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Smith v. Saul

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

September 23, 2019

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



         This action is before this Court for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security finding that Plaintiff Rodney Smith was not disabled, and thus not entitled to disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, or supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner will be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.


         The Court adopts the statement of facts contained in Plaintiff’s brief (ECF No. 17), which the Commissioner has admitted and supplemented (ECF No. 22-1), and the Commissioner’s Statement of Additional Facts (ECF No. 22-2), which Plaintiff has not refuted. Together, these statements provide a fair description of the record before the Court. Specific facts will be discussed as needed to address the parties’ arguments.

         Plaintiff, who was born on April 4, 1962, filed his applications for benefits on December 4, 2014. He alleged disability beginning October 1, 2014, due to atrial fibrillation, panic disorder, Dupuytren’s disease, and knee problems. On May 15, 2015, Plaintiff’s applications were denied at the administrative level, and he thereafter requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).

         A hearing was held on November 10, 2016, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. A supplemental hearing was held on May 23, 2017, to take the testimony of an impartial medical expert, Delano Bolter, M.D. By decision dated July 12, 2017, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform less than the full range of “light” work, as defined by the Commissioner’s regulations, in that:

[H]e can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. He can stand and/or walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday and sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday except he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs and he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can occasionally kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can frequently handle and finger. He would need to avoid hazards, such as dangerous machinery or unprotected heights. He is capable of performing simple, routine tasks throughout the workday with occasional interaction with supervisors and coworkers. Occasionally is defined as cumulatively comprising of no more than one-third of the total workday. He should not be required to communicate with the general public on behalf of the employer.

Tr. 16.

         The ALJ next found that, prior to April 3, 2017-when Plaintiff’s age category changed to an individual of “advanced age, ” as defined by the Commissioner’s regulations-Plaintiff could perform certain unskilled jobs listed in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) (cleaner; small parts assembler; and inspector / hand packager), which the VE testified that a hypothetical person with Plaintiff’s RFC and vocational factors (age, education, work experience) could perform and that were available in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act prior to April 3, 2017. However, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was disabled from April 3, 2017 through the date of the ALJ’s decision, as a result of the age-category change and the direct application of the Commissioner’s Medical-Vocational Guidelines (“Guidelines”), [2] 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, Rule 202.02, which compelled a finding of disability for that time period.[3]

         Plaintiff filed a timely request for review by the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration, which was denied on March 5, 2018. Plaintiff has thus exhausted all administrative remedies, and the ALJ’s decision stands as the final agency action now under review.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) giving “great weight” to the opinion of the medical expert, Dr. Bolter, as to the extent of Plaintiff’s mental impairment, despite discounting some of the evidence upon which Dr. Bolter relied; (2) failing to support with sufficient medical evidence the RFC’s physical limitations, particularly as to the length of time Plaintiff can stand and/or walk in an eight-hour workday; (3) failing to properly evaluate the medical opinion evidence provided by Plaintiff’s treating psychiatric nurse practitioner, Catherine Browning, DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice); and (4) improperly discrediting Plaintiff’s subjective complaints based upon his daily activities. Plaintiff asks that the ALJ’s decision be reversed and that he be awarded full benefits, or alternatively, that the case be remanded for further development of the record.


         Standard of Review and Statutory Framework

         In reviewing the denial of Social Security disability benefits, a court must review the entire administrative record to determine whether the ALJ’s findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Johnson v. Astrue, 628 F.3d 991, 992 (8th Cir. 2011). The court “may not reverse merely because substantial evidence would support a contrary outcome. Substantial evidence is that which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (cleaned up and citations omitted). A reviewing court “must consider evidence that both supports and detracts from the ALJ’s decision. If, after review, [the court finds] it possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the Commissioner’s findings, [the court] must affirm the decision of the Commissioner.” Chaney v. Colvin, 812 F.3d 672, 676 (8th Cir. 2016) (citations omitted). Put another way, a court should “disturb the ALJ’s decision only if it falls outside the ...

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