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Stearns v. Berryhill

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

July 30, 2018

AMANDA J. STEARNS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          C.J. Williams, Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         The claimant, Amanda J. Stearns (“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 (DIB), under Title II Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34 (Act). Claimant contends that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in determining that claimant was not disabled. For the following reasons, I respectfully recommend that the Court affirm the ALJ's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         I have adopted the facts as set forth in the parties' Joint Statement of Facts (Doc. 12) and, therefore, will summarize only the pertinent facts. Claimant was born in 1980, was thirty-one years old when she allegedly became disabled, and was thirty-five years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. (AR 37-38).[1] Claimant has prior work experience; her work activity since the alleged onset date, however, did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity. (AR 28; 37).

         On July 18, 2013, claimant applied for disability and disability insurance benefits. (AR 26). Claimant alleged disability beginning May 1, 2012. (Id.). The Commissioner denied claimant's application initially and on reconsideration. (Id.).

         On February 23, 2015, ALJ Tela L. Gatewood held a hearing at which claimant and a vocational expert testified. (AR 47-80). On December 30, 2015, ALJ Michael Comisky held a second hearing at which claimant and a different vocational expert testified. (AR 81-110). On March 25, 2016, ALJ Michael Comisky found claimant was not disabled. (AR 26-39). On May 8, 2017, the Appeals Council denied claimant's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision final and subject to judicial review. (AR 1-3).

         On July 7, 2017, claimant timely filed her complaint in this Court. (Doc. 3). By January 19, 2018, the parties had submitted their respective briefs (Docs. 13; 14), and on February 26, 2018, the Court deemed this case fully submitted and ready for decision. On June 5, 2018, the Honorable Leonard T. Strand, Chief United States District Judge, referred this case to me for a Report and Recommendation.

         II. DISABILITY DETERMINATIONS AND THE 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 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 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. “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. § 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. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 141 (1987). 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. Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521.

         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 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. § 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) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The RFC is based on all relevant medical and other evidence. 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. 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 developing the claimant's medical history before making a determination about the existence of a disability. The burden of persuasion to prove disability remains on the claimant. Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2004).

         III. THE ...


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