United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division
TRACY L. OWENS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
WILLIAMS CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
L. Owens (“claimant”) seeks judicial review of a
final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“the Commissioner”) denying her application for
disability and 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 she was not
disabled. For the following reasons, I respectfully recommend
that the District Court reverse and remand
the Commissioner's decision.
the facts as set forth in the parties' Joint Statement of
Facts and therefore only summarize the pertinent facts here.
(Doc. 15). Claimant was born in 1964, and alleged a
disability onset date of June 20, 2013, making her
forty-eight years old on the alleged disability onset date.
(AR 12, 25). Claimant graduated from high school in
1982 and received her radiation therapy license in 1985. (AR
Social Security Administration denied the claim initially and
on reconsideration. (AR 96-99, 102-11). ALJ Henry Hamilton
held a hearing on the matter and issued a decision denying
the claim on March 24, 2016. (AR 12-26). On June 6, 2017, the
Appeals Council denied review. (AR 1-4). The ALJ's
decision therefore became the final decision of the
Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.
28, 2017, claimant timely filed the instant complaint in this
Court. (Doc. 3). Between January and February 2018, the
parties briefed the issues. On February 28, 2018, the Court
deemed this case ready for decision, and the Honorable
Leonard T. Strand, Chief United States District Judge,
referred this case to me for a Report and Recommendation.
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),
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.
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.).
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.
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).
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).
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 .
. . 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.
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's FINDINGS
made the following findings at each step with regard to
claimant's disability status:
One, the ALJ found that claimant had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date.
Two, the ALJ found that claimant suffered from the following
severe impairments: “diabetes mellitus; narcolepsy with
cataplexy; chronic kidney disease sta[g]e 3-4; and major
depressive disorder, moderate.” (Id.).
Three, the ALJ found that none of claimant's impairment
met or equaled a presumptively disabling impairment listed in
the regulations. (AR 15).
Four, the ALJ determined that claimant had the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light
such that she could lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally
and 10 pounds frequently. The claimant can sit for up to six
hours of an eight hour workday and stand and/or walk for up
to six hours of an eight hour workday. Her ability to push
and/or pull, including the operation of hand and foot
controls, is unlimited within the above weight limits. The
claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never
climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can occasionally
balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. The claimant can
never operate a motor vehicle. She is limited to simple,
routine, repetitive tasks involving only simple work-related
decisions. The claimant's time off task can be
accommodated by normal breaks.
(AR 15). Based on the ALJ's RFC assessment, the ALJ
determined that claimant was unable to perform her past
relevant work. (AR 25).
At Step Five, the ALJ found that, despite claimant's RFC,
there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the
national economy that claimant could perform, including
routing clerk, mail clerk, and folder. (AR 25-26). Therefore,
the ALJ concluded that claimant was not disabled. (AR 26).
THE SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE STANDARD
Commissioner's decision must be affirmed “if it is
supported by substantial evidence on the record as a
whole.” Pelkey v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 577
(8th Cir. 2006); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
(“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security
as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall
be conclusive . . ..”). “Substantial evidence is
less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind
might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Lewis, 353 F.3d at 645 (internal quotation marks
omitted). The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals explains the
standard as “something less than the weight of the
evidence . . . [that] allows for the possibility of drawing
two inconsistent conclusions[;] thus it embodies a zone of
choice within which ...