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Jennings v. Berryhill

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

August 2, 2018

VANESSA K. JENNINGS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          C.J. WILLIAMS CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff, Vanessa K. Jennings (“claimant”), seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying her applications for disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34, as well as for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1382-83f. Claimant contends that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who heard her claims erred in determining that claimant was not disabled. For the following reasons, I recommend that the District Court reverse and remand the ALJ's decision to determine whether work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that claimant can perform.

         I. BACKGROUND

         I adopt the parties' Joint Statement of Facts (Doc. 14) and therefore only summarize the pertinent facts here. Claimant was born in June 1967, and was forty-four years old on the alleged onset date of disability, and fifty years old on the date of the ALJ's decision. (AR 207, 209).[1] Claimant has at least a high school education[2] (AR 207) and previously worked as a cashier II, sales attendant, and tractor-trailer truck driver. (Doc. 14, at 5).

         On November 23, 2009, claimant filed applications for benefits under the Social Security Act; those applications were denied administratively and, ultimately, by a federal district court. (AR 192). On July 18, 2013, claimant filed applications for disability and disability insurance benefits, as well as for supplemental security income, alleging an alleged onset date of disability of March 1, 2012, for each application. (Id.). Claimant's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, and claimant thereafter requested a hearing before an ALJ. (Id.). ALJ Eric S. Basse held an administrative hearing on April 28, 2016, at which both claimant and a vocational expert testified. (AR 219-20). The ALJ issued a decision on June 1, 2016, in which he denied claimant's applications for benefits. (AR 192-209). On May 30, 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.

         On July 19, 2017, claimant timely filed the instant complaint in this Court. (Doc. 3). On February 13, 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 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. 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).

         III. THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         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 since March 1, 2012, the alleged onset date of disability. (AR 194).

         At Step Two, the ALJ found that claimant suffered from the following severe impairments: “obesity, obstructive sleep apnea, epilepsy, major depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and hearing loss.” (AR 194). The ALJ also discussed claimant's other alleged impairments, and found that those impairments did not meet the definition of “severe” impairments under the Social Security Administration regulations. (AR 195-96).

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that none of claimant's impairments met or equaled a presumptively disabling impairment listed in the regulations. (AR 196-98).

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that claimant had the RFC to perform sedentary work with the following limitations:

She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds. She must avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants. The claimant must avoid exposure to hazards such as machinery, heights, and open bodies of water. She cannot perform commercial driving. The claimant cannot be exposed to more than moderate noise levels and cannot perform work that requires communication by telephone. The claimant is limited to simple, routine tasks with simple instructions. She can occasionally interact with the public. She cannot work at production rate pace.

(AR 198-99). Also at Step Four, the ALJ found that claimant was unable to perform any past relevant work. (AR 207).

         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 still perform, including document preparer and addresser. (AR 208). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that claimant was not disabled. (AR 208-09).

         IV. THE SUBSTANTIAL ...


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