United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division
DONALD E. O'BRIEN, Senior District Judge.
This matter is before the Court pursuant to Tina Chamberlain's [hereinafter Ms. Chamberlain] application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Act. After considering the parties' arguments, the Court took the matter under advisement and now enters the following.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Ms. Chamberlain was born June 11, 1978, and was 31 years old on her alleged onset date. She attended school through the 11th grade, completely in special education classes and courses. She is 5'3" tall and weighs 170 pounds. Ms. Chamberlain has moved around most of her life, including stints in Kansas, Connecticut, Montana, and currently in northwest Iowa. She is not married but lived with a roommate at the time of the administrative hearing. She has two children but does not have custody of them. She reported a history of sexual abuse, giving rise to the mental disorders discussed below.
Her work history is sporadic. She has tried to work, beginning when she was age 16, at various jobs, but none lasted long. Most recently, she worked a variety of jobs through a temporary agency, her longest employment as an assistant for a disabled person.
Ms. Chamberlain bases her alleged disability on a number of issues. Plaintiff reported that her disability is because of scoliosis (a curved back condition); Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; anxiety; sacroiliitis (a type of low back inflammation); asthma; hypothyroidism; anxiety disorder; bipolar spectrum vs major depressive disorder; recurrent, moderate, postraumatic stress disorder; panic disorder with agoraphobia; generalized anxiety disorder; obsessive compulsive features; and "lower IQ and learning disability issues." The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had the following impairments that were severe impairments, right sacroiliacitis, anxiety disorder not otherwise specified, bipolar spectrum vs major depressive disorder, recurrent, post-traumatic stress disorder, and lower IQ and learning disability issues.
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Ms. Chamberlain applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1385 on December 27, 2010, and January 5, 2011, respectively, alleging an onset date of March 5, 2010. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially on February 7, 2011, and upon reconsideration on March 23, 2010. On October 24, 2012, following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that Ms. Chamberlain was not under a "disability" as defined in the Act. Ms. Chamberlain appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council, who denied her appeal on December 18, 2013, Ms. Chamberlain filed the present Social Security appeal on January 13, 2014.
The ALJ set out the issues in Ms. Chamberlain's claim:
[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 June 3, 2011. 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. 7, Tr. 15.
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 Ms. Chamberlain does not have a history of substantial gainful employment since the alleged onset date.
The ALJ stated that Ms. Chamberlain has the following combination of severe impairments: right sacroiliacitis, anxiety disorder not otherwise specified, bipolar spectrum vs. major depressive disorder, recurrent, post-traumatic stress disorder and lower IQ and learning disability issues (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
However, the ALJ considered Ms. Chamberlain's impairments individually and combined and found that she 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 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
Docket No. 7, Tr. 17.
The ALJ considered Ms. Chamberlain's mental impairments using the "paragraph B" criteria and the "paragraph C" criteria as set out in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926), and determined that Ms. Chamberlain's mental ...