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George v. Berryhill

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

September 8, 2017

SHEMIKA C. GEORGE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          C.J. Williams, Chief United States Magistrate Judge Northern District of Iowa

         Claimant, Shemika C. George (claimant), seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying her application for disability insurance benefits, under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. (Act). Claimant 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 1984 and was 30 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision to deny benefits. (Doc. 13, at 2). Claimant completed an online associate's degree for medical administrative assistant. (AR 49).[1] Claimant filed her application for Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income benefits on May 30, 2013. (AR 17, 226). Claimant asserted that her disability began December 15, 2012, at age 28, for impairments that include schizoaffective disorder and bipolar type. (AR 265). The Social Security Administration denied the claimant's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 153-61, 165-72). Claimant timely filed a Request for Hearing, and a hearing was held on June 9, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Jo Ann L. Draper. On October 6, 2015, the ALJ determined that claimant was able to perform past relevant work, such as laundry worker, marker, and cleaner. (AR 30). As a result, the ALJ determined claimant was not disabled and was not entitled to benefits.

         Claimant timely requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied review on September 22, 2016. (AR 1). The ALJ's decision, thus, became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. On November 21, 2016, claimant filed a complaint in this court. (Doc. 3).

         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); 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 a 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.

         III. THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         The ALJ engaged in the five-step sequential analysis outlined above, as reflected in her written decision.

         At Step 1, the ALJ found claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 15, 2012, the alleged date of disability onset. (AR 19).

         At Step 2, the ALJ determined claimant had the following severe impairments: schizoaffective disorder, anxiety disorder, obesity, and lumbar spine curvature. (Id.). The ALJ acknowledged other impairments that were listed in the record, including headaches, obstructive sleep apnea, mild early degenerative changes to the cervical spine and subchondral cyst in the right acromioclavicular joint, but found they did not cause significant limitation of functioning, or did not last for a continuous period of 12 months. (AR 20).

         At Step 3, the ALJ determined claimant did not have a physical or mental impairment or a combination of impairments that 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 determination, 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 21). 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 medium work” with the following restrictions:

[Claimant] could stand or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. She would need to avoid constant climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. She could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She could perform tasks learned in 30 days or less, involving no more than work-related decisions, requiring little to no judgment, and only occasional workplace changes. She should have no interaction with the ...

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