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Stroman v. Berryhill

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

April 24, 2018

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



         Mark Anthony Stroman (“claimant”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. Claimant contends that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining that he was not disabled. For the following reasons, I respectfully recommend that the District Court remand the Commissioner's decision for further proceedings consistent with this Report and Recommendation.

         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. 15). Claimant previously filed at least two applications for disability benefits, the most recent of which was denied on December 20, 2011. (AR 50-63).[1] Claimant then filed the instant application for disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of December 21, 2012. (AR 100). Claimant's last date insured was September 30, 2014. (Id.).

         Claimant was born in 1979, making him thirty-five years old on the date he was last insured, and thirty-three years old on the alleged disability onset date. (AR 106). Claimant attended school through eighth grade, dropped out during ninth grade, and never obtained a general equivalency diploma. (Doc. 15, at 2). Claimant previously worked as a van driver, which the ALJ determined to be medium labor. (AR 106). Claimant's injuries stemmed from an all-terrain vehicle accident that occurred in approximately 2002 and caused claimant to suffer an L1 burst fracture with spinal cord injury. (AR 105). Claimant underwent L1 vertebrectomy and T12 through L2 graft fusion with placement of plate. (Id.). In addition to claimant's back problems, claimant alleges bowel problems “that sometimes require him to be in the bathroom for 1 to 2 hours, ” and that cause claimant to suffer from incontinence. (Id.).

         The Social Security Administration denied the claim initially and on reconsideration. (AR 68-96). ALJ David G. Buell held a hearing on the matter and issued a decision denying the claim on August 22, 2016. (AR 97-108). On July 30, 2017, the Appeals Council denied review. (AR 1-3). The ALJ's decision therefore became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.

         Claimant timely filed the instant complaint in this Court. (Doc. 4). Claimant timely filed his opening brief on January 25, 2018, (Doc. 16), defendant timely filed her brief on February 25, 2018, (Doc. 17), and claimant timely filed his reply brief on March 7, 2018. (Doc. 19). On March 7, 2018, the Court deemed the case fully submitted and ready for a decision. That same day, the Honorable Linda R. Reade, United States District Judge, referred the case 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual has a disability when, due to her 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 her 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 . . . [his] 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 her 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).


         The ALJ made the following findings at each step with regard to claimant's disability status:

         At Step One, the ALJ found that claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged onset date through his date last insured. (AR 102).

         At Step Two, the ALJ found that claimant suffered from the severe impairments of “[a]nxiety disorder; and degenerative disk [sic] disease of the lumbar spine, status post fusion.” (Id.). The ALJ further noted that “[t]he record includes evidence of carpal tunnel syndrome and bowel/bladder problems, but these occurred after the claimant's date last insured.” (Id.).

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that none of claimant's impairments met or equaled a presumptively disabling impairment listed in the regulations. (Id.).

         At Step Four, the ALJ determined that claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light ...

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