United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Williams, Chief United States Magistrate Judge
plaintiff, Tracy Lynn Watkins (claimant), seeks judicial
review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security (Commissioner) denying claimant's application
for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the
Social Security Act (Act), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et
seq. For the reasons that follow, the Court affirms the
this background, the Court relies on the administrative
record (AR) and the Joint Stipulation of Facts (Doc. 11).
Claimant was born in 1961. (AR 33, 77, 171). Claimant filed
her DIB application on March 16, 2014, with an alleged onset
date of April 12, 2009. (AR 13, 171-72). Her claim was denied
on initial consideration on September 3, 2014, and again
denied upon reconsideration on December 30, 2014. (AR 109-12,
114-17). Pursuant to her request for a hearing,
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) David G. Buell held a hearing
on January 4, 2016. (AR 39-78). At the hearing, claimant was
represented by an attorney. Claimant and a vocational expert
testified. Then on February 2, 2016, the ALJ issued a
decision denying claimant's application for the relevant
time period starting on April 12, 2009. (AR 13-34). Claimant
sought review from the Appeals Council, which denied her
request on February 24, 2016. (AR 1-6. The ALJ's decision
thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. Sims
v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 107 (2000).
filed a complaint (Doc. 2) with this Court on April 22, 2016,
seeking review of the ALJ's decision. On June 17, 2016,
with the consent of the parties (Doc. 7), the Honorable Linda
R. Reade transferred this case to a United States Magistrate
Judge for final disposition and entry of judgment. On
November 23, 2016, the matter was fully briefed.
DISABILITY DETERMINATIONS AND THE BURDEN OF
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 12
months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A),
1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual has a disability when, due to
his physical or mental impairments, he “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). If the claimant is
able to do work which exists in the national economy but is
unemployed because of inability to get work, lack of
opportunities in the local area, economic conditions,
employer hiring practices, or other factors, the ALJ will
still find the claimant not disabled.
determine whether a claimant has a disability within the
meaning of the Act, the Commissioner follows the five-step
sequential evaluation process outlined in the regulations.
Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707-08 (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.
“Substantial” work activity involves physical or
mental activities. “Gainful” activity is work
done for pay or profit, even if the claimant did not
ultimately receive pay or profit.
if the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful
activity, then the Commissioner looks to the severity of the
claimant's physical and mental impairments. If the
impairments are not severe, then the claimant is not
disabled. An impairment is not severe if it does not
significantly limit a claimant's physical or mental
ability to perform basic work activities. Kirby, 500
F.3d at 707.
ability to do basic work activities means the ability and
aptitude necessary to perform most jobs. These 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. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 141 (1987);
20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b)).
if the claimant has a severe impairment, then the
Commissioner will determine 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. Kelley
v. Callahan, 133 F.3d 583, 588 (8th Cir. 1998).
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) and the demands of his past
relevant work. If the claimant can still do his past relevant
work then he is considered not disabled. Past relevant work
is any work the claimant performed within the past fifteen
years of his application that was substantial gainful
activity and lasted long enough for the claimant to learn how
to do it. “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) (citations and internal quotation marks
omitted). The RFC is based on all relevant medical and other
evidence. The claimant is responsible for providing the
evidence the Commissioner will use to determine the RFC.
Id. If a claimant retains enough RFC to perform past
relevant work, then the claimant is not disabled.
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 there is other work
the claimant can do, given the claimant's RFC, age,
education, and work experience. The Commissioner must show
not only that the claimant's RFC will allow him or her to
make the adjustment to other work, but also that other work
exists in significant numbers in the national economy.
Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th
Cir. 2004). If the claimant can make the adjustment, then the
Commissioner will find the claimant not disabled. At Step
Five, the Commissioner has the responsibility of developing
the claimant's complete medical history before making a
determination about the existence of a disability. The burden
of persuasion to prove disability remains on the claimant.
Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir.
after these five steps, the ALJ has determined the claimant
is disabled, but there is medical evidence of substance use
disorders, the ALJ must decide if that substance use was a
contributing factor material to the determination of
disability. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(C). The ALJ must then
evaluate the extent of the claimant's limitations without
the substance use. Id. If the limitations would not
be disabling, then the disorder is a contributing factor
material to determining disability, and the claimant is not
THE ALJ'S FINDINGS
made the following findings at each step.
One, evaluating claimant's work attempt after her alleged
onset date, the ALJ found that claimant has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since April 12, 2009. (AR 16).
Two, the ALJ found that claimant has the following severe
impairments: mood disorder; degenerative disc disease of the
cervical spine with chronic radiculopathy at ¶ 7;
posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); anxiety disorder;
bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS); and methamphetamine
dependence in partial remission since April 2015. (AR 16).
The ALJ found claimant has the non-severe impairments of
headaches; hepatitis C; arthritis in hands; derceased vision;
chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD); and psoriasis.
Three, the ALJ found that claimant's impairments,
including her substance abuse disorder, satisfy Listing 12.06
and Listing 12.09. (AR 17-22). The ALJ, however, determined
that if claimant stopped her substance abuse then she would
no longer satisfy either listing. (AR 22-23).
Four, the ALJ found that if claimant stopped her substance
abuse then claimant would have the following residual
[Claimant can] perform light work as defined in 20 CFR
404.1567(b) but with additional limitations. She would be
able to respond to changes in her environment and perform
simple and repetitive work that does not require more than
brief, incidental contact with the public. The claimant would
be able to ...