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Willing v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

January 14, 2019

Stephen R. Willing, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Paul A. Magnuson United States District Court Judge

         This matter is before Court on the parties' cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion is denied and Defendant's Motion is granted.


         Plaintiff Stephen Willing alleges that he has been disabled because of problems with his back, arthritis in his ankles and hip, gastrointestinal issues, hearing loss and tinnitus, and obesity since November 26, 2013.[1] Willing applied for disability insurance benefits on March 19, 2015. He brought this lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), after the Appeals Council affirmed an Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) determination that he was not disabled under the meaning of the Social Security Act.

         An individual is considered disabled for purposes of Social Security Disability Insurance benefits if he 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). In addition, an individual is disabled “only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he 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.” Id. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). “[A] physical or mental impairment is an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” Id. § 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The Commissioner has established a sequential, five-step evaluation process to determine whether an individual is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). At step one, the claimant must establish that he is not engaged in any “substantial gainful activity.” Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). If he is not, the claimant must then establish that he has a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments at step two. Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). At step three the Commissioner must find that the claimant is disabled, if the claimant satisfies the first two steps and the claimant's impairment meets or is medically equal to one of the listings in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App'x 1. Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairment does not meet or is not medically equal to one of the listings, the evaluation proceeds to step four. The claimant then bears the burden of establishing his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and proving that he cannot perform any past relevant work. Id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv); Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065, 1069 n.5 (8th Cir. 2000). If the claimant proves he is unable to perform any past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish at step five that the claimant can perform other work existing in a significant number of jobs in the national economy. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). If the claimant can perform such work, the Commissioner will find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         Willing raises two challenges to the ALJ's determination. First, he contends that the ALJ erred in finding that he was not disabled because his past relevant work skills would transfer to a new semi-skilled occupation of information clerk. According to Willing, due to his age and sedentary-work limitations, the regulations mandate that he be found disabled unless his past skills would transfer to skilled, not semi-skilled, work. Willing also contends that the ALJ erred in finding that his past skills would transfer to the specific occupation of information clerk, and in finding Willing not disabled where his skills transferred to only a single occupation, not a range of occupations. Second, Willing argues that the ALJ erred in determining that his hearing loss, tinnitus, and his gastrointestinal issues were not severe impairments.


         The Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining whether that decision is “supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole.” McKinney v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2000). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion.” Id. As long as substantial evidence in the record supports the Commissioner's decision, the Court may not reverse it because substantial evidence exists in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome or because the Court would have decided the case differently. Id.

         A. Transfer of Skills

          As noted, Willing claims that the ALJ erred in determining that the skills from his past relevant work as a store manager would transfer to the semi-skilled position of information clerk. He also argues that because the vocational expert found that Willing could perform only one occupation rather than a range of jobs, the ALJ should have determined that he was disabled.

         Although Willing cites Rule 201.000(e) in support of his argument regarding the transferability of skills, this Rule not only fails to set forth the principle Willing espouses, it is not the only authority on the subject. The regulations provide that the Commissioner will find a person of advanced age or approaching retirement age who is limited to sedentary or light work unable to make an adjustment to other work “unless you have skills that you can transfer to other skilled or semiskilled work, ” not merely to skilled work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1568. And the Rule Willing cites provides in full,

The presence of acquired skills that are readily transferable to a significant range of skilled work within an individual's residual functional capacity would ordinarily warrant a finding of ability to engage in substantial gainful activity regardless of the adversity of age, or whether the individual's formal education is commensurate with his or her demonstrated skill level. The acquisition of work skills demonstrates the ability to perform work at the level of complexity demonstrated by the skill level attained regardless of the individual's formal educational attainments.

20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, Rule 201.000(e). This Rule does not state or imply that an individual of advanced age may ...

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