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Turner v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Central Division

March 25, 2014

ROBERT TURNER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

ORDER

DONALD E. O'BRIEN, Senior District Judge.

This matter is before the Court pursuant to Ismael Soria's [hereinafter Mr. Soria] application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. The parties appeared for a hearing on August 29, 2013. This is an unusual case in that the Plaintiff has not asked for an award of benefits, but has only asked his case be remanded so the record can be further developed. After considering the parties' arguments, the Court took the matter under advisement and now enters the following.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Mr. Turner was born May 22, 1969, and was 43 at the time of the hearing. He has a high school education. He took some college courses immediately proceeding the alleged onset date, but has no degree. He lives with his girlfriend in Rockwell City, Iowa. He alleges disability based primarily on the loss of his sight. Mr. Turner lost most of his vision on July 15, 2010, due to a retinal hemorrhage which left him blind in his right eye and with very poor vision in his left eye due to branch retinal vein occlusion and multiple hemorrhages. Mr. Turner also recently suffered from a severe gastrointestinal bleeding issue which developed in 2012. Finally, in September 2008, Mr. Turner was injured in a motorcycle accident wherein he was traveling approximately sixty-five miles per hour and struck another vehicle. He suffered torn right posterior ligament of his right knee, multiple soft tissue injuries, and compression syndrome of his right lower extremity which required fasciotomy.[2] As a result of this injury, Mr. Turner was prescribed a leg brace and advised to use an ambulatory device when needed.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

This is a proceeding under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. Section 405(g) of the Act provides for judicial review of a "final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration [("SSA")]." Mr. Turner filed for disability benefits under Title II on August 3, 2010, with an alleged onset date of July 15, 2010. Mr. Turner's claim was denied initially March 28, 2011, and on reconsideration on July 6, 2011. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge on July 6, 2012. Mr. Turner appeared at the hearing pro se. On July 27, 2012, following the hearing, the administrative law judge ("ALJ") found Mr. Turner was not under a "disability" as defined in the Act. Following denial by the ALJ, Mr. Turner retained counsel, appealed his case to the Appeals Council, who denied it on December 18, 2012. Mr. Turner filed the present Complaint on February 8, 2013.

The ALJ set out the issue presently before the Court:

[t]he issue is whether the claimant is disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. Disability is defined as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. There is an additional issue whether the insured status requirements of sections 216(i) and 223 of the Social Security Act are met. The claimant's earnings record shows that the claimant has acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to remain insured through December 31, 2013. Thus, the claimant must establish disability on or before that date in order to be entitled to a period of disability and disability insurance benefits.

Docket No. 10, Tr. 22.

Under the authority of the Social Security Act, the Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The five successive steps are: (1) determination of whether a plaintiff is engaged in "substantial gainful activity, " (2) determination of whether a plaintiff has a "severe medically determinable physical or medical impairment" that lasts for at least 12 months, (3) determination of whether a plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the criteria of a listed impairment, (4) determination of whether a plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) indicates an incapacity to perform the requirements of their past relevant work, and (5) determination of whether, given a plaintiff's RFC, age, education and work experience, a plaintiff can "make an adjustment to other work." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(4)(i-v).

At step one, if a plaintiff is engaged in "substantial gainful activity" within the claimed period of disability, there is no disability during that time. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). At step 2, if a plaintiff does not have a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment" that lasts at least 12 months, there is no disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). At step 3, if a plaintiff's impairments meet or medically equal the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and lasts at least 12 months, a plaintiff is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Before proceeding to step 4 and 5, the ALJ must determine a plaintiff's Residual

Functional Capacity [RFC]. RFC is the "most" a person "can still do" despite their limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The RFC an ALJ assigns a plaintiff has been referred to as the "most important issue in a disability case...." Malloy v. Astrue , 604 F.Supp.2d 1247, 1250 (S.D. Iowa 2009) (citing McCoy v. Schweiker , 683 F.2d 1138, 1147 (8th Cir. 1982)(en banc)). When determining RFC, the ALJ must consider all of the relevant evidence and all of the Plaintiff's impairments, even those which are not deemed severe, as well as limitations which result from symptoms, such as pain. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(2) and (3). An ALJ "may not simply draw his own inferences about a plaintiff's functional ability from medical reports." Strongson v. Barnhart , 361 F.3d 1066, 1070 (8th Cir. 2004).

At step 4, if, given a plaintiff's RFC, a plaintiff can still perform their past relevant work, there is no disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). At step 5, if, given a plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience, a plaintiff can make an adjustment to other work, there is no disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) and 416.920(a)(4)(v). This step requires the ALJ to provide "evidence" that a plaintiff could perform "other work [that] exists in significant numbers in the national economy." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2). In other words, at step 5, the burden of proof shifts from a plaintiff to the Commissioner of the S.S.A.. Basinger v. Heckler , 725 F.2d 1166, 1168 (8th Cir. 1984). The ALJ generally calls a Vocational Expert (VE) to aid in determining whether this burden can be met.

In this case, the ALJ applied the appropriate methodology and found that Mr. Turner has not engaged in substantial gainful employment since July 15, 2010. The ALJ found two severe impairments, hypertensive retinopathy and a history of posterior ligament tear in his right knee. The ALJ noted other, non-severe impairments of diabetes, high blood pressure, and rectal bleeding. However, the ALJ found that Mr. Turner did not suffer from a disability as contemplated by the Social Security Code. Specifically, the ALJ stated:

[t]he claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526). Although the claimant has sustained substantial visual loss in his right eye due to retinal hemorrhage, the damage in his left eye would be mainly from hypertensive retinopathy. In that eye, he may have some difficulty with depth perception and especially with trying to do fine, detailed work but his visual acuity measurements do not approach listing level severity. His elevated blood pressure readings have indicated adequate control with anti-hypertensive ...

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