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Jones v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fort Smith Division

August 16, 2017

GWENNA JONES PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Commissioner Social Security Administration DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HON. ERIN L. WIEDEMANN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, Gwenna Jones, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her claims for disabled widow's insurance benefits (DWB) and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under the provisions of Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (Act). In this judicial review, the Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the Commissioner's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. Procedural Background:

         Plaintiff protectively filed her current applications for DWB and SSI on October 21, 2013, alleging an inability to work since June 15, 1995, [2] due to Type II diabetes and severe depression. (Doc. 12, pp.75, 186, 193). An administrative hearing was held on November 12, 2014, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Doc. 12, pp. 31-71).

         By written decision dated May 8, 2015, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the non-disability requirements for DWB's. (Doc. 12, p. 18). The ALJ found that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Doc. 12, p. 19). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: major depression, an adjustment disorder with depressed and anxious mood, and an anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified. However, after reviewing all of the evidence presented, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the level of severity of any impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments found in Appendix I, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. (Doc. 12, p. 20). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but that she has nonexertional limitations. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards, including no driving as part of work, due to potential fluctuations in her blood sugar levels. In addition, she can perform work where interpersonal contact with coworkers and supervisors is incidental to the work performed, there is no contact with the general public, the complexity of tasks is learned and performed by rote with few variables and little use of judgment, and the supervision required is simple, direct and concrete.

         (Doc. 12, p. 22). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work as a production helper, a warehouse worker, a merchandise marker, and an office helper. (Doc. 12, p. 26).

         Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which after reviewing additional evidence submitted by Plaintiff denied that request on May 23, 2016. (Doc. 12, pp. 5-10). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. (Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 6). Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 13, 14).

         The Court has reviewed the entire transcript. The complete set of facts and arguments are presented in the parties' briefs, and are repeated here only to the extent necessary.

         II. Applicable Law:

         This Court's role is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but it is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's decision. The ALJ's decision must be affirmed if the record contains substantial evidence to support it. Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003). As long as there is substantial evidence in the record that supports the Commissioner's decision, the Court may not reverse it simply because substantial evidence exists in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome, or because the Court would have decided the case differently. Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). In other words, if after reviewing the record it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the findings of the ALJ, the decision of the ALJ must be affirmed. Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065, 1068 (8th Cir. 2000).

         It is well-established that a claimant for Social Security disability benefits has the burden of proving her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one year and that prevents her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir.2001); see also 42 U.S.C. § § 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c (a)(3)(A). The Act defines “physical or mental impairment” as “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382(3)(C). A Plaintiff must show that her disability, not simply her impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months.

         The Commissioner's regulations require her to apply a five-step sequential evaluation process to each claim for disability benefits: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since filing her claim; (2) whether the claimant has a severe physical and/or mental impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment(s) meet or equal an impairment in the listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevent the claimant from doing past relevant work; and, (5) whether the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy given her age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience in light of her residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         With regard to Plaintiff's DWB application, to be entitled to benefits as a disabled widow Plaintiff must be at least fifty years old, but less than sixty years old. 20 C.F.R. § 404.335(c). Furthermore, the alleged disability must have started not less than eighty-four months after either the insured wage earner died or eight-four months after ...


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