United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
SHEMIKA C. GEORGE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
Williams, Chief United States Magistrate Judge Northern
District of Iowa
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
reasons that follow, I recommend the District Court
affirm the Commissioner's decision.
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). 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.
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).
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); 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).
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 her written decision.
1, the ALJ found claimant had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since December 15, 2012, the alleged date of
disability onset. (AR 19).
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).
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.).
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
[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 ...