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Dean v. Berryhill

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

May 3, 2018

LISA M. DEAN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          C.J. Williams Chief United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff, Lisa M. Dean (“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. §§ 401-434. 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. 16). Claimant was born in 1963, making her forty-eight years old when she allegedly became disabled and fifty years old on the date last insured. (AR 11, 19).[1] Claimant earned a general equivalency diploma (GED) and completed one year of college. (AR 62). Her past relevant work includes convenience store assistance manager and cashier II. (AR 19).

         On January 30, 2012, claimant filed an application for disability insurance benefits. (AR 11; Doc. 16, at 2). She alleged a disability onset date of December 29, 2011. (Id.). The Social Security Administration denied the claim initially and on reconsideration. (AR 168-71, 178-81). The ALJ, Jo Ann L. Draper, heard claimant's claim on December 20, 2013 (AR 58-85), and denied claimant's claim on February 12, 2014. (AR 148-56). The Appeals Council granted claimant's request for review and remanded the case on May 30, 2015, with instructions for the ALJ to “[d]etermine the claimant's date last insured and evaluate the issue of disability through that date.” (AR 163-64).

         On November 19, 2015, the ALJ held another hearing on the matter. (AR 30-57). Claimant offered testimony and was represented by counsel. (Id.). Testimony was also heard from Carma A. Mitchell, a vocational expert. (AR 51-56). On December 1, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying the claim. (AR 11-21). In response to the Appeals Council's prior remand, the ALJ, in her December 2015 decision, determined claimant's last date insured was December 31, 2013, instead of the ALJ's prior determination of December 31, 2012. (AR 14, 150). On April 21, 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.

         On June 26, 2017, claimant timely filed the instant complaint in this Court. (Doc. 3). By February 5, 2018, the parties had filed their briefs. (Docs. 16-18). On February 21, 2018, the Court deemed the case fully submitted and ready for decision. The Honorable Leonard T. Strand, Chief United States District Court Judge, referred this 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, “[she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] 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 her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do her past relevant work, then she 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 . . . 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. ...

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