United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Central Division
DALE L. HILDEBRAND, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
DONALD E. O'BRIEN, Senior District Judge.
This matter is before the Court pursuant to Dale Hildebrand's [hereinafter Mr. Hildebrand] application for supplemental security income (SSI). The parties appeared for a hearing on March 25, 2014. After considering the parties' arguments, the Court took the matter under advisement and now enters the following.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Mr. Hildebrand was born in 1958. He was 50 years old on the alleged onset date, and was 53 at the time of the ALJ's decision. He lives with his girlfriend in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He is divorced and has little contact with his children (one of whom is deceased). Mr. Hildebrand has limited education. He took special education classes in high school, dropped out in the 11th grade, went into the army, and eventually got a GED. Mr. Hildebrand's past relevant work included work as a tractor-trailer truck driver and shag driver. Most of his adult jobs have involved truck driving. He has not worked since prior to his alleged onset date in 2008.
Mr. Hildebrand claims disability based on diabetes, specifically pain and sensation loss in extremities caused by the diabetes, and various mental and emotional issues.
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Mr. Hildebrand filed his application for supplemental security income on April 30, 2009, alleging an onset date of December 1, 2008. The Social Security Administration denied Mr. Hildebrand's application on March 24, 2010, and upon reconsideration August 5, 2010. On January 9, 2012, Mr. Hildebrand appeared for telephonic hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). ALJ David Buell heard Mr. Hildebrand's claim and denied it on February 7, 2012. Mr. Hildebrand appealed to the Appeals Council, who denied his claim on June 25, 2013. Mr. Hildebrand filed the present Complaint on August 1, 2013.
The ALJ set out the issue presently before the Court:
[t]he issue is whether the claimant is disabled under section 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. Although supplemental security income is not payable prior to the month following the month in which the application was filed (20 CFR 416.335), the undersigned has considered the complete medical history consistent with 20 CFR 416.912(d).
Docket No. 7, 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) abrogated on other grounds by Higgins v. Apfel , 222 F.3d 504, 505 (8th Cir. 2000)). 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. Hildebrand had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since April 30, 2009. The ALJ stated that Mr. Hildebrand has severe impairments including diabetes mellitus and affective disorder. However, the ALJ found that Mr. Hildebrand 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 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). The claimant's representative has not introduced evidence or advanced an argument supporting a conclusion that any of the claimant's impairments meet or medically equal a listed impairment. After a review of the entire record, the undersigned finds the evidence does not establish that the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
Docket No. 7, Tr. 13. The ALJ considered Mr. Hildebrand's mental impairments using the "paragraph B" criteria and the "paragraph C" criteria as set out in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926), and determined that Mr. Hildebrand's mental impairment did not meet either set of requirements. Docket No. 7, Tr. 14.
The ALJ went on to consider residual functional capacity and concluded:
[a]fter 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 C.F.R. § 416.967(b) except he cannot operate foot controls; he must avoid exposure to hazards such as work at unprotected heights or work near unguarded moving machinery; he is limited to performing simple, repetitive, and routine work that does not require any close attention to detail or the use of independent judgment; he should not interact with the general public; he should have only occasional and superficial interaction with co-workers so he is unable to perform work that requires him to work as a team or cooperate with co-workers; and he can occasionally, up to one-third of the time, be physically present with co-workers, but he cannot work jointly with them.
Docket No. 7 Tr. 15. The ALJ then considered the plaintiff's credibility under the Polaski standard and stated:
[t]he claimant alleges disability based on his depression, difficulty standing without leg pain, and diabetes mellitus with peripheral neuropathy in his hands and feet (Exhibits 2E/2; 7E/1; and 11E/1). At the hearing, he testified he was fired from his last job as a truck driver due to his anger control problems, insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, and because his employer believed he tried to run someone over with his truck. He reported difficulty being around a lot of people, anger control problems, memory problems, difficulty standing for extended periods of time, and diabetes mellitus with lower extremity pain and numbness as well as tingling in his fingers, hands, and feet. He also testified he does not like to leave the house and spends two to three days per week in bed.
With regard to treatment, he testified he has been taking insulin once a day for three years for his diabetes, which causes dizziness. However, he also stated he does not go to the doctor as much as he should due to financial constraints. As for his residual functional capacity, he stated he could walk 1 ½ blocks and stand for five to ten minutes at a time. Finally, he testified he could shop for groceries, prepare meals, provide for his own personal care, wash the dishes, and vacuum. The claimant's girlfriend and roommate, Jane Remley, similarly testified the claimant could not work due to his anxiety, anger control problems, mood swings, and auditory hallucinations. Ms. Remley further testified the claimant has multiple personalities and that recently a personality named "Bob" has taken over, but there is no objective medical evidence to support any psychosis or multiple personality disorder. Additionally, Ms. Remley testified the claimant spends most of the day sleeping and does not perform any household chores.
The claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause at least some of the symptoms he alleged. However, his statements and the statements of Ms. Remley concerning the intensity, persistence, and ...