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Morris v. Berryhill

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

February 21, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner Social Security Administration DEFENDANT



         Plaintiff, Stacey Morris, brings this action on behalf of K. M., a minor child and next of kin to Michael Morris, deceased, under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his 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).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff protectively filed his application for DIB on April 16, 2014, alleging an onset date of April 14, 2014, due to insulin dependent diabetes, knee and hand pain, social anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), bipolar disorder, methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (“MRSA”), and substance abuse. (ECF No. 10, pp. 128, 239-247, 267-268). Based on his work credits, the Commissioner determined that the Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through March 30, 2017. (Id. at 21).

         Plaintiff's application was denied at both the initial and reconsideration levels. An administrative hearing was held on July 27, 2016. (Id. at 51-107). Plaintiff was present and represented by counsel.

         On October 18, 2016, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff's insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, history of left knee surgery, history of left elbow fracture, ADHD, bipolar disorder, adjustment disorder, panic disorder, other specified personality disorder with mixed features, and history of polysubstance abuse were severe but did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. (Id. at 22). The ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following non-exertional limitations: can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; should avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, particularly extreme heat; should avoid even moderate exposure to hazards, including not driving as part of work; and, is able to perform work where the interpersonal contact is incidental to work performed, the complexity of tasks is learned and performed by rote with few variables and little judgment involved, and the supervision required is simple, direct, and concrete. (Id. at 24). With the assistance of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work as a machine packager, busboy, routing clerk, marking clerk, document preparer, and pari-mutuel ticket checker. (Id. at 30).

         The request for review was denied by the Appeals Council on February 1, 2018, and the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision for judicial review. (Id. at 6-12).

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


         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). 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). So 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, we must affirm the ALJ's decision. Id.

         A claimant for Social Security disability benefits has the burden of proving his disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one year and that prevents him 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 his disability, not simply his 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 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 age, education, and experience. 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 residual functional capacity. 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. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).


         Plaintiff raises three issues on appeal: (a) whether the ALJ fully and fairly developed the record; (b) whether the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the Plaintiff's subjective complaints and apply the Polaski factors; and, (c) whether the ALJ's RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence. Of concern to the undersigned is the ALJ's RFC determination. RFC is the most a person can do despite that person's limitations. 20 C.F.R.' 404.1545. “The ALJ determines a claimant's RFC based on all relevant evidence in the record, including medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and the claimant's own descriptions of his or her limitations.” Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 971 (8th Cir. 2010); Davidson v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 838, 844 (8th Cir. 2009). The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has held that a “claimant's residual functional capacity is a medical question.” Miller, 784 F.3d at 479 (citing Lauer v. Apfel,2 ...

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