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Spahn v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Northern Division

January 11, 2019

ANGELA C. SPAHN PLAINTIFF
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL DEFENDANT

          RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION INSTRUCTIONS

         The following Recommended Disposition (“Recommendation”) has been sent to[1] Judge Kristine Baker. Either party may file written objections to all or part of this Recommendation. Objections should specifically explain the factual or legal basis for the objection. To be considered, all objections must be filed within 14 days of this Recommendation. By not objecting, parties may waive the right to appeal questions of fact.

         REASONING FOR RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION

         Angela Spahn applied for social security disability benefits with an alleged onset date of April 30, 2014. (R. at 90). After a hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) denied Ms. Spahn's applications. (R. at 40). The Appeals Council denied her request for review (R. at 1); thus, the ALJ's decision now stands as the Commissioner's final decision. Ms. Spahn filed this case requesting judicial review.

         I. The Commissioner's Decision

         The ALJ found that Ms. Spahn had the following severe impairments: history of seizures, degenerative disk disease of the cervical spine, osteoarthritis, bipolar type I disorder, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, alcohol use disorder, and cannabis use disorder. (R. at 20). The ALJ found that Ms. Spahn had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, except that she could not perform work from unprotected heights, ropes, ladders, or scaffolding; could not operate motor vehicles or use firearms; and could not perform tasks requiring bi-focal vision. She was further limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks with simple, direct, and concrete supervision. She could maintain frequent contact with coworkers and supervisors, but only occasional contact with the general public. She would need three unscheduled absences per month on a consistent basis. (R. at 20). This RFC precluded Ms. Spahn's past relevant work. (R. at 23).

         The ALJ took testimony from a vocational expert (VE), who testified that a person with Ms. Spahn's age, education, work experience, and RFC could not perform any jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 23-24).

         The ALJ found that Ms. Spahn would have severe impairments even if she stopped abusing alcohol and cannabis (R. at 24) and that she would still be unable to perform her past relevant work. (R. at 39) The VE testified, however, that a hypothetical individual with the same age, education, work experience, and RFC as Ms. Spahn, minus her substance abuse, would be able to perform other jobs such as hotel housekeeper, price tag ticketer, and routing clerk. (R. at 39-41). Based on this testimony, the ALJ held that Ms. Spahn's substance abuse was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability and that she was, therefore, not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. at 40).

         II. Discussion

         Ms. Spahn argues that the ALJ erred in finding that substance abuse was a contributing factor to her disability; that the ALJ failed to account in the RFC for moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace found at step three; and that the ALJ did not include appropriate vision limitations in the RFC. Because the ALJ did not include relevant visual limitations in the RFC, it is not necessary to reach Ms. Spahn's other points.

         The task of the Court is to determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings. Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012 (8th Cir. 2000). “Substantial evidence” in this context means “enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the ALJ's decision.” Slusser v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 923, 925 (8th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). In performing this analysis, the Court must look to evidence supporting the Commissioner's findings, and also, to evidence that detracts from the decision. Milam v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 978, 983 (8th Cir. 2015).

         Ms. Spahn is functionally blind in her left eye. (R. at 485-87, 620). The ALJ acknowledged this impairment and attempted to account for it in the RFC. (R. at 36-37). However, the ALJ mistakenly described Ms. Spahn's visual impairment in the hypothetical question posed to the VE and in assigning the RFC.

A hypothetical question must precisely describe a claimant's impairments so that the vocational expert may accurately assess whether jobs exist for the claimant. Smith v. Shalala, 31 F.3d 715, 717 (8th Cir.1994). A vocational expert cannot be assumed to remember all of a claimant's impairments from the record. Whitmore v. Bowen, 785 F.2d 262, 263-64 (8th Cir.1986). An expert's testimony based upon an insufficient hypothetical question may not constitute substantial evidence to support a finding of no disability. Id.

Newton v. Chater, 92 F.3d 688, 694-95 (8th Cir. 1996).

         As Ms. Spahn observes, the ALJ limited her to jobs that do not require “bi-focal” vision. (R. at 25, 37). The ALJ used the term “bifocal vision” in describing Ms. Spahn's limitations to the VE. (R. at 86). Ms. Spahn argues that limiting her to jobs not requiring “bi-focal” vision is inaccurate because “bi-focal vision” refers to the ability to see clearly at both near or far distances. A person without bi-focal vision can see near objects clearly and distant objects clearly. Indeed, the dictionary ...


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