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Stephenson v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division

September 26, 2019

SHANE R. STEPHENSON, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          LEONARD T. STRAND, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Plaintiff 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Stephenson 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.

         Stephenson 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 submitted.

         II. DISABILITY DETERMINATIONS AND THE BURDEN OF PROOF

         A 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).

         To 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).

         Second, 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.

         The 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).

         Third, 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).

         Fourth, 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. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv).

         Fifth, 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).

         If 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.

         III. THE ALJ’S FINDINGS

         The ALJ 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 ...

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