United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Central Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
LEONARD T. STRAND, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Tana King seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income benefits (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. (Act). King contends that the administrative record (AR) does not contain substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision that she was not disabled during the relevant period of time. For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision will be reversed and remanded for further proceedings.
King was born in 1969 and previously worked as a fast food worker, cashier, dining room attendant and short order cook. AR 304, 354. She initially filed for SSI on July 26, 2005, claiming disability due to polysubstance abuse, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorder, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, headaches, hepatitis C and poor dentition. AR 46, 48. Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. AR 72-79. She then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which was held on October 3, 2007. AR 1256-75. On November 30, 2007, ALJ Gary Shelton issued a decision denying King's claim. AR 43-52. On April 2, 2010, the Appeals Council vacated the decision and remanded King's claim to obtain additional evidence and associate King's subsequent Title XVI application dated December 8, 2009. AR 98-101. ALJ Jo Ann Draper held hearings on September 7, 2010, and October 19, 2010. AR 1276-1337. She then issued a decision on November 23, 2010, denying King's claim. AR 54-64. On May 3, 2012, the Appeals Council again vacated the decision and remanded King's claim to obtain additional evidence and consider the associated claims. AR 65-69. ALJ Draper held a hearing on December 6, 2012, during which King and a vocational expert (VE) testified. AR 1338-63. The ALJ then issued a decision on April 22, 2013, finding King had not been disabled from July 26, 2005, through the date of the decision. AR 18-39. King sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council and it denied review on June 25, 2013. AR 9-11. The ALJ's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1; 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.
On August 13, 2013, King filed a complaint (Doc. No. 6) in this court seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. On September 10, 2013, with the parties' consent (Doc. No. 9), the Honorable Mark W. Bennett transferred this case to me for final disposition and entry of judgment. The parties have briefed the issues and the matter is now fully submitted.
II. DISABILITY DETERMINATIONS AND THE BURDEN OF PROOF
A disability is defined as the 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 that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905. A claimant has a disability when the claimant is "not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists... in significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
To determine whether a claimant has a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process outlined in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; see Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007). First, the Commissioner will consider a claimant's work activity. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i).
Second, if the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner looks to see "whether the claimant has a severe impairment that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities." Dixon v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 602, 605 (8th Cir. 2003). "An impairment is not severe if it amounts only to a slight abnormality that would not significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." Kirby, 500 F.3d at 707; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(c), 416.921(a).
The ability to do basic work activities is defined as "the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." 20 C.F.R. § 416.921(b). These abilities and aptitudes include (1) physical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, or handling; (2) capacities for seeing, hearing, and speaking; (3) understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; (4) use of judgment; (5) responding appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and usual work situations; and (6) dealing with changes in a routine work setting. Id. § 416.921(b)(1)-(6); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 141, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2291 (1987). "The sequential evaluation process may be terminated at step two only when the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments would have no more than a minimal impact on her ability to work." Page v. Astrue, 484 F.3d 1040, 1043 (8th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Third, if the claimant has a severe impairment, then the Commissioner will consider the medical severity of the impairment. If the impairment meets or equals one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the regulations, then the claimant is considered disabled, regardless of age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d); see Kelley v. Callahan, 133 F.3d 583, 588 (8th Cir. 1998).
Fourth, if the claimant's impairment is severe, but it does not meet or equal one of the presumptively disabling impairments, then the Commissioner will assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) to determine the claimant's "ability to meet the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements" of the claimant's past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.945(a)(4). "RFC is a medical question defined wholly in terms of the claimant's physical ability to perform exertional tasks or, in other words, what the claimant can still do despite his or her physical or mental limitations." Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted); see 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). The claimant is responsible for providing evidence the Commissioner will use to make a finding as to the claimant's RFC, but the Commissioner is responsible for developing the claimant's "complete medical history, including arranging for a consultative examination(s) if necessary, and making every reasonable effort to help [the claimant] get medical reports from [the claimant's] own medical sources." 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(3). The Commissioner also will consider certain non-medical evidence and other evidence listed in the regulations. See id. If a claimant retains the RFC to perform past relevant work, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv).
Fifth, if the claimant's RFC as determined in Step Four will not allow the claimant to perform past relevant work, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that there is other work that the claimant can do, given the claimant's RFC as determined at Step Four, and his or her age, education, and work experience. See Bladow v. Apfel, 205 F.3d 356, 358-59 n.5 (8th Cir. 2000). The Commissioner must prove not only that the claimant's RFC will allow the claimant to make an adjustment to other work, but also that the other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, then the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, then the Commissioner will find that the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). At Step Five, even though the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner, the burden of persuasion to prove disability remains on the claimant. Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2004).
III. ALJ'S FINDINGS
The ALJ made the following findings in the most recent decision:
(1) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 26, 2005, the application date (20 CFR 416.971 et seq. ).
(2) The claimant has the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder; posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); personality disorder; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema; borderline intellectual functioning; hepatitis C; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine (20 CFR 416.920(c)).
(3) The 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 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
(4) After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except she could only handle and finger bilaterally on an occasional basis. She should have no more than occasional exposure to extreme heat, cold, and humidity. She should have no exposure to pulmonary irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts, and gases. She would be limited to tasks that could be learned in thirty days or less involving no more than simple work-related decisions with only occasional workplace changes. She should have no more than occasional interaction with the public or coworkers.
(5) The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 416.965).
(6) The claimant was born on May 7, 1969 and was 36 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date the application was filed (20 CFR 416.963).
(7) The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 416.964).
(8) Transferability of job skills is not an issue in this case because the claimant's past relevant work is unskilled (20 CFR 416.968).
(9) Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 415.969 and 416.969(a)).
(10) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since July 26, 2005, the date the application was filed (20 CFR 416.920(g)).
IV. THE SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE STANDARD
The Commissioner's decision must be affirmed "if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole." Pelkey v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 577 (8th Cir. 2006); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...."). "Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lewis, 353 F.3d at 645. The Eighth Circuit explains the standard as "something less than the weight of the evidence and [that] allows for the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions, thus it embodies a zone of ...