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Watkins v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division

October 25, 2015

TRACY LYNN WATKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          C.J. Williams, Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         The 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 Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         For 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).

         Claimant 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.

         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 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.

         To 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.

         Second, 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.

         The 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)).

         Third, 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).

         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) 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.

         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 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. 2004).

         If 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 disabled.

         III. THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         The ALJ made the following findings at each step.

         At 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).

         At Step 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. (AR 16-17).

         At Step 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).

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that if claimant stopped her substance abuse then claimant would have the following residual functional capacity:

[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 ...

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