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Barnett v. Berryhill

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

January 18, 2018

LYNNE BARNETT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          C.J. Williams Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff, Lynne Barnett (“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, sections 201-34 (now codified at 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34). She contends that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who heard her claim erred in determining that she was not disabled. For the reasons that follow, I recommend that the District Court affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         I adopt the facts set forth in the parties' Joint Statement of Facts and therefore only summarize the pertinent facts here. (Doc. 10). Claimant was born in 1962, making her fifty years old when she allegedly became disabled and fifty-three years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. (AR 178).[1] Claimant achieved a college education and has past relevant work as a nurse, school nurse, and nurse supervisor. (AR 33, 141). Claimant last met insured status on March 31, 2015. (AR 23).[2]

         On April 1, 2014, claimant filed an application for disability insurance benefits. (AR 21, 112). She alleged a disability onset date of September 17, 2013, the day following the denial of a previous claim for Title II benefits. (AR 92, 178). The Social Security Administration denied the instant claim initially and on reconsideration. (AR 144, 150). On January 11, 2016, Administrative Law Judge David W. Thompson held a hearing on the matter. (AR 41-91). Claimant offered testimony and was represented by counsel. (Id.). Testimony was also heard from Brian Paprocki, a vocational expert. (AR 74-91). On February 5, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision denying the claim. (AR 18-35). The Appeals Council subsequently denied review. (AR 1-4). The ALJ's decision therefore became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.

         On April 5, 2017, claimant timely filed the instant complaint in this Court. On November 15, 2017, the Court deemed the case fully submitted and ready for decision. The Honorable Leonard T. Strand, Chief United States District Judge, referred this case to the undersigned for a Report and Recommendation.

         II. DISABILITY DETERMINATIONS AND 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), 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 Social Security 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. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). “Substantial” work activity involves physical or mental activities. (Id. § 404.1572). “Gainful” activity is work done for pay or profit, even if the claimant did not ultimately receive pay or profit. (Id.).

         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. Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). 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 do 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); see also 20 C.F.R. 404.1521 (2015).

         Third, if the claimant has a severe impairment, then the Commissioner will determine the medical severity of the impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). 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. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do his past relevant work, then he is considered not disabled. (Id.). 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. (Id. § 416.960(b)). “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) (internal quotation marks omitted). The RFC is based on all relevant evidence. The claimant is responsible for providing the evidence the Commissioner will use to determine the RFC. Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004). If a claimant retains enough RFC to perform past relevant work, then the claimant is not disabled.

         Fifth, if the claimant's RFC as determined in Step Four will not allow the claimant to perform past relevant work, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show there is other work the claimant can do, given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.960(c)(2). The Commissioner must show not only that the claimant's RFC will allow him to make the adjustment to other work, but also that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Eichelberger, 390 F.3d at 591. If the claimant can make the adjustment, then the Commissioner will find the claimant not disabled. At Step Five, the Commissioner has the responsibility of fairly and fully developing the record before making a determination about the existence of a disability. Snead v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d 834, 838 (8th Cir. 2004). The burden of persuasion to prove disability remains on the claimant. Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2004).

         III. THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         The ALJ made the following findings at each step with regard to claimant's disability status through March 31, 2015, her date last insured:

         At Step One, the ALJ found that claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged ...


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