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Mathena v. Berryhill

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

August 23, 2018

KRISTY MATHENA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM ORDER AND OPINION

          C.J. Williams Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         Claimant, Kristy Mathena (“claimant”), seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the 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 reasons that follow, the ALJ's decision is hereby reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Court adopts the facts as set forth in the parties' Joint Stipulation of Facts (Doc. 18) and, therefore, will summarize only the pertinent facts. Claimant was born in 1978, was 32 years old when she allegedly became disabled, and was 37 at the time of the ALJ's decision. (AR 34, 36).[1] Claimant has a high school diploma and has past work as a meat wrapper, shelving stocker, poultry boner, fast food worker, and data entry clerk. (AR 34, 55, 101, 711). The ALJ found that claimant's past relevant work was unskilled and that transferability of job skills was, therefore, not an issue. (AR 34).

         On August 3, 2012, claimant applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income alleging a disability onset date of October 1, 2010. (AR 20). In 2013, the Commissioner denied claimant's application initially and on reconsideration. (AR 239, 249). On January 28, 2015, ALJ Tela Gatewood held a hearing at which defendant and a vocational expert testified. (AR 50). On November 23, 2015, ALJ Timothy G. Stueve held a supplemental hearing at which defendant and a vocational expert testified. (AR 20, 83). On January 22, 2016, ALJ Stueve found claimant was not disabled. (AR 20-36). Claimant filed a request for review by the Appeals Council, submitting additional evidence. (AR 2, 6, 1463-78). On March 10, 2017, the Appeals Council denied claimant's request for review. (AR 1-6).

         On May 16, 2017, claimant filed her complaint in this Court. (Doc. 4). By March 20, 2018, the parties had submitted their briefs and the Court deemed this case fully submitted and ready for decision. (Doc. 28). Claimant and the Commissioner both consented to proceedings before a United States Magistrate Judge, including final disposition of the case, and the Honorable Linda R. Reade, United States District Judge, reassigned this case to the Honorable Kelly Mahoney. (Doc. 16). On May 7, 2018, this case was reassigned to the undersigned.

         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 his 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 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 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 his 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. 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. The Commissioner must show not only that the claimant's RFC will allow him 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 ALJ'S FINDINGS

         The ALJ made the following findings at each step of the analysis:

         At Step One, the ALJ found that claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2010, the alleged onset date of her disability. (AR 22).

         At Step Two, the ALJ found that claimant had the severe impairments of “mild osteoarthritis of ankles and feet bilaterally; pes planus and subluxation of toes 2-4 bilaterally; fibromyalgia; cervical degenerative disc disease with slight disc herniation; early patellofemoral chrondromalacia; obesity; depression; personality disorder; anxiety/posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); borderline intellectual functioning; and substance addiction disorder.” (AR 23).

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

         At Step Four, the ALJ found claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work ...


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