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Stimpson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 22, 2018

Sheryl Lynn Stimpson, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Carol Louise Lewis, for Plaintiff Sheryl Lynn Stimpson

          Bahram Samie, United States Attorney for Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Sheryl Lynn Stimpson seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for social security disability insurance (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI). The matter is now before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment [Doc. Nos. 17, 19]. For the reasons set forth below, the plaintiff's motion is denied, the defendant's motion is granted, and the determination of the Social Security Administration is affirmed.

         I. Procedural Background

         Stimpson applied for DIB and SSI benefits on May 17, 2013, alleging a disability that began on October 5, 2010. (R. 23.) Her applications were denied initially by the Social Security Administration on September 23, 2013, and were again denied after reconsideration on May 5, 2014. (Id.) Stimpson then submitted a written request on May 9, 2014 for a hearing to review the denial of her benefit claims. (Id.) An administrative law judge (ALJ) convened a hearing on September 29, 2015, [2] at which medical expert Karen Butler, Ph.D., and vocational expert L. David Russel testified. (Id.) Assessing Stimpson's claims under the five-step sequential evaluation procedure outlined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4), the ALJ determined Stimpson was not disabled. (R. 26-44.)

         At step one, the ALJ determined Stimpson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of December 5, 2012. (R. 26.) At step two, the ALJ determined Stimpson had the following severe impairments: history of bilateral subdural hematomas; cervicalgia; anemia; alcoholic hepatitis; history of right knee gunshot wound injury with a single retained fragment; history of left knee gunshot wound injury with multiple retained bullet fragments, moderate degenerative joint disease, and mild genu valgus deformity; dementia and cognitive disorder, not otherwise specified; adjustment disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; and severe alcohol dependence. (R. 26.) The ALJ found at the third step, however, that no impairment or combination of impairments met or equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. (Id.) At step four, the ALJ determined Stimpson retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), subject to the following limitations: occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; occasional pushing or pulling with the left lower extremity; frequent reaching overhead bilaterally; limited to routine, simple and repetitive tasks; involving no more than occasional changes in routine work functions; involving goal oriented work but not at a fast production rate pace; operating in a low stress environment; requiring no more than brief and superficial contact with coworkers, the public, and supervisors; and not involving exposure to drugs or alcohol as part of the assigned job duties. (R. 31.) Based on these limitations, the ALJ concluded Stimpson could not meet the task requirements of her past jobs as an office clerk, receptionist, or order filler. (R. 42.) However, the ALJ concluded she could make a successful adjustment to work as a hand packager, cleaner, or produce sorter. (R. 43.) Therefore, because Stimpson was able to work in certain positions available in the American economy, the ALJ determined at step five that she is not disabled. (R. 43.)

         Following the adverse decision, Stimpson requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision denying her DIB and SSI applications. (R. 1.) With that request, she submitted a new psychological evaluation report by Paul Reitman, Ph.D., that had not been available at the time of the hearing before the ALJ. (R. 2.) After reviewing the request, the Appeals Council found no reason under its rules to review the ALJ decision and denied Stimpson's request. (R. 1.) Stimpson then initiated this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Stimpson argues the Appeals Council erred when it disregarded Dr. Reitman's report, and for that reason, the Commissioner's disability determination is not support by substantial evidence.

         The Court has reviewed the entire administrative record, giving particular attention to the facts and records cited by the parties. The Court will recount the facts of record only to the extent they are helpful for context or necessary for resolution of the specific issues presented in the parties' motions.

         II. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits is limited to determining whether substantial evidence on the record as a whole supports the decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” Davidson v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 838, 841 (8th Cir. 2009) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 (1971)), meaning that less than a preponderance of the evidence is needed to meet the standard. Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019, 1022 (8th Cir. 2002). The Court must examine “evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision as well as evidence that supports it.” Id. (citing Craig v. Apfel, 212 F.3d 433, 436 (8th Cir. 2000)). The Court may not reverse the ALJ's decision simply because substantial evidence would support a different outcome or the Court would have decided the case differently. Id. (citing Woolf v. Shalala, 3 F.3d 1210, 1213 (8th Cir. 1993)). Thus, if it is possible to reach two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions is that of the Commissioner, the Court must affirm the decision. Robinson v. Sullivan, 956 F.2d 836, 838 (8th Cir. 1992).

         A claimant has the burden to prove disability. See Roth v. Shalala, 45 F.3d 279, 282 (8th Cir. 1995). To meet the definition of disability for DIB purposes, the claimant must establish that she 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 has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The same standard applies to SSI claims. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The disability, not just the impairment, must have lasted or be expected to last for at least twelve months. Titus v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 590, 594 (8th Cir. 1993).

         In reviewing the Commissioner's denial of a disability claim, the Court assesses whether the disability determination is supported by substantial evidence at each step of the Commissioner's five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At the first step, the Commissioner determines if the claimant is working, i.e. “engaging in substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled and the analysis ends there. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the Commissioner assesses whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment that is “severe, ” meaning it limits his ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant's impairment or set of impairments are not severe, the claimant is not disabled. Id. At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairment qualifies as a “listed impairment, ” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), i.e. an impairment that per se qualifies a claimant for disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairment is not listed, however, the ALJ then proceeds to assess the claimant's RFC based on “all the relevant medical and other evidence in [the] record.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). At step four, the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC and determines if the claimant is able to meet the demands of the job she held prior to the outset of the impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If the claimant is capable of working in his former job, the claimant is not disabled. Id.

         Lastly, at step five, the Commissioner assesses whether the claimant is able to adjust to any other work, taking into account his RFC, age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant is able to do other work, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). Unlike the previous steps where the claimant has the burden of proof, at this last step the Commissioner has the burden of proving the claimant is not disabled due to the availability of other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(b)(3), 416.912(b)(3). In particular, the ALJ must show that other work exists in ...

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