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Mehring-Cruz v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division

June 9, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          C.J. Williams Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         Claimant, 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.

         For the reasons that follow, I recommend the District Court affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Claimant 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 290).

         On 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).

         On 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).

         Claimant 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.


         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); 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).

         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. 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).

         Second, 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.

         The 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).

         Third, 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).

         Fourth, 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).

         Fifth, 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).

         If 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 engaged in the five-step sequential analysis outlined above, as reflected in his written decision.

         At Step 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).

         At Step 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).

         At Step 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” criteria. (Id.).

         At Step 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 following restrictions:

[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 ...

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