United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Central Division
DONALD E. O'BRIEN, Senior District Judge.
This matter is before the Court pursuant to Gail Robinson's [hereinafter Ms. Robinson] 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 1, 2013. After considering the parties' arguments, the Court took the matter under advisement and now enters the following.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Ms. Robinson was born on 12/28/1962. She was 49 years old at the time of the hearing. She is single and lives with her sister and sister's boyfriend in Gowrie, Iowa. She has a GED but no other significant education. She is the mother of an adult daughter and has two grandchildren.
Ms. Robinson has a short work history. For a short time, she worked part time as a paid dock worker.' Her last significant employment was as a production worker at Electrolux, a company in Webster City, Iowa. She left that job shortly before she was scheduled to be laid off. Ms. Robinson claims disability based on a number of issues that will be discussed below.
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Ms. Robinson brings this suit challenging the Commissioner's decision regarding her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. She protectively filed her application on October 13, 2009. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on June 16, 2010, and on reconsideration on October 29, 2010. On January 12, 2012, Ms. Robinson appeared for a telephone hearing in Fort Dodge, Iowa. On February 17, 2012, following the hearing, the administrative law judge ("ALJ") found that Ms. Robinson was not under a disability. Ms. Robinson appealed her claim to the Appeals Council, who denied her claim on December 26, 2012. Ms. Robinson filed the present Complaint on February 7, 2013.
The ALJ set out the issue presently before the Court:
[t]he issue is whether claimant is disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act, as amended. 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, as amended, are met.
Docket No. 8, Tr. 9-10.
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) abrogated on other grounds by Higgins v. Apfel , 222 F.3d 504, 505 (8th Cir. 2000)). When determining the 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. Robinson had not previously engaged in substantial gainful employment. The ALJ stated that Ms. Robinson suffers from the following combination of impairments that together are severe: fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, status post cervical fusion, obesity, affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and a possible personality disorder. However, the ALJ found that Ms. Robinson did not suffer from a disability as contemplated by the Social Security Code. Specifically, the ALJ stated:
[c]laimant 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). Neither claimant nor her attorney has contended her combined impairments meet the specific severity requirements of any impairment set forth in the Listing of Impairments. Claimant bears the burden of proof at this step of the sequential evaluation process and does not meet it.
Docket No. 8, Tr. 14. The ALJ largely based his decision on the statements of the state agency medical consultants. The ALJ stated:
Laura Griffith, D.O., and John May, M.D., each a state agency medical consultant, mutually opined that claimant's combined physical impairments, including consideration of those that are "severe" and not "severe" within the meaning of the regulations, do not meet or medically equal the specific severity requirements of any physical impairment set forth in the Listing of Impairments. The Administrative Law Judge accords great weight to the mutually supportive opinions provided by Drs. Griffith and May at this step of the sequential evaluation process. They are each not only a board-certified physician, a well-qualified physical healthcare specialist and an "acceptable medical source" as defined in 20 CFR 404.1513 and SSR 06-3p, but also each retains specific expertise regarding evaluations of physical impairments set forth in the Listing of Impairments and the disability programs administered by the Social Security Administration. Further, their opinions are consistent with objective and clinical findings set forth in contemporaneous treatment notes and the report from a consultative medical examiner that do not establish that her combined physical impairments result in the requisite degrees of anatomical deformity, bony abnormality, joint dysfunction, gross and fine motor deficits or other neurological deficits, ambulatory deficits, sleep-related breathing deficits, gastrointestinal deficits, or endocrinal deficits sufficient to meet the specific severity requirements set forth in Sections 1.00, 3.00, 5.00, 9.00, or 11.00 of the Listing of Impairments, or any other physical impairment set forth therein.
Docket No. 8, Tr. 14. The ALJ also determined that Ms. Robinson did not have a mental impairment as defined by Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4.
The ALJ went on to consider residual functional capacity and concluded:
[a]fter careful consideration of the entire evidentiary record, the Administrative Law Judge finds that, from June 12, 2009, through the date of this Decision, claimant has retained the residual functional capacity to lift, carry, push, or pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She can sit, stand, or walk each for 6 hours total throughout the course of a normal 8-hour workday with normal breaks. She retains the capacity to occasionally perform basic postural work-related activities including climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling. She retains the capacity to perform basic manipulative work-related activities including reaching, handling, fingering, and feeling within the above-cited weight limits. She retains no significant communicative or sensory work-related limitation regarding her ability to see with corrective lenses, hear, speak, taste, or smell, and no significant environmental limitation. She is restricted to no more than simple, routine, repetitive work, but otherwise retains the capacity to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions or tasks; use simple judgment; respond appropriately to supervisors, coworkers, and usual work situations; and deal with changes in a typical work setting.
Docket No. 8, Tr. 15. The ALJ then considered the plaintiff's credibility under the Polaski standard and stated:
[a]fter careful consideration of the entire evidentiary record, the Administrative Law Judge finds evidence, the undersigned finds that claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some pain and some of the other physical and mental symptoms alleged; however, claimant's allegations, as well as those of her sister reflected in a third party questionnaire (Exhibit 5E), regarding the intensity, persistence, and overall limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible as they are inconsistent with objective and clinical findings reflected in contemporaneous medical treatment records, the clinical findings reported by a consultative medical examiner, the medical opinions provided by state agency medical and psychological consultants, and a preponderance of the evidence as a whole as discussed more fully below. Moreover, there are other factors discussed more fully below that detract from claimant's general credibility regarding the degrees of pain and other physical and mental limitations and restrictions she and her sister allege in this appeal.
Docket No. 8, Tr. 15-16. The ALJ also considered Ms. Robinson's testimony that she did little housework because of her pain. The ALJ did not find Ms. ...