United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division
LYDIA J. BUCKLEY, Claimant,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
A, ROBERTS, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
a cessation of benefits case involving an application for
disability insurance benefits under Titles II and XVIII of
the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. Sections 401-34 and
1391-1395 and for Supplemental Security Income benefits
(“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security
Act, 42 U.S.C. Sections 1381-1383. Plaintiff, Lydia J.
Buckley (“Claimant”), seeks judicial review of a
final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“the Commissioner”) denying her application for
continuation of benefits. The ALJ stated that her opinion to
deny continuation of benefits was only related to
continuation of Claimant's childhood disability benefits
and that she addressed Claimant's continuation of
disability insurance benefits and SSI in a separate opinion.
at 39.) The parties seem agree that there is no separate
opinion. (Doc. 12 at 2.) Claimant contends that the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in
determining that she was not still disabled under the Social
Security Act. For the reasons that follow, I recommend that
the District Court affirm the
most of the facts set forth in the Parties' Joint
Statement of Facts (Doc. 12) and summarize the pertinent
facts here. When relevant, I will explain where I do not
adopt the Joint Statement of Facts. Claimant was born on May
14, 1990 (AR at 257.) Claimant is a high school graduate and
attended college for two years, but did not graduate.
(Id. at 62, 104-05.) As a minor, she received
disability benefits based on her father's disability
application. (Id. at 39.) Benefits terminated when
she turned 18 in 2008, but were reinstated after she filed
for benefits in 2011 as the disabled adult child of a wage
earner. (Id.) On March 19, 2013, an ALJ found
Claimant had the following severe impairments:
“intracranial hypertension secondary to intracranial
sinus thrombosis, partial visual field loss secondary to
intracranial hypertension, obesity, papilledema, polycystic
ovarian disease, . . . cerebral anxiety disorder, a major
depressive disorder recurrent, a mood disorder secondary to
general medical condition, and attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder.” (Id. at 171.) At the
December 19, 2012 hearing related to that claim, a vocational
expert testified that no jobs existed for a person of
Claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual
functional capacity (“RFC”). (Id. at
March 19, 2013, an ALJ found Claimant disabled and unable to
work as of May 13, 2008 due to excessive work absences.
(Id. at 172-74.) This is the comparison point
decision (“CPD”). (Id. at 41.) At that
time, the ALJ noted, “Medical improvement is expected
with appropriate treatment. Consequently, a continuing
disability review is recommended in 24 months.”
(Id. at 174.)
August 10, 2016, the Social Security Administration
(“SSA”) notified Claimant that her benefits would
terminate on October 31, 2016 because it had determined she
was no longer disabled. (Id. at 175.) Claimant
appealed that decision and a state agency disability hearing
officer conducted a hearing on December 15, 2016 and again
found her not disabled. (Id. at 199-204.) Claimant
appealed that decision and requested a hearing before an ALJ.
(Id. at 208.)
hearing was held before an ALJ on June 13, 2017 with ALJ Jan
E. Dutton and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Stephen
Schill in Omaha, Nebraska and Claimant and her attorney, Wil
L. Forker, in Sioux City, Iowa. (Id. at 54-86.)
Claimant and VE Schill both testified. (Id. at
61-85.) ALJ Dutton entered a decision unfavorable to Claimant
on November 13, 2017. (Id. at 39-48.) Claimant filed
a request for the Appeals Council to review the decision and
evaluate additional evidence from 2011 and 2018.
(Id. at 2.) On July 10, 2018, the Appeals Council
determined the 2011 evidence would not have changed the
outcome of the ALJ's decision and the 2018 evidence did
not relate to the relevant time. (Id.) The Appeals
Council also found there was no basis to review the ALJ's
decision (Id. at 1.) 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. Thus, the time period
relevant to this appeal is from March 19, 2013 (the CPD date)
to the date of the Commissioner's final decision,
November 13, 2017. (Id. at 39.)
August 27, 2018, Claimant timely filed her complaint in this
Court. (Doc. 4.) All briefs were filed by March 5, 2019.
(Doc. 16.) On March 5, 2019, the Honorable Charles J.
Williams, United States District Court Judge, referred the
case to me for a Report and Recommendation.
DISABILITY DETERMINATIONS IN MEDICAL IMPROVEMENT
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).
The claimant in a disability benefits case has a
“continuing burden” to demonstrate that he is
disabled, Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 336, 96
S.Ct. 893, 903, 47 L.Ed.2d 18 (1976), and no inference is to
be drawn from the fact that the individual has previously
been granted benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 423(f). Once the
claimant meets this initial responsibility, however, the
burden shifts to the Secretary to demonstrate that the
claimant is not disabled. Lewis v. Heckler, 808 F.2d
1293, 1297 (8th Cir.1987). If the Government wishes to cut
off benefits due to an improvement in the claimant's
medical condition, it must demonstrate that the conditions
which previously rendered the claimant disabled have
ameliorated, and that the improvement in the physical
condition is related to claimant's ability to work. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(2)-(5).
Nelson v. Sullivan, 946 F.2d 1314, 1315 (8th Cir.
1991); Brady v. Berryhill, No. 4:16CV1173 ACL, 2017
WL 4099483, at *3 (E.D. Mo. Sept. 15, 2017). To determine if
a claimant has a continuing disability, ALJs employ the
sequential analysis prescribed in 20 C.F.R. §
(1) whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial
(2) if not, whether the disability continues because the
claimant's impairments meet or equal the severity of a
(3) whether there has been a medical improvement;
(4) if there has been medical improvement, whether it is
related to the claimant's ability to work;
(5) if there has been no medical improvement or if the
medical improvement is not related to the claimant's
ability to work, whether any exception to medical improvement
(6) if there is medical improvement and it is shown to be
related to the claimant's ability to work, whether all of
the claimant's current impairments in combination are
(7) if the current impairment or combination of impairments
is severe, whether the claimant has the residual functional
capacity to perform any of his past relevant work activity;
(8) if the claimant is unable to do work performed in the
past, whether the claimant can perform other work.
Dixon v. Barnhart, 324 F.3d 997, 1000 (8th Cir.
2003) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)).
activity [at step one] 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)). If the claimant is performing substantial
gainful activity, the claimant's disability has ended. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(1).
claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, at
step two, the ALJ decides if the claimant's impairments
meet or equal the severity of a listed impairment.
Id. at § 404.1594(f)(2). If the claimant's
impairment or combination of impairments meet or medically
equal a listed impairment, the claimant's disability
three, the ALJ will determine if there has been medical
improvement in the claimant's condition since the CPD.
See Greifzu-Hamric v. Berryhill, No.
4:16-CV-0177-NCC, 2017 WL 1164857, at *1 (E.D. Mo. Mar. 29,
2017), aff'd, 733 Fed.Appx. 337 (8th Cir. 2018).
Medical improvement is
any decrease in the medical severity of [the claimant's]
impairment(s) which was present at the time of the [CPD]. . .
. A determination that there has been a decrease in medical
severity must be based on changes (improvement) in the
symptoms, signs and/or laboratory findings associated with
[the claimant's] impairment(s).
Delph v. Astrue, 538 F.3d 940, 947 (8th Cir. 2008)
(quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416(b)(1)(i)); 20 C.F.R. § 20
C.F.R. §404.1594(f)). If medical improvement has
occurred, the analysis proceeds to step four. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1594(f)(3). If not, the analysis proceeds to step
four, the ALJ assesses whether the claimant's medical
improvement is related to the ability to do work,
specifically whether the medical improvement has resulted in
an increase in the claimant's ability to do basic work
activities since the CPD. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(4). If
so, the analysis proceeds to step six; if not, the analysis
proceeds to step five. Id.
ALJ found at step three that there was no medical improvement
or at step four that the medical improvement was not related
to the claimant's ability to work, the ALJ will consider
whether any exceptions apply. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(5).
If none apply, the claimant's disability continues.
Id. If one of the first group of exceptions applies,
the analysis moves to step six. Id. If an exception
from the second group applies, the claimant's disability
six, the ALJ will determine if the claimant's current
impairments are severe. Id. at §
404.1594(f)(6). If all current impairments in combination do
not significantly limit the claimant's ability to do
basic work activities, the claimant's disability ends and
the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id. 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
Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 141 (1987)
(quotation omitted) (numbers added; internal brackets
seven, the ALJ determines if the claimant's current RFC
will not allow the claimant to perform past relevant work.
§ 404.1594(f)(7). 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
or her 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).
claimant can perform past relevant work, the claimant's
disability ends. Id. § 404.1594(f)(7). If not,
the analysis moves to the final step. Id. At step
eight, the Commissioner has the burden to show there is other
work the claimant can do, given the claimant's RFC, age,
education, and work experience. Id. §
404.1594(f)(8). 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
The ALJ'S Findings
made the following findings regarding Claimant's
disability status. The ALJ found that Claimant's CPD date
was March 19, 2013, the date of the most recent favorable
medical decision that found Claimant was disabled. (AR at
41.) The ALJ also found that at the time of the CPD, Claimant
had the following medically determinable impairments:
intracranial hypertension secondary to intracranial sinus
thrombosis, partial visual field loss secondary to
intracranial hypertension, obesity, papilledema, polycystic
ovarian disease, and a cerebral pseudotumor. She also had an
anxiety disorder, a major depressive disorder, recurrent, a
mood disorder, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
(Id.) These impairments were found to result in the
[the ability] to lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10
pounds frequently, stand and/or walk, for six out of eight
hours, and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday, push
and pull within these limitations, occasionally climb,
balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl, avoid hazards such
as ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and unprotected heights, pay
attention for up to two hours, but must then take a break and
the claimant would be absent from work two or three days per
(Id.) The ALJ then made the following findings as to
the current eight-step evaluation process.
one, the ALJ found that through October 31, 2016, the date
the SSA found that Claimant's disability ended, Claimant
did not engage in substantial gainful activity.
two, the ALJ found that the current medical evidence
established that Claimant did not develop any additional
impairments from the date of the CPD until October 31, 2016.
(Id.) In addition, the ALJ found that since October
31, 2016, Claimant did not have an impairment or combination
of impairments that met or medically-equaled the severity of
an impairment in the listings. (Id.)
three, the ALJ found that medical improvement occurred as of
October 31, 2016. (Id. at 41-43.) This finding is at
issue between the parties and forms the basis of their
four, the ALJ found that Claimant's medical improvement
was related to the ability to work because the improvement
resulted in an increase in the Claimant's RFC.
(Id. at 46.)
did not discuss the step five exceptions. An exception does
not apply in this case. See 20 C.F.R. §§