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Schwalje v. Saul

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

September 20, 2019

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



         This is an action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying the application of Plaintiff Janet Schwalje (“Plaintiff”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. Plaintiff has filed a brief in support of the Complaint (ECF No. 16) and Defendant has filed a brief in support of the Answer (ECF No. 23).

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed her applications for DIB and SSI on March 20, 2015, alleging disability beginning December 26, 2014 due to depression, mood swings, diabetes, arthritis, toe amputation due to melanoma, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder (“ADD”). (Tr. 14, 89, 186- 93) Plaintiff was initially denied relief on May 27, 2015. (Tr. 14, 82-83, 89-93) At Plaintiff’s request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on June 1, 2017, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. (Tr. 28-55, 96) After the hearing, by a decision dated September 26, 2017, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 14-22) On June 5, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision. (Tr. 1-5) 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 because the ALJ failed to properly consider Plaintiff’s bipolar disorder at Step 2 of the sequential evaluation.

         For the reasons that follow, the Court finds the ALJ erred in his evaluation, and the case will be reversed and remanded for further consideration.

         II. Medical Records and Other Evidence Before the ALJ

         With respect to the medical records and other evidence of record, the Court notes Plaintiff filed a 65-paragraph Statement of Uncontroverted Facts. (ECF No. 17) In response, the Defendant admits paragraphs 1 through 65 of Plaintiff’s statement of facts. (ECF No. 23-1) The Court adopts the facts set forth in the Plaintiff’s Statement of Uncontroverted Material Facts and admitted by the Defendant, as they provide a fair and accurate description of the relevant medical record before the Court. Additional specific medical facts will be discussed as needed to address the parties’ arguments.

         Evidence relating to Plaintiff’s description of her symptoms and functional abilities indicates Plaintiff believed she was unable to work due to her anxiety and depression, which kept her mostly in her house. She was hospitalized for anxiety in 2015. Plaintiff experienced episodes of sleeping for several days at a time. She took medication and regularly saw a therapist. Plaintiff lived with a friend and spent time playing with her dog. She only left the house to grocery shop, which only occurred when she had nothing left to eat. Plaintiff did not want to go out; she wanted the peace and quiet of her own home. Plaintiff did not enjoy being around other people, but she had no problems unless they were negative. She performed household chores such as dusting, vacuuming, and laundry. (Tr. 30-49)

         In a function report, Plaintiff stated she experienced mood swings from being nice to becoming violent. She was able to perform chores, take care of her cats, fix her own meals, text friends, and watch TV. She shopped only for necessities. In addition to physical limitations, Plaintiff reported problems with memory, completing tasks, concentrating, understanding, following instructions, and getting along with others. She handled stress okay with her depression/anxiety medication but not at all without it. She experienced “wicked” dreams. (Tr. 234-46)

         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)). ...

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