Townsend v. Berryhill, No. 4:2018cv01399 - Document 24 (E.D. Mo. 2019)

Court Description: OPINION, MEMORANDUM AND ORDER - IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is reversed.IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that this matter is remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration of the record.A separate Judgment in accordance with this Opinion, Memorandum and Order is entered this same date.. Signed by District Judge Henry Edward Autrey on 08/02/2019. (AAS)
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Townsend v. Berryhill Doc. 24 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI EASTERN DIVISION JOYCE TOWNSEND, ) ) Plaintiff, ) ) v. ) No. 4:18CV1399HEA ) ) ANDREW M. SAUL ) Commissioner of Social Security , ) ) Defendant. ) OPINION, MEMORANDUM AND ORDER This matter is before the Court, pursuant to the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3), authorizing judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff’s Title II application for disability insurance benefits and Title XVI application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1385. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed. Plaintiff originally filed a claim for benefits under Title II and Title XVI on March 16, 2015. Plaintiff alleged an onset date of February 28, 2015. After the claim was denied Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing. Dockets.Justia.com On May 4, 2017 a hearing was conducted by ALJ Robin J. Barber in Creve Coeur, Missouri. Plaintiff appeared in person and with counsel. The Vocational Expert was Steven Coon. Plaintiff was born on May 8, 1976. She was 41 on the date of the hearing. She was 38 years old as of the date of the onset of the alleged disability. She alleged she became disabled as the result of suffering a heart attack and two subsequent open heart surgeries. Plaintiff asserted she suffered from headaches that were affecting her vision. Plaintiff testified that she and her daughter lived with her sister. Plaintiff has a high school education. There was no testimony in the record from the Vocational Expert although he is referenced early in the record. The ALJ held, on December 27, 2017, that Plaintiff had severe impairments which included nonischemic cardiomyopathy and anemia. The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) (Tr. 22). Considering the Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC in conjunction with the medical-vocational guidelines, 20 C.F.R. pt 404, subpt P, app. 2, the ALJ found there were jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. Consequently, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. On June 25, 2018, the Social Security Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies, and the 2 decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review. Statement of the Issues Generally the issues in a Social Security case are whether the final decision of the Commissioner is consistent with the Social Security Act, regulations, and applicable case law, and whether the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. The issues here are whether the ALJ properly evaluated the medical evidence and whether she properly assessed Plaintiff’s RFC. As explained below, the Court has considered the entire record in this matter. The decision of the Commissioner is not supported by substantial evidence and it will be reversed. Standard for Determining Disability The standard of review here is limited to a determination of whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. See Milam v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 978, 983 (8th Cir. 2015). Substantial evidence is less than preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the Commissioner’s conclusion. See id. “The phrase ‘substantial evidence’ is a ‘term of art’ used throughout administrative law to describe how courts are to review agency factfinding ... Under the substantial-evidence standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains ‘sufficien[t] 3 evidence’ to support the agency’s factual determinations.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S. Ct. 1148, 2019 WL 1428885, at *3 (2019) (citations omitted). “And whatever the meaning of ‘substantial’ in other contexts, the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high. Substantial evidence, this Court has said, is “‘more than a mere scintilla.’” Biestek at *3 (citations omitted). “It means—and means only— ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Biestekat *3 (citations omitted). The Court must consider evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner’s decision but cannot reverse the decision because substantial evidence also exists in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome, or because it would have decided the case differently. See Andrews v. Colvin, 791 F.3d 923, 928 (8th Cir. 2015). If the Court finds that the evidence supports two inconsistent positions and one of those positions represents the Commissioner’s findings, the Court must affirm the Commissioner’s decision. Wright v. Colvin, 789 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir. 2015). The Eighth Circuit has stated that “[w]e defer heavily to the findings and conclusions of the Social Security Administration.” Id. (quoting Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010)). The Social Security Act defines as disabled a person who is “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which 4 has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir.2010). The impairment must be “of such severity that [the claimant] is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). A five-step regulatory framework is used to determine whether an individual claimant qualifies for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a); see also McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir.2011) (discussing the five-step process). At Step One, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in “substantial gainful activity”; if so, then he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I), 416.920(a)(4)(I); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment, which is “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities”; if the claimant does not have a severe impairment, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) (4)(ii), 404.1520(c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Three, the ALJ evaluates whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals 5 one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “listings”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant has such an impairment, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled; if not, the ALJ proceeds with the rest of the five-step process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. Prior to Step Four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), which is “the most a claimant can do despite [his] limitations.” Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir.2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545 (a) (1)); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). At Step Four, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can return to his past relevant work, by comparing the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) (4) (iv), 404.1520(f), 416.920(a) (4) (iv), 416.920(f); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant can perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled; if the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id. At Step Five, the ALJ considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine whether the claimant can make an adjustment to other work in the national economy; if the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the claimant will be found disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. RFC 6 A claimant's RFC is the most an individual can do despite the combined effects of all of his or her credible limitations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. An ALJ's RFC finding is based on all of the record evidence, including the claimant's testimony regarding symptoms and limitations, the claimant's medical treatment records, and the medical opinion evidence. See Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 969 (8th Cir.2010); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545; Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96–8p. An ALJ may discredit a claimant's subjective allegations of disabling symptoms to the extent they are inconsistent with the overall record as a whole, including: the objective medical evidence and medical opinion evidence; the claimant's daily activities; the duration, frequency, and intensity of pain; dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of medications and medical treatment; and the claimant's self-imposed restrictions. See Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir.1984); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529; SSR 96–7p. A claimant's subjective complaints may not be disregarded solely because the objective medical evidence does not fully support them. The absence of objective medical evidence is just one factor to be considered in evaluating the claimant's credibility and complaints. The ALJ must fully consider all of the evidence presented relating to subjective complaints, including the claimant's prior work record and observations by third parties and treating and examining physicians relating to such matters as: 7 (1) The claimant's daily activities; (2) The subjective evidence of the duration, frequency, and intensity of the claimant's pain; (3) Any precipitating or aggravating factors; (4) The dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of any medication; and (5) The claimant's functional restrictions. Although the ALJ bears the primary responsibility for assessing a claimant's RFC based on all relevant evidence, a claimant's RFC is a medical question. Hutsell v. Massanari, 259 F.3d 707, 711 (8th Cir.2001) (citing Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700, 704 (8th Cir.2001)). Therefore, an ALJ is required to consider at least some supporting evidence from a medical professional. See Lauer, 245 F.3d at 704 (some medical evidence must support the determination of the claimant's RFC); Casey v. Astrue, 503 F .3d 687, 697 (the RFC is ultimately a medical question that must find at least some support in the medical evidence in the record). An RFC determination made by an ALJ will be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Cox v. Barnhart, 471 F.3d 902, 907 (8th Cir.2006). The ALJ must make express credibility determinations and set forth the inconsistencies in the record which cause him to reject the claimant's complaints. Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 802 (8th Cir.2005). “It is not enough that the record contains inconsistencies; the ALJ must specifically demonstrate that he 8 considered all of the evidence.” Id. The ALJ, however, “need not explicitly discuss each Polaski factor.” Strongson v. Barnhart, 361 F.3d 1066, 1072 (8th Cir.2004). The ALJ need only acknowledge and consider those factors. Id. Although credibility determinations are primarily for the ALJ and not the court, the ALJ's credibility assessment must be based on substantial evidence. Rautio v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 176, 179 (8th Cir.1988). The burden of persuasion to prove disability and demonstrate RFC remains on the claimant. See Steed v. Astrue, 524 F.3d 872, 876 (8th Cir. 2008). The ability to do basic work activities is defined as “the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.921(b). These abilities and aptitudes include (1) physical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, or handling; (2) capacities for seeing, hearing, and speaking; (3) understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; (4) use of judgment; (5) responding appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual work situations; and (6) dealing with changes in a routine work setting. Id. § 416.921(b)(1)-(6); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 141 (1987). “The sequential evaluation process may be terminated at step two only when the claimant’s impairment or combination of impairments would have no more than a minimal impact on his ability to work.” Page v. Astrue, 484 F.3d 1040, 1043 (8th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). 9 If the claimant has a severe impairment, then the Commissioner will consider the medical severity of the impairment. If the impairment meets or equals one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the regulations, then the claimant is considered disabled, regardless of age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d); see Kelley v. Callahan, 133 F.3d 583, 588 (8th Cir. 1998). If the claimant’s impairment is severe, but it does not meet or equal one of the presumptively disabling impairments, then the Commissioner will assess the claimant’s RFC to determine the claimant’s “ability to meet the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements” of the claimant’s past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.945(a)(4). “RFC is a medical question defined wholly in terms of the claimant’s physical ability to perform exertional tasks or, in other words, what the claimant can still do despite his physical or mental limitations.” Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642, 646 (8th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted); see 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). The claimant is responsible for providing evidence the Commissioner will use to make a finding as to the claimant’s RFC, but the Commissioner is responsible for developing the claimant’s “complete medical history, including arranging for a consultative examination(s) if necessary, and making every reasonable effort to help [the claimant] get medical reports from [the claimant’s] own medical sources.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(3). The 10 Commissioner also will consider certain non-medical evidence and other evidence listed in the regulations. See id. If a claimant retains the RFC to perform past relevant work, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant’s RFC as determined in Step Four will not allow the claimant to perform past relevant work, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that there is other work that the claimant can do, given the claimant’s RFC as determined at Step Four, and his or her age, education, and work experience. See Bladow v. Apfel, 205 F.3d 356, 358-59 n.5 (8th Cir. 2000). The Commissioner must prove not only that the claimant’s RFC will allow the claimant to make an adjustment to other work, but also that the other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, then the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, then the Commissioner will find that the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). At Step Five, even though the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner, the burden of persuasion to prove disability remains on the claimant. Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2004). Decision of the ALJ 11 In a decision dated December, 2017, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. The ALJ acknowledged that the administrative framework required a five-step, sequential process in evaluating Plaintiff's claim. With respect to a determination of the Plaintiff’s RFC, the court agrees that the ALJ only utilized plaintiff’s ADLs and the objective medical evidence. The ALJ considered Dr. Tang’s evaluation and report but did not use it to form the RFC. The court agrees with the Plaintiff that the record is deficient in developing the basis of the RFC on the record. The analysis and conclusions of the ALJ are not supported by substantial evidence. An administrative law judge may not draw upon his own inferences from medical reports. Nevland v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 853, 858 (8thCir.2000), quoting Landess v. Weinberger, 490 F.2d 1187, 1189 (8thCir. 1974). Conclusion The ALJ decision is not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. The ALJ's decision will be reversed and remanded for the reasons set forth in this Opinion, Memorandum and Order as it relates to the determination of the Plaintiff’s RFC. The decision of the ALJ denying Plaintiff's claims for benefits is reversed. Accordingly, 12 IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is reversed. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that this matter is remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration of the record. A separate Judgment in accordance with this Opinion, Memorandum and Order is entered this same date Dated this 2nd day of August, 2019. ___________________________________ HENRY EDWARD AUTREY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 13