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Duncan v. Saul

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

September 27, 2019

SHERRY DUNCAN, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL[1], Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          NANNETTE A. BAKER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Sherry Duncan’s appeal regarding the denial of supplemental security income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act. The Court has jurisdiction over the subject matter of this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties have consented to the exercise of authority by the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). [Doc. 8.] The Court has reviewed the parties’ briefs and the entire administrative record, including the transcript and medical evidence. Based on the following, the Court will affirm the Commissioner’s decision.

         Issue for Review

         Duncan presents one issue for review. She contends that the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination is not supported by substantial evidence in the record, because the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) failed to fully develop the record. The Commissioner asserts that the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and should be affirmed.

         Standard of Review

         The Social Security Act defines disability as an “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 has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1)(A).

         The standard of review is narrow. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001). This Court reviews the decision of the ALJ to determine whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind would find adequate support for the ALJ’s decision. Smith v. Shalala, 31 F.3d 715, 717 (8th Cir. 1994). The Court determines whether evidence is substantial by considering evidence that detracts from the Commissioner’s decision as well as evidence that supports it. Cox v. Barnhart, 471 F.3d 902, 906 (8th Cir. 2006). The Court may not reverse just because substantial evidence exists that would support a contrary outcome or because the Court would have decided the case differently. Id. If, after reviewing the record as a whole, the Court finds it possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the Commissioner’s finding, the Commissioner’s decision must be affirmed. Masterson v. Barnhart, 363 F.3d 731, 736 (8th Cir. 2004).

         The Court must affirm the Commissioner’s decision so long as it conforms to the law and is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Collins ex rel. Williams v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 726, 729 (8th Cir. 2003). “In this substantial-evidence determination, the entire administrative record is considered but the evidence is not reweighed.” Byes v. Astrue, 687 F.3d 913, 915 (8th Cir. 2012).

         Discussion

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to fully develop the record in this case resulting in a residual functional capacity determination that is not supported by substantial evidence and an erroneous finding of no disability.

         ALJ’s Duty to Fully Develop the Record

          The ALJ has a duty to fully develop the record. Smith v. Barnhart, 435 F.3d 926, 930 (8th Cir. 2006). In some cases, this duty requires the ALJ to obtain additional medical evidence, such as a consultative examination of the claimant, before rendering a decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.919a(b). “There is no bright line test for determining when the [Commissioner] has failed to develop the record. The determination in each case must be made on a case by case basis.” Battles v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 43, 45 (8th Cir. 1994). A claimant for social security disability benefits has the responsibility to provide medical evidence demonstrating the existence of an impairment and its severity during the period of disability and how the impairment affects the claimant’s functioning. 20 C.F.R. § 416.912. “Failing to develop the record is reversible error when it does not contain enough evidence to determine the impact of a claimant’s impairment on his ability to work.” Byes, 687 F.3d at 916. “Reversal due to failure to develop the record is only warranted where such failure is unfair or prejudicial.” Twyford v. Commissioner, 929 F.3d 512, 517 n. 3 (8th Cir. 2019) (citing Shannon v. Chater, 54 F.3d 484, 488 (8th Cir. 1995)).

         The ALJ’s duty to develop the record extends even to cases where an attorney represented the claimant at the administrative hearing. Snead v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d 834, 838 (8th Cir. 2004). “The ALJ possesses no interest in denying benefits and must act neutrally in developing the record.” Snead, 360 F.3d at 838. The Commissioner and the claimant’s attorney both share the goal of ensuring that deserving claimants who apply for benefits receive justice. Battles v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 43, 44 (8th Cir. 1994). The ALJ’s duty is not never-ending and an ALJ is not required to disprove every possible impairment. McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 612 (8th Cir. 2011).

         In her application for benefits, Duncan indicates that she is unable to work due to degenerative disc disease, several bulging discs, wrist problems, and depression. Her alleged onset date is ...


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