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Buckley v. Saul

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

August 8, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.



         This is 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. (AR[2] at 39.) The parties seem agree that there is no separate opinion.[3] (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 Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         I adopt 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 173.)

         On 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.)

         On 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.)

         A video 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.)

         On 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.


         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).

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. § 404.1594(f).

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity;
(2) if not, whether the disability continues because the claimant's impairments meet or equal the severity of a listed impairment;
(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 applies;
(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 severe;
(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; and
(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)).

         “Substantial 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).

         If the 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 continues. Id.

         At step 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 five. Id.

         At 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.

         If the 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.[4] 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 ends. Id.

         At step 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 setting.

Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 141 (1987) (quotation omitted) (numbers added; internal brackets omitted).

         At step 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).

         If the 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 (citation omitted).

         A. The ALJ'S Findings

         The ALJ 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 following RFC:

[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 month.

(Id.) The ALJ then made the following findings as to the current eight-step evaluation process.

         At step 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. (Id.)

         At step 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.)

         At step 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 arguments.

         At step 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.)

         The ALJ did not discuss the step five exceptions. An exception does not apply in this case. See 20 C.F.R. ยงยง ...

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