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Cole v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

September 12, 2017

JOYCE COLE PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HON. ERIN L. WIEDEMANN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff, Joyce Cole, 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 claim for supplemental security income (SSI) under the provisions of Title 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 application for SSI on May 20, 2011, alleging an inability to work since May 1, 2011, due to the following conditions: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, and back problems. (Tr. 245, 248). An administrative hearing was held on September 18, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 31-58). On May 31, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. (Tr. 90-102). The Appeals Council remanded the case back to the ALJ for further consideration on May 9, 2014. (Tr. 108-111). A second administrative hearing was held on September 22, 2014, at which Plaintiff also appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 59-85).

         On January 13, 2015, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that the Plaintiff had severe impairments of COPD, obesity, degenerative disc disease, and major depressive disorder. (Tr. 15). After reviewing the evidence in its entirety, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the level of severity of any listed impairments described in Appendix 1 of the Regulations (20 CFR, Subpart P, Appendix 1). (Tr. 16-17). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:

perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a) except the claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants like dusts, odors, etc.; the claimant can only occasionally climb, balance, crawl, kneel, stoop, and/or crouch; the claimant can perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks, in a setting where interpersonal contact is incidental to the work performed, and can respond to supervision that is simple, direct, and concrete.

(Tr. 18-24). The ALJ propounded interrogatories to the vocational expert (VE), and through her responses the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing work as a surveillance system monitor, addressing clerk, or photo copy document preparer. (Tr. 24-25).

         Subsequently, on March 18, 2015, Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council of the hearing decision. (Tr. 5-8). The Appeals Council denied her request on April 21, 2016. (Tr. 1-4). Plaintiff then filed this action on June 24, 2016. (Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 6). Both parties have submitted briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 13, 14).

         The Court has reviewed the transcript in its entirety. 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). 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. § 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), abrogated on other grounds by Higgins v. Apfel, 222 F.3d 504, 505 (8th Cir. 2000); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.

         III. ...


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