United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Central Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
LEONARD T. STRAND, CHIEF JUDGE
Ronald Dean Doyle seeks judicial review of a final decision
of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner)
denying his application for disability income benefits (DIB)
under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.
§§ 401-34 (the Act). Doyle contends that the
administrative record (AR) does not contain substantial
evidence to support the Commissioner's decision that he
was not disabled during the relevant period. For the reasons
that follow, the Commissioner's decision will be
was born in 1963. He completed high school and has previously
worked in building and ground maintenance and as a production
laborer. AR 71, 214. He filed his application for DIB on
October 23, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of January
24, 2014, due to chronic edema resulting in right leg pain,
chronic tinnitus,  insomnia, loss of hearing in left ear,
chronic headaches, his right leg being shorter than the left
and high blood pressure. Id. at 92. Doyle's
claims were denied initially and on reconsideration.
Id. at 91-121. He then requested a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). ALJ Robert A. Kelly conducted
an in-person hearing on May 1, 2017. Id. at 63-90.
Doyle and a vocational expert (VE) testified. The ALJ issued
a decision on June 7, 2017. Id. at 42-58. He
determined that Doyle was unable to perform any past relevant
work. Id. at 56. However, he determined that there
was other work available in significant numbers in the
national economy that Doyle could perform, such as
non-government mail clerk, office helper and photocopy
machine operator. Id. at 57.
sought review by the Appeals Council and submitted additional
evidence, which the Appeals Council made part of the record.
Id. at 1-7. It denied review on April 10, 2018.
Id. at 44. The ALJ's decision thus became the
final decision of the Commissioner. Id. at 1; 20
C.F.R. § 404.981. On June 7, 2018, Doyle filed a motion
for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and his complaint
seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. The
parties have submitted a stipulation of facts and briefed the
issues. See Doc. Nos. 12, 13, 15, 16. The matter is
now fully submitted.
DISABILITY DETERMINATIONS AND THE BURDEN OF
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); 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1505. 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). 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.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1566(c)(1)-(8).
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.
Id. § 404.1520; see Kirby v. Astrue,
500 F.3d 705, 707 (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. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i).
“Substantial” work activity involves physical or
mental activities. “Gainful” activity is work
done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a).
if the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful
activity, then the Commissioner looks to the severity of the
claimant's physical and medical impairments. If the
impairments are not severe, then the claimant is not
disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). An impairment
is not severe if “it does not significantly limit your
physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a); see
also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c); Kirby, 500
F.3d at 707.
ability to do basic work activities is defined as having
“the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most
jobs.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b). These abilities
and aptitudes 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. § 404.1521(b)(1)-(6); see
Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 141 (1987).
if the claimant has a severe impairment, then the
Commissioner will determine its medical severity. 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii),
404.1520(d); see Kelley v. Callahan, 133 F.3d 583,
588 (8th Cir. 1998).
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. If the claimant cannot do his past relevant
work then he is considered disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1545(a)(4). Past relevant work is any
work the claimant has done within the past 15 years of his
application that was substantial gainful activity and lasted
long enough for the claimant to learn how to do it.
Id. § 404.1560(b)(1). “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 his or her
physical or mental limitations.” Lewis v.
Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir. 2003) (internal
quotation marks omitted); See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(1). The RFC is based on all relevant medical and
other evidence. Id. § 404.145(a)(3). The
claimant is responsible for providing the evidence the
Commissioner will use to determine the RFC. Id. If a
claimant retains enough RFC to perform past relevant work,
then the claimant is not disabled. Id. §
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. Id. §§
404.1512(f), 404.1520(a)(4)(v). 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 v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th
Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If the
claimant can make the adjustment, then the Commissioner will
find the claimant is not disabled. Id. At step five,
the Commissioner has the responsibility of developing the
claimant's complete medical history before making a
determination about the existence of a disability.
Id. § 404.145(a)(3). The burden of persuasion
to prove disability remains on the claimant. Stormo v.
Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2004).
after these five steps the ALJ has determined the claimant is
disabled but there is medical evidence of substance use
disorders, the ALJ must decide if that substance use is a
contributing factor material to the determination of
disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C). The ALJ must then
evaluate the extent of the claimant's limitations without
the substance use. Id. If the limitations would not
be disabling, then the disorder is a contributing factor
material to determining disability and the claimant is not
disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1535.
THE ALJ'S FINDINGS
made the following findings:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the
Social Security Act through December 31, 2019.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since January 24, 2014, the alleged onset date (20
CFR 404.1571 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: chronic
venous insufficiency, obesity, a mood disorder, and a
generalized anxiety disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the
undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual
functional capacity to perform a range of light work as
defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant can sit for
two hours in an eight-hour workday. He can stand and/or walk
for six hours in an eight-hour workday. The claimant cannot
climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can balance, climb
ramps or stairs, stoop, crouch, kneel, or crawl occasionally.
The claimant cannot work in environments with concentrated
exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold, or humidity. The
claimant can perform only simple, routine, repetitive work
with no more than occasional changes in the general nature of
the work setting or work tasks. He can maintain focus,
attention and concentration for only up to two hours at a
time. He can interact with the public only frequently.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work
(20 CFR 404.1565).
7. The claimant was born on July 27, 1963, and he was 50
years old, which is defined as an individual closely
approaching advanced age, on the alleged disability onset
date (20 CFR 404.1563).
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is
able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the
determination of disability because using the
Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding
that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or
not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41
and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work
experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs
that exist in significant numbers in the national economy
that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569 and
THE SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE STANDARD
Commissioner's decision must be affirmed “if it is
supported by substantial evidence on the record as a
whole.” Pelkey v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 577
(8th Cir. 2006); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
(“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security
as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall
be conclusive . . . .”). “Substantial evidence is
less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind
might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Lewis, 353 F.3d at 645. The Eighth Circuit explains
the standard as “something less than the weight of the
evidence and [that] allows for the possibility of drawing two
inconsistent conclusions, thus it embodies a zone of choice
within which the [Commissioner] may decide to grant or deny
benefits without being subject to reversal on appeal.”
Culbertson v. Shalala, 30 F.3d 934, 939 (8th Cir.
determining whether the Commissioner's decision meets
this standard, the court considers “all of the evidence
that was before the ALJ, but it [does] not re-weigh the
evidence.” Wester v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 886,
889 (8th Cir. 2005). The court considers both evidence which
supports the Commissioner's decision and evidence that
detracts from it. Kluesner v. Astrue, 607 F.3d 533,
536 (8th Cir. 2010). The court must “search the record
for evidence contradicting the [Commissioner's] decision
and give that evidence appropriate weight when determining
whether the overall evidence in support is
substantial.” Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d
549, 555 (8th Cir. 2003) (citing Cline v. Sullivan,
939 F.2d 560, 564 (8th Cir. 1991)).
evaluating the evidence in an appeal of a denial of benefits,
the court must apply a balancing test to assess any
contradictory evidence. Sobania v. Sec'y of Health
& Human Servs., 879 F.2d 441, 444 (8th Cir. 1989).
The court, however, does not “reweigh the evidence
presented to the ALJ, ” Baldwin, 349 F.3d at
555 (citing Bates v. Chater, 54 F.3d 529, 532 (8th
Cir. 1995)), or “review the factual record de
novo.” Roe v. Chater, 92 F.3d 672, 675 (8th
Cir. 1996) (citing Naber v. Shalala, 22 F.3d 186,
188 (8th Cir. 1994)). Instead, if, after reviewing the
evidence, the court finds it “possible to draw two
inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those
positions represents the Commissioner's findings, [the
court] must affirm the [Commissioner's] denial of
benefits.” Kluesner, 607 F.3d at 536 (quoting
Finch v. Astrue, 547 F.3d 933, 935 (8th Cir. 2008)).
This is true even in cases where the court “might have
weighed the evidence differently.” Culbertson,
30 F.3d at 939 (quoting Browning v. Sullivan, 958
F.2d 817, 822 (8th Cir. 1992)). The court may not reverse the
Commissioner's decision “merely because substantial
evidence would have supported an opposite decision.”
Baker v. Heckler, 730 F.2d 1147, 1150 (8th Cir.
1984); see Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 789 (8th
Cir. 2005) (“[A]n administrative decision is not
subject to reversal simply because some evidence may support
the opposite conclusion.”).
argues the ALJ made the following errors:
1. The RFC is not supported by the record
2. The ALJ's hypothetical question to the VE was
3. The ALJ should have credited Doyle's subjective
allegations and the opinions of the ...