No. 344.677-014). (Tr. 25-26). The ALJ ...

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