United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division
CHRISTIE M. MEHRING-CRUZ, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
Williams Chief United States Magistrate Judge
Christie M. Mehring-Cruz (claimant), seeks judicial review of
a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the
Commissioner) denying her application for disability
insurance benefits (DIB), under Title II of the Social
Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. (Act).
Claimant has also filed a Title XVI application for
supplemental security income which was also denied. Claimant
contends that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in
determining she was not disabled.
reasons that follow, I recommend the District Court affirm
the Commissioner's decision.
was born in 1974 and was 41 years old at the time of the
ALJ's decision to deny benefits. Claimant attended
college from 2001 to 2003 and completed a diploma for
computer services, but could not obtain an associate's
degree due to her learning disability in math. (AR 284).
Between 2001 and 2014, claimant worked in a restaurant,
client services, and education and childcare, with gaps in
between each job. (AR 285). Claimant's wages varied from
$3.09 to $14.01 hourly. (Id.). Claimant last worked
in August 2014 when she was employed in a childcare position.
(AR 40). Claimant complained of difficulty throughout her
employment history due to fatigue, joint pain, depression,
insomnia, sleep apnea as well as muscle and joint pain. (AR
September 13, 2014, claimant filed an application for
disability benefits that was denied initially and upon
reconsideration. (AR 239). The claim was for disability
beginning August 30, 2014. (AR 19). Claimant timely filed a
Request for Hearing and a hearing was held on November 18,
2015, before the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
April 15, 2016, the ALJ found that claimant's severe
impairments included systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) with
interstitial lung disease; generalized affective disorder;
major depressive disorder; posttraumatic stress disorder
(PTSD); and panic disorder. (Doc. 12 at 2). The ALJ
determined that claimant was unable to perform past relevant
work as a day care worker and teacher's aide.
(Id.). The ALJ further determined that there was
other work claimant could perform such as addresser, document
preparer, and bench assembly. (Id.). As a result,
the ALJ determined claimant was not disabled and not entitled
to benefits. Claimant appeals the ALJ decision, claiming the
ALJ improperly rejected claimant's subjective allegations
and failed to give appropriate weight to the opinions of
claimant's providers. (Doc. 13).
timely requested review of the ALJ's decision by the
Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied review on August
23, 2016. (AR 1). The ALJ's decision, thus, became the
final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.
On October 24, 2016, claimant filed a complaint in this
court. (Doc. 3). The parties have briefed the issues, and on
July 27, 2016, this case was deemed fully submitted. (Doc.
14). On May 10, 2017, this case was referred to me for a
Report and Recommendation.
.DISABILITY DETERMINATIONS AND THE BURDEN OF PROOF
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); 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1505. An individual has a disability when, due to
his/her physical or mental impairments, he/she “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). If 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 claimant
not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566(c)(1)-(8).
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. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Kirby v. Astrue, 500
F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007). First, the Commissioner will
consider a claimant's work activity. If claimant is
engaged in substantial gainful activity, then claimant is not
disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i).
“Substantial” work activity involves significant
mental or physical activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a).
“Gainful” activity is work done for pay or
profit, even if claimant does not ultimately receive pay or
profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(b).
if claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity,
then the Commissioner looks to the severity of claimant's
physical and medical impairments. If the impairments are not
severe, then claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(ii). An impairment is not severe if “it
does not significantly limit your physical or mental ability
to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1521(a); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c);
Kirby, 500 F.3d at 707.
ability to do basic work activities means having “the
abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs.” 20
C.F.R. § 404.1521(b). These abilities and aptitudes
include: “(1) [p]hysical functions such as walking,
standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching,
carrying, or handling; (2) [c]apacities for seeing, hearing,
and speaking; (3) [u]nderstanding, carrying out, and
remembering simple instructions; (4) [u]se of judgment; (5)
[r]esponding appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and
usual work situations; and (6) [d]ealing with changes in a
routine work setting.” (Id.). §
404.1521(b)(1)-(6); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S.
137, 141 (1987).
if 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 claimant is
considered disabled regardless of age, education, and work
experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii),
404.1520(d); see Kelley v. Callahan, 133 F.3d 583,
588 (8th Cir. 1998).
if claimant's impairment is severe, but it does not meet
or equal one of the presumptively disabling impairments, then
the Commissioner will assess claimant's residual
functional capacity (RFC) and the demands of his/her past
relevant work. If claimant can still do his/her past relevant
work, then he/she is considered not disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1545(a)(4). Past
relevant work is any work claimant has done within the past
15 years of his/her application that was substantial gainful
activity and lasted long enough for claimant to learn how to
do it. 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(b)(1). “RFC is a
medical question defined wholly in terms of claimant's
physical ability to perform exertional tasks or, in other
words, what 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 and
citations omitted); see 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). The RFC is based on all
relevant medical and other evidence. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(3). 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 claimant is not disabled.
(Id.). § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv).
if claimant's RFC, as determined in Step Four, will not
allow claimant to perform past relevant work, then the burden
shifts to the Commissioner to show there is other work
claimant can do, given claimant's RFC, age, education,
and work experience. See Bladow v. Apfel, 205 F.3d
356, 358 n.5 (8th Cir. 2000). The Commissioner must show not
only that 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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If claimant
can make the adjustment, then the Commissioner will find
claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).
At Step Five, the Commissioner has the responsibility of
developing claimant's complete medical history before
making a determination about the existence of a disability.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). The burden of persuasion to
prove disability remains on claimant. Stormo v.
Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2004).
after these five steps, the ALJ has determined 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 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 claimant is not
disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1535.
THE ALJ'S FINDINGS
engaged in the five-step sequential analysis outlined above,
as reflected in his written decision.
1, the ALJ found claimant has not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since August 30, 2014, the alleged date of
onset of disability. Although there were attempts at work
since August 30, 2014, they were short lived and did not
amount to substantial gainful activity. (AR 21).
2, the ALJ determined claimant had the following severe
impairments: “systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) with
interstitial lung disease; generalized affective disorder;
major depressive disorder; posttraumatic stress disorder
(PTSD); and panic disorder.” (AR 22). The ALJ found
other claimed impairments that were listed in the record from
time to time but they did not cause significant limitation of
functioning, or did not last for a continuous period of 12
months. (AR 22-23).
3, the ALJ determined claimant did not have an impairment or
a combination of impairments which met or medically equaled
the severity of a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404,
Subpt. P, App. 1. (AR 23-24). Because of
this, disability could not be established based on medical
facts alone. (20 C.F.R. Pt. 404.1520(d) and 416.920(d)). The
ALJ found claimant had the following “paragraph
B” criteria limitations: mild difficulties in
activities of daily living; moderate difficulties in social
functioning; moderate difficulties with concentration,
persistence of pace and no episodes of decompensation. (AR
24). The ALJ did not find any ‘paragraph C”
4, the ALJ determined claimant's residual functional
capacity. The ALJ found that “claimant has the residual
functional capacity to perform sedentary work” with the
[Claimant] can lift and/or carry 10 pounds occasionally and
less than 10 pounds frequently. She can stand or walk for a
total of four hours of an eight hour workday and sit for a
total of six hours of an eight hour workday. Claimant can
occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never climb ladders,
ropes or scaffolds. She can frequently balance, occasionally
stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. Claimant cannot reach
overhead with the bilateral upper extremities. She should
avoid concentrated exposure to vibration, and extremes of
cold, heat, humidity, wetness and pulmonary irritants such as
cigarette smoke, solder, cleaners, dust and chemicals. She is