United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division
MYRA L. PERRIGO, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
DONALD E. O'BRIEN, Senior District Judge.
This matter is before the Court pursuant to Myra Perrigo's [hereinafter Ms. Perrigo] application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq, and application for supplemental security income benefits ("SSI") based on disability under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq. The parties appeared for a hearing on August 26, 2013. After considering the parties' arguments, the Court took the matter under advisement and now enters the following:
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Ms. Perrigo was born January 27, 1956, and was 55 years old at the time of the hearing. She lives alone in an apartment in Milford, Iowa. She is divorced, with no minor children. She is a high school graduate and attended some college, but has no degree. Her last significant employment was at Winnebago Industries as a saw operator from 1999-2004. Prior to that, she worked as child care worker, a telemarketer, a poultry dresser, and as an assembly bench worker. She alleges disability under a number of conditions that will be addressed more fully below.
Ms. Perrigo testified that prior to her knee replacement in 2009, that "my knee would creak so bad that you could hear it." Docket No. 6, Tr. 48. She went on to say that her knee was very painful and that she could barely get up and down the stairs. Docket No. 6, Tr. 48. Ms. Perrigo stated that she could not stand for any length of time. She told the ALJ that her knee problems predated her surgery by at least a year. Docket No. 6, Tr. 49.
Ms. Perrigo testified about the breakdown she suffered in 2009. Docket No. 6, Tr. 47. She was involuntary hospitalized on June 5, 2009, after an incident in which she attacked her mother. Id . Since that involuntary commitment, she has been subject to court ordered mental health treatment. Docket No. 6, Tr. 46-47.
Ms. Perrigo testified that when she worked at Winnebago, she tore a rotator cuff that required surgical correction. Docket No. 6, Tr. 53. She testified that she never regained full use of her shoulder after surgery. Docket No. 6, Tr. 53.
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On March 3, 2009, Ms. Perrigo protectively filed for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. Plaintiff also filed an application for supplemental security income benefits ("SSI") based on disability under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq. Ms. Perrigo alleged an onset date of May 18, 2004. The claims were denied initially on September 1, 2009, and on reconsideration on March 9, 2010. On May 10,
2011, the Plaintiff appeared in Spencer, Iowa, for a telephone hearing. On June 23, 2011, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Act prior to January 26, 2011. However, the ALJ found that as of January 26, 2011, plaintiff was disabled (Tr. 8-25). Ms. Perrigo appealed the denial of benefits prior to January 26, 2011, to the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied her request on September 9, 2012. Ms. Perrigo filed the present Complaint on November 21, 2012.
The ALJ set out the issue presently before the Court:
[t]he issue is whether the claimant is disabled under sections 216(i), 223(d) and 1614(a)(3)(A) 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. With respect to the claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, 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, 2009. 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. 6, Tr. 11.
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 last 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 Ms. Perrigo meets the insured status requirements through December 31, 2009. Additionally, the ALJ found that Ms. Perrigo has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Docket No. 6, Tr. 13. The ALJ stated that Ms. Perrigo suffers from the following severe impairments: obesity; arthritis of the right knee (total knee replacement in 2009); carpal tunnel syndrome; right shoulder pain (status post decompression surgery 2004) and depression (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)). Docket No. 6, Tr. 13. The ALJ also found that Ms. Perrigo had several non-severe impairments, including: lupus, breast cancer, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and fibromyalgia. However, the ALJ found that Ms. Perrigo did not suffer from a disability as contemplated by the Social Security Code from her alleged onset date until January 26, 2011. Specifically, the ALJ stated:
[s]ince the alleged onset date of disability, May 18, 2004, the claimant has not had an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). Although the claimant has impairments which are considered to be "severe", they are not attended, singly or in combination, with the specific clinical signs and diagnostic findings required to meet or equal the requirements set forth in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4.
Docket No. 6, Tr. 15. The ALJ applied the appropriate methodology and found that Ms. Perrigo only had mild restrictions in daily function based on her mental disorders. Docket No. 6, Tr. 15-16.
The ALJ went on to consider residual functional capacity and concluded:
[a]fter careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that since May 18, 2004, the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform less than a full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). She can frequently lift ten pounds and occasionally lift twenty pounds. The claimant is able to sit, stand or walk for six hours each in an eight-hour workday. She is able to handle and finger frequently and occasionally reach overhead and in other directions. The claimant can continuously push and/or pull at a light strength level. She can occasionally climb stairs or ramps, but never ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant is limited to occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching or crawling. She can be exposed to unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts and extreme vibrations occasionally. The claimant is able to understand short, simple instructions and can be exposed to brief and superficial contact with others.
Docket No. 6, Tr. 16-17. The ALJ then considered the plaintiff's credibility under the Polaski standard and stated:
[i]n making this finding, the undersigned has considered all symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence, based on the requirements of 20 CFR 404.1529 and 416.929 and SSRs 96-4p and 96-7p. The undersigned has also considered opinion evidence in accordance with the requirements of 20 CFR 404.1527 and 416.927 and SSRs 96-2p, 96-5p, 96-6p and 06-3p... Because a claimant's symptoms can sometimes suggest a greater level of severity of impairment than can be shown by the objective medical evidence alone, 20 CFR 404.1529(c) and 416.929(c) describe the kinds of evidence, including the factors below, that the undersigned must consider in addition to the objective medical evidence when assessing the credibility of the claimant's statements... After careful consideration of the evidence, the undersigned finds that the claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the residual functional capacity assessment.
Docket No. 6, Tr. 17-18. The ALJ considered each of Ms. Perrigo's severe impairments and determined that they were not debilitating at the ...