United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division
SHANE R. STEPHENSON, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
LEONARD T. STRAND, CHIEF JUDGE.
Shane R. Stephenson 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 et seq. (the Act). Stephenson contends 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 reversed and this case
will be remanded for further proceedings.
was born in 1975. He completed high school and has previously
worked as a hand packager, combination of machine packager
and industrial truck operator, and laundry worker. AR 31, 41.
He filed his application for DIB on June 1, 2015, alleging a
disability onset date of January 9, 2015, due to a broken
right hip and meningitis resulting in brain damage, speech
difficulties and right-sided weakness. Id. at 51.
Stephenson’s claims were denied initially and on
reconsideration. Id. at 47-68. He then requested a
hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). ALJ P.H.
Jung conducted an in-person hearing on June 1, 2017.
Id. at 27-46. Stephenson and a vocational expert
(VE) testified. The ALJ issued a decision on September 26,
2017. Id. at 15-22. He determined that Stephenson
was unable to perform any past relevant work. Id. at
20. However, he found that there was other work available in
significant numbers in the national economy that Stephenson
could perform, such as suture winder, clerical mailer and
touch-up screener. Id. at 21-22.
sought review by the Appeals Council. Id. at 1-8. It
denied review on May 16, 2018. Id. at 1. The
ALJ’s decision thus became the final decision of the
Commissioner. Id. at 1; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. On
July 14, 2018, Stephenson filed a motion for leave to proceed
in forma pauperis and complaint in this court seeking review
of the Commissioner’s decision. The parties have
submitted a stipulation of facts and briefed the issues.
See Doc. Nos. 12, 13, 14, 15. The matter is fully
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 March 31, 2019.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since January 9, 2015, the alleged onset date (20
CFR 404.1571 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: femoral
neck fracture status post open reduction internal fixation of
right hip; hypertension (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 lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally
and 10 pounds frequently; stand and walk up to 2 hours in an
8-hour workday; sit for up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday;
never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; never kneel, crouch,
or crawl; occasionally climb ramps, stairs, balance, and
stoop; avoid frequent exposure to extreme cold, wetness,
vibration, hazards, machinery, and heights.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work
(20 CFR 404.1565).
7. The claimant was born on August 9, 1975, and was 39 years
old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44, 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 ...