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James v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division

December 18, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Pending is Plaintiff's appeal of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.


         The Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to a determination of whether the decision is “supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but…enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the conclusion.” Andrews v. Colvin, 791 F.3d 923, 928 (8th Cir. 2015) (citations omitted). “As long as substantial evidence in the record supports the Commissioner's decision, we may not reverse it because substantial evidence exists in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome, or because we would have decided the case differently.” Cline v. Colvin, 771 F.3d 1098, 1102 (8th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). Though advantageous to the Commissioner, this standard also requires the Court consider evidence that fairly detracts from the final decision. Anderson v. Astrue, 696 F.3d 790, 793 (8th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). Substantial evidence means “more than a mere scintilla” of evidence; it is relevant evidence a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Gragg v. Astrue, 615 F.3d 932, 938 (8th Cir. 2010).


         Plaintiff was born in 1977 and has a high school education. R. at 39-40, 179, 181. She previously worked as a cashier and hair stylist. R. at 41-42, 214, 225-26, 257, 265. In December 2016, Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of October 21, 2015. R. at 16, 179-88, 193-94. In July 2017, her applications were denied. R. at 104-08, 111-15. She requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). R. 171-75.

         A hearing was held in July 2018. R. at 34-56. Thereafter, the ALJ issued a decision, finding Plaintiff is not disabled. R. at 16-28. She concluded Plaintiff's severe impairments are lumbar and cervical spondylosis, obesity, and chronic bronchitis. R. at 18. The ALJ found Plaintiff has the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

She could lift and carry 10 pounds frequently. She could stand or walk for 2 hours and sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. She could not perform work requiring the operation of foot controls, or the climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, or crawling. She requires the ability to alternate sitting and standing while at the workstation on task every hour for a few minutes, but not an extended period of time. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, and crouch. She can frequently balance on uneven surfaces. She cannot perform overhead work. The claimant must avoid more than occasional exposure to pulmonary irritants, extreme heat, unprotected heights, and hazardous machinery.

R. at 21. Based on the RFC and the vocational expert's (“VE”) testimony at the hearing, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff can work as a lens inserter, wire wrapper, and production checker. R. at 27. Plaintiff unsuccessfully appealed the decision to the Appeals Council. R. at 1-3. She now appeals to this Court.


         A. Commissioner's Decision at Issue

         Plaintiff asks the Court to reverse the Commissioner's decisions regarding her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Doc. #3; Doc. #9. Defendant contends only his decision denying Plaintiff's application for supplemental security income is at issue in this appeal. Doc. #10, at 1. Although she could have responded to the Commissioner's argument, Plaintiff has not done so, and the time for doing so has passed. L.R. 9.1(d)(3)(c). Regardless, Plaintiff's counsel, during the hearing before the ALJ, conceded the hearing was related only to Plaintiff's application for supplemental security income benefits. R. at 38.

         The ALJ found Plaintiff failed to demonstrate she was disabled on or before September 30, 2014, the date she was last insured. R. at 16. Therefore, Plaintiff did not meet the requirements for disability insurance benefits. Id. The ALJ also noted Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date “well past” the date she was last insured, and her prior application for benefits was denied on October 20, 2015, after she was last insured. Id. The ALJ determined there was “no basis to reopen the prior application and administrative finality applies through October 20, 2015.” Id. For these reasons, the ALJ affirmed the initial determination that Plaintiff was ineligible for disability insurance benefits and dismissed Plaintiff's request for a hearing on those benefits. Id. (citation omitted). When affirming the ALJ's decision, the Appeals Council found the ALJ “dismissed…your request for hearing regarding whether you were disabled on or before September 30, 2014, the date you were last insured for purposes of disability insurance benefits….” R. at 1. The Appeals Council concluded there was no reason to review the ALJ's dismissal. Id.

         “The dismissal of a request for a hearing is binding, unless it is vacated by an administrative law judge or the Appeals Council.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.959. Neither the ALJ nor the Appeals Council vacated the denial of Plaintiff's request for a hearing on her disability insurance benefits application. Hence, the Commissioner's decision on Plaintiff's disability insurance benefits application is not before this Court. Only the Commissioner's decision on her supplemental security income application is at issue.

         B. Plaintiff's RFC

         Plaintiff argues the RFC formulated by the ALJ was not based on the substantial evidence on the record, and thus, this matter must be reversed. One's RFC is the “most you can still do despite your limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ must base the RFC on “all of the relevant evidence, including the medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and an individual's own description of his limitations.” McKinney v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000). Because the RFC is a medical question, “an ALJ's assessment of it must be supported by some medical evidence of [Plaintiff's] ability to function in the workplace.” Hensley ...

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