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Robb v. Berryhill

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

January 25, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner Social Security Administration DEFENDANT



         Plaintiff, Sandra K. Robb, brings this action under 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 a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (hereinafter “the Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). 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).


         Plaintiff filed her application for DIB on May 9, 2012, alleging an amended onset date of January 6, 2010, due to disc problems in her lower back and tingling and cracking of her hands. (ECF No. 11, pp. 126-129, 155, 169-170). Based on her work credits, the Commissioner determined that the Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2015. (ECF No. 11, p. 273).

         Plaintiff's application was denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. Following an administrative hearing on March 5, 2013 (ECF No. 11, pp. 32-71, 354-393), an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) entered an unfavorable decision (ECF No. 11, pp. 19-27, 318-326). Upon appeal to this Court, the matter was remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration of the Plaintiff's RFC. (ECF No. 11, pp. 335-346). On September 7, 2016, the ALJ held a supplemental administrative hearing. (ECF No. 11, pp. 288-314). Plaintiff was present and represented by counsel.

         On October 18, 2016, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff's disorder of the lumbar spine, carpal tunnel syndrome (“CTS”), and disorder of the right knee status post total knee replacement were severe, but did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. (ECF No. 11, pp. 271-282). The ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing sedentary work involving occasional pushing and/or pulling with her bilateral upper extremities; frequent reaching, handling, fingering, feeling, operation of foot controls, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; and, occasional climbing. Further, the ALJ concluded she could not tolerate exposure to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts, could only occasionally operate a motor vehicle, and required the use of a cane to ambulate. With the assistance of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could return to her past relevant work (“PRW”) as an accounting clerk.

         Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. (ECF No. 1). This matter is before the undersigned for report and recommendation. Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (ECF Nos. 12, 13).


         This Court's role is to determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings. Vossen v. Astrue, 612 F.3d 1011, 1015 (8th Cir. 2010). 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. Teague v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 611, 614 (8th Cir. 2011). The Court must affirm the ALJ's decision if the record contains substantial evidence to support it. Blackburn v. Colvin, 761 F.3d 853, 858 (8th Cir. 2014). 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. Miller v. Colvin, 784 F.3d 472, 477 (8th Cir. 2015). 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 Court must affirm the ALJ's decision. Id.

         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). 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 his or 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 his or her age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). Only if he reaches the final stage does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience in light of his or her residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).


         Plaintiff raises essentially one issue on appeal: whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC determination. Following a thorough review of the record, the undersigned finds that the record lacks substantial evidence to support the RFC determination.

         We note that this matter was previously remanded for further consideration of the Plaintiff's RFC. The Court was concerned that the ALJ's RFC assessment, limiting her to frequent, but less than constant, handling and fingering with her bilateral hands, did not adequately account for the limitations resulting from her moderate to severe bilateral CTS. On remand, the ALJ was directed to obtain an RFC assessment from Plaintiff's ...

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