United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
DES L. MANN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant
For Des R Mann, Plaintiff: Thomas A Krause, LEAD ATTORNEY, Schott Mauss & Associates, PLLC, Des Moines, IA; Timothy S Semelroth, LEAD ATTORNEY, RSH Legal, PC, Cedar Rapids, IA.
For Commissioner of Social Security, agent of Carolyn W Colvin, Defendant: Marisa Silverman, Social Security Administration, Dallas, TX; Stephanie Johnson Wright, U.S. Attorney's Office, Cedar Rapids, IA.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
LEONARD T. STRAND, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Plaintiff Des L. Mann seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying her applications for Social Security Disability benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income benefits (SSI) under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. (Act). Mann 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. For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision will be reversed and remanded.
Mann was born in 1966 and has past work as a nurse and pizza maker. AR 23, 329. She filed applications for DIB and SSI on December 28, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2010. AR 13, 188, 190. She contends that she is disabled due to migraine headaches, as exacerbated by certain mental health issues. Doc. No. 13 at 3. Mann's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. AR 113, 120, 129. She then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and ALJ Julie K. Bruntz conducted a hearing on November 5, 2013. AR 13, 31. The ALJ issued a decision on November 20, 2013, in which she denied Mann's claim. AR 13-25. Mann sought review by the Appeals Council, which denied review on March 7, 2014. AR 1-3. Thus, the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1.
On May 2, 2014, Mann filed a complaint (Doc. No. 3) in this court seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. On June 18, 2014, with the parties' consent (Doc. No. 6), the Honorable Linda R. Reade reassigned the case to Chief Magistrate Judge Jon S. Scoles for final disposition and entry of judgment. The case was reassigned to me on January 12, 2015. The parties have fully 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 which 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); accord 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1505, 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. § § 423(d)(2)(A), 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. § § 404.1520, 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. § § 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 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. § § 404.1520(c), 404.1521(a), 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. § § 404.1521(b), 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. § § 404.1521(b)(1)-(6), 416.921(b)(1)-(6); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 141, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2291, 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. § § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d), 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. § § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1545(a)(4), 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. § § 404.1545(a)(1), 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. § § 404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a)(3). The Commissioner also will consider certain nonmedical 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. § § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 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. § § 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 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. § § 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 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. THE ALJ'S FINDINGS
The ALJ made the following findings:
(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2015.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2010, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et. seq., and 416.971 et seq. ).
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: depression; obesity; migraines; history of asthma (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
(4) 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 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
(5) 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 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she can occasionally lift and carry 20 pounds and 10 pounds frequently. She can stand and walk and sit each 6 hours of an 8-hour workday. Her ability to push and pull including hand and foot controls is unlimited. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She would need to avoid concentrated exposure to humidity, fumes, odors, gases, poor ventilation, and dust. She is limited to simple, routine tasks.
(6) The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work as set out in Exhibit 20E as based on the testimony of the vocational expert (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
(7) The claimant was born on February 14, 1966 and was 43 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44, on the alleged disability onset date. (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963)
(8) The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
(9) Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is " not disabled," whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See ...