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Rogers v. Berryhill

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

July 6, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner Social Security Administration DEFENDANT



         Plaintiff, Teresa F. Rogers, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her claim for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 1382. 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 filed her application for SSI on April 23, 2014, due to panic disorder, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, chronic insomnia, problems with both knees, memory problems, concentration problems, and learning problems. (ECF No. 8, pp. 197, 212, 287-292, 311, 336-337). On December 15, 2015, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held an administrative hearing. (ECF No. 8, p. 171-195). Plaintiff was present and represented by counsel.

         As of her filing date, Plaintiff was 50 years old and possessed a general education equivalent. (ECF No. 8, pp. 38, 175, 312). Although she had worked as a cashier, factory worker, and teller, none of Plaintiff's work qualified as past relevant work (“PRW”) experience. (ECF No. 8, p. 38, 313, 329-335).

         On April 22, 2016, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff's post-trauma stress disorder (“PTSD”), panic disorder, persistent depressive disorder, and borderline personality traits were severe, but concluded they did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. (ECF No. 8, p. 31). He then found Plaintiff capable of performing a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following non-exertional limitations: the claimant is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks involving only simple, work-related decisions with few if any workplace changes and no more than incidental contact with co-workers, supervisors, and the general public. (ECF No. 8, p. 34). With the assistance of a vocational expert, the ALJ found the Plaintiff capable of performing work as a packing machine operator, price marker, and plastics molding machine tender. (ECF No. 8, p. 39).

         The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review on May 12, 2017. (ECF No. 8, pp. 9-15). On July 11, 2017, after receiving additional medical evidence, the Appeals Council found no reason to reopen or change its May 2017 decision. (ECF No. 8, pp. 6-8). Subsequently, the 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, 14).

         II. Applicable Law

         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 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). We 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). If 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, we 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 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. § 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(D). 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. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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 her residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 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(a)(4)(v).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff raises four issues on appeal: (1) Whether the ALJ's step two analysis is supported by substantial evidence; (2) Whether the ALJ properly developed the record; (3) Whether the ALJ conducted a proper credibility analysis; and, (4) Whether the ALJ's RFC determination is substantially supported.

         A. Step Two

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred at Step Two by failing to find any of her physical impairments severe. At Step Two, a claimant has the burden of providing evidence of functional limitations in support of their contention of disability. Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007). “An impairment is not severe if it amounts only to a slight abnormality that would not significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Id. (citing Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 153 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a)). “If the impairment would have no more than a minimal effect on the claimant's ability to work, then it does not satisfy the requirement of step two.” Id. (citing Page v. Astrue, 484 F.3d 1040, 1043 (8th Cir. 2007)).

         In the present case, the ALJ found only Plaintiff's PTSD, panic disorder, persistent depressive disorder, and borderline personality traits to be severe. (ECF No. 8, p. 31). He concluded that her DDD, CTS, bilateral knee pain, and migraines were non-severe. Plaintiff now contends the ALJ failed to properly consider her physical impairments, both singularly and in combination. After reviewing the record, however, the undersigned disagrees.

         Plaintiff has a history of migraine headaches dating back to at least 2005, neck pain, and lower back pain resulting from a lifting injury. (ECF No. 8, pp. 422-426, 512, 516, 521, 525, 530-531). Records reveal she was prescribed Topamax as a prophylactic, which mitigated but did not eradicate the headaches. (ECF No. 8, p. ...

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