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Gerleman v. Berryhill

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

September 11, 2017

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


          C. J. Williams Chief United States Magistrate Judge.

         The claimant, Teresa C. Gerleman (claimant), seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying her application for disability benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 201-34, 1601-37. (Act). Claimant contends that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in determining that she was not disabled.

         For the reasons that follow, I recommend that the District Court vacate the Commissioner's decision and remand with instructions to more fully develop the record.

         I. BACKGROUND

         I adopt the facts as set forth in the parties' Joint Statement of Facts and therefore only summarize the pertinent facts here. (Doc. 11). Claimant was born in July 1982, and was therefore thirty-three years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. (AR 30).[1]Claimant has a high school education and some college education; however, she dropped out of college prior to obtaining a degree. (Doc. 11, at 9). The ALJ concluded that claimant is unable to perform past relevant work. (AR 28).

         On September 18, 2012, claimant protectively filed an application for disability benefits and supplemental security income alleging a disability onset date of June 23, 2012. (AR 10). Claimant had previously filed two applications for benefits under the Social Security Act, both of which were denied, the most recent having been denied on June 27, 2012. As the only denial currently on appeal is the denial of the claim alleging a June 23, 2012 onset date, the remaining claims are of no consequence in my analysis and need not be considered here. The ALJ found that claimant was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act but did suffer from the following severe impairments: various anxiety disorders; depression; Cluster B traits; history of polysubstance abuse and dependence; mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; and fibromyalgia. (AR 13, 29-30).

         The Social Security Administration denied claimant's disability application initially and on reconsideration. (AR 10). On October 7, 2015, ALJ Julie K. Bruntz found claimant was not disabled. (AR 30). Claimant requested timely review of the ALJ's decision, and the Appeals Council denied review on October 26, 2016. (AR 1-4). The ALJ's decision, thus, became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         On December 22, 2016, claimant filed a complaint in this Court. (Doc. 3). Between June and July 2017, the parties briefed the issues. (Docs. 14-16). On July 26, 2017, the Court deemed this case fully submitted and ready for decision. On the same day, the Honorable Linda R. Reade, United States District Court Judge, referred this case to the undersigned, United States Magistrate Judge C.J. Williams, 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), 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 fifteen years prior to 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 [ ] 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 ...

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