United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division
Filed February 3, 2015
As Amended February 11, 2015
For Bonnie Jean Gann, Plaintiff: Jay Elliott Denne, LEAD ATTORNEY, Munger, Reinschmidt & Denne, Sioux City, IA.
For Commissioner of Social Security, agent of Carolyn W Colvin, Defendant: Stephanie Johnson Wright, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. Attorney's Office, Northern District of Iowa, Cedar Rapids, IA; Chris Carillo, Social Security Administration, Office of General Counsel - Region VI - Dallas, Dallas, TX.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
LEONARD T. STRAND, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Plaintiff Bonnie Jean Gann 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). Gann 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, I recommend that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.
Gann was born in 1980 and has a high school diploma. AR 42-44. She has past relevant work as certified nursing assistant, laborer, bus person, housekeeper, fast food worker and newspaper carrier. AR 278. She applied for SSI on March 31, 2011. AR 156-64. Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration. AR 83-90, 96-106. Gann then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and on November 20, 2012, ALJ James D. Goodman held a hearing during which Gann testified. AR 32-65. At the conclusion of the hearing, the ALJ left the record open to allow Gann to submit additional evidence. AR 12. The ALJ also directed written interrogatories to Jim van Eck, a vocational expert (VE). Id. The VE submitted answers to the interrogatories on December 10, 2012. AR 278-79. The ALJ then forwarded those answers to Gann's counsel and invited a response. AR 280. Gann's counsel submitted a written response on January 25, 2013. AR 282-83.
On February 7, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding Gann was not disabled since March 31, 2011, the date her application was filed. AR 12-25. Gann sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council, which denied review on January 24, 2014. AR 1-6. The ALJ's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.
On March 26, 2014, Gann filed a complaint (Doc. No. 3) in this court seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. This matter has been referred to me pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) for the filing of a report and recommended disposition of the case. 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. § 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 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, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (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 show 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 show 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:
(1) The record contains no evidence that the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 31, 2011, the application date ( see, e.g. Exhibit 3D) (20 CFR 416.971 et seq .).
(2) The claimant has the following severe impairments: obesity (Exhibit 9F, p.4), post-traumatic stress disorder (Exhibit 8F, p.6; Exhibit 32F, p.6); bipolar I disorder (Exhibit 1F, p.3; Exhibit 8F, p.6; Exhibit 32F, p.6), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Exhibit 8F, p.6; Exhibit 32F, p.6), borderline personality disorder (Exhibit 8F, p.6; Exhibit 32F, p.6), and antisocial personality disorder (Exhibit 8F, p.6) (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, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to lift and carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, stand and walk for up to six hours, and sit for up to six hours, cumulatively. She may alternate her position every two hours. She may climb, balance, kneel, handle, and grip frequently. The claimant may frequently bend, crouch, and crawl, but she may never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. In addition, the claimant may have occasional contact with co-workers and supervisors. The claimant also may undertake work at a stress level of five on a scale of one to 10, one being, by example, the work of a night dishwasher, and 10 being the work of an air traffic controller (as these occupations are generally performed in the national economy).
(5) The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a Certified Nursing Assistant, Laborer, Bus Person, Housekeeper, Fast Food Worker, and Newspaper Carrier. This work does not requires the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimants residual functional capacity (20 CFR 416.965).
(6) The claimant has not been under a " disability, " as defined in the Social Security Act, since March 31, 2011, 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 choice within which the [Commissioner] may decide to grant or deny benefits without being subject to reversal on appeal." Culbertson v. Shalala, 30 F.3d 934, 939 (8th Cir. 1994).
In determining whether the Commissioner's decision meets this standard, the court considers " all of the evidence that was before the ALJ, but it [does] not re-weigh the evidence." Vester v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 886, 889 (8th Cir. 2005). The court considers both evidence which supports the Commissioner's decision and evidence that detracts from it. Kluesner v. Astrue, 607 F.3d 533, 536 (8th Cir. 2010). The court must " search the record for evidence contradicting the [Commissioner's] decision and give that evidence appropriate weight when determining whether the overall evidence in support is substantial." Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 549, 555 (8th Cir. 2003) (citing Cline v. Sullivan, 939 F.2d 560, 564 (8th Cir. 1991)).
In evaluating the evidence in an appeal of a denial of benefits, the court must apply a balancing test to assess any contradictory evidence. Sobania v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 879 F.2d 441, 444 (8th Cir. 1989). The court, however, does not " reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ, " Baldwin, 349 F.3d at 555 (citing Bates v. Chater, 54 F.3d 529, 532 (8th Cir. 1995)), or " review the factual record de novo." Roe v. Chater, 92 F.3d 672, 675 (8th Cir. 1996) (citing Naber v. Shalala, 22 F.3d 186, 188 (8th Cir. 1994)). Instead, if, after reviewing the evidence, the court finds it " possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the Commissioner's findings, [the court] must affirm the [Commissioner's] denial of benefits." Kluesner, 607 F.3d at 536 (quoting Finch v. Astrue, 547 F.3d 933, 935 (8th Cir. 2008)). This is true even in cases where the court " might have weighed the evidence differently." Culbertson, 30 F.3d at 939 (quoting Browning v. Sullivan, 958 F.2d 817, 822 (8th Cir. 1992)). The court may not reverse the Commissioner's decision " merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision." Baker v. Heckler, 730 F.2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir. 1984); see Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 789 (8th Cir. 2005) (" [A]n administrative decision is not subject to reversal simply because some evidence may support the opposite conclusion.").
Gann raises the following arguments in contending that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence:
(1) The ALJ erred in finding that Gann's migraine headaches and fibromyalgia were not severe impairments.
(2) The ALJ's determination of Gann's RFC, along with the hypothetical questions he submitted to the VE, are not supported by substantial ...