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Olson v. Saul

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

July 18, 2019

CANDI OLSON, Claimant,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Commissioner.


          Mark A. Roberts, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff, Candi Olson (“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. Sections 401-34. Claimant contends that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) 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 (Doc. 13) and only summarize the pertinent facts here. This is an appeal from a denial of disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Claimant was born on December 28, 1970. (AR[2] at 162.) Claimant has a high school education. (Id. at 199.) Claimant allegedly became disabled due to fibromyalgia, chronic back and joint pain, arthritis, degenerative disc disease, depression, and anxiety. (Id. at 198.) The alleged onset of disability date was July 1, 2012 (Id. at 162). Claimant filed an application for Social Security disability on February 11, 2015. (Id.) Claimant was initially denied benefits on June 9, 2015. (Id. at 54-67.) Claimant filed for reconsideration on June 2, 2015 and the reconsideration was denied on July 30, 2015. (Id. at 95, 68-83.) Claimant filed a Request for Hearing on September 3, 2015. (Id. at 105-06.) On May 16, 2017, a video hearing was held with Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Jan E. Dutton and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Stephen Schill in Omaha, Nebraska and Claimant and her then-counsel Sarah Eyberg[3] in Sioux City, Iowa. (Id. at 31-52.) Claimant and the VE both testified. (Id. at 37-51.)

         The ALJ entered an unfavorable decision on August 22, 2017. (Id. at 7-25.) On September 9, 2017, Claimant filed a Request for the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 161.) The Appeals Council found there was no basis to review the ALJ's decision on June 4, 2018. (Id. at 1-3.) Accordingly, the ALJ's decision stands as the final administrative ruling in the matter and became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.

         On July 2, 2018, Claimant timely filed her complaint in this Court. (Doc. 3.) All briefs were filed by January 10, 2019. On January 11, 2019, the Honorable Leonard T. Strand, Chief United States District Court Judge, referred the case to me for a Report and Recommendation.


         A disability is 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). A claimant has a disability when, due to physical or mental impairments, the claimant

is not only unable to do [the claimant's] previous work but cannot, considering [the claimant's] 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). A claimant is not disabled if the claimant is able to do work that exists in the national economy but is unemployed due to an inability to find work, lack of options in the local area, technological changes in a particular industry, economic downturns, employer hiring practices, or other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566(c).

         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. Dixon v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 602, 605 (8th Cir. 2003). At steps one through four, the claimant has the burden to prove he or she is disabled; at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove there are jobs available in the national economy. Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009).

         At step one, the ALJ will consider whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Id. If so, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). “Substantial activity is significant physical or mental work that is done on a full- or part-time basis. Gainful activity is simply work that is done for compensation.” Dukes v. Barnhart, 436 F.3d 923, 927 (8th Cir. 2006) (citing Comstock v. Chater, 91 F.3d 1143, 1145 (8th Cir. 1996)); 20 C.F.R. § 416.972(a), (b)).

         If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, at step two, the ALJ decides if the claimant's impairments are severe. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the impairments are not severe, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. An impairment is not severe if it does not significantly limit a claimant's “physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Id. § 416.920(c). 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) (quotation omitted) (numbers added; internal brackets omitted).

         If the claimant has a severe impairment, at step three, the ALJ 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 impairments listed in the regulations (“the listings”), then “the claimant is presumptively disabled without regard to age, education, and work experience.” Tate v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 1191, 1196 (8th Cir. 1999).

         If the claimant's impairment is severe, but it does not meet or equal an impairment in the listings, at step four, the ALJ will assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and the demands of the claimant's past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). RFC is what the claimant can still do despite his or her limitations. Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a), 416.945(a)). RFC is based on all relevant evidence and 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). “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. 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(b)(1). If a claimant retains enough RFC to perform past relevant work, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv).

         At step five, if the claimant's RFC 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. Id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.960(c)(2). The ALJ must show not only that the claimant's RFC will allow the claimant to do other work, but also that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Eichelberger, 390 F.3d at 591 (citation omitted).

         A. The ALJ'S Findings

         The ALJ made the following findings at each step regarding Claimant's disability status.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 1, 2012, her alleged onset date. (AR at 12.)

         At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, obesity, and history of bilateral carpal tunnel release surgeries. (Id.) The ALJ also found that Claimant had the following nonsevere impairments: hypothyroidism, anxiety, depression, and patellofemoral syndrome of the right knee. (Id. at 13.)

         At step three, the ALJ found that Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled a presumptively disabling impairment listed in the regulations. (Id. at 14.) Specifically, the ALJ considered listings 1.04 (disorders of the spine resulting in compromise of a nerve root or the spinal cord) and, as a way to evaluate carpel tunnel syndrome, 11.14 (peripheral neuropathies). (Id. at 15.) The ALJ also opined that while there are no listing criteria for obesity impairments, obesity may have an adverse impact on other coexisting impairments. (Id. at 14.) Thus, thee ALJ considered the effects of Claimant's obesity when evaluating steps 2 through 5 of the 5 step process. (Id. at 15.) The ALJ also noted that because fibromyalgia is not a listed impairment, it must be determined whether it medically equals a listing such as 14.09 for inflammatory arthritis or whether it medically equals a listing in combination with at least one other medically determinable impairment. (Id.) The ALJ concluded that Claimant's fibromyalgia did not equal a listing. (Id.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Claimant had the RFC to perform sedentary work with the following restrictions:

[Claimant could] stand or walk two hours per eight-hour workday; sit six hours per eight-hour workday; never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, or crouch; never crawl on hands and knees; can use her hands for frequent but not constant handling, fingering, and should avoid concentrated exposure to cold, vibrating equipment, and fumes (although she is a cigarette smoker).

(Id.) The ALJ also found that Claimant was not capable of performing past relevant work as a pharmacy technician, cashier, or nurse's aide. (Id. at 23.)

         At step five, the ALJ found in the alternative that there were other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Claimant could also perform, including addresser, document preparer, and polisher of eye frames. (Id. at 24.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Claimant was not disabled. (Id. at 25.)

         B. The Substantial ...

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