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Steven J. Waddell v. Michael J. Astrue

December 7, 2011

STEVEN J. WADDELL,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jeffrey L. VIKEN United States District Judge

ORDER REVERSING DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER AND REMANDING FOR CALCULATION AND AWARD OF BENEFITS

INTRODUCTION

On January 25, 2006, plaintiff Steven J. Waddell protectively filed an application for supplemental security income ("SSI") pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-83f (2006). (Administrative Record, pp. 88-91*fn1 and joint statement of material facts ("JSMF") (Docket 8, p. 1)). After denial of his application, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held an evidentiary hearing on February 21, 2008. Id. On February 26, 2008, the ALJ concluded Mr. Waddell was not disabled and denied benefits. Id. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. Id. at p. 3. The decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner. Id. Plaintiff timely filed his complaint in district court. (Dockets 1, ¶ 8 and 5 ¶ I)).

The court issued a briefing schedule requiring the parties to file a JSMF. (Docket 7). If there were any disputed facts, the parties were required to attach a separate joint statement of disputed facts. Id. The parties filed their JSMF. (Docket 8). Plaintiff then filed a motion for an order reversing the decision of the Commissioner. (Docket 9). Following briefing, the motion is ripe for resolution.

For the reasons stated below, the motion is granted and the decision of the Commissioner is reversed.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The parties' JSMF (Docket 8) is incorporated by reference. Further recitation of salient facts is included in the discussion section of this order.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Commissioner's findings must be upheld if they are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Choate v. Barnhart, 457 F.3d 865, 869 (8th Cir. 2006). The court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine if an error of law was committed. Smith v. Sullivan, 982 F.2d 308, 311 (8th Cir. 1992). "Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's conclusion." Cox v. Barnhart, 471 F.3d 902, 906 (8th Cir. 2006) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the Commissioner's decision. Choate, 457 F.3d at 869 (quoting Ellis v.Barnhart, 392 F.3d 988, 993 (8th Cir. 2005)). The review of a decision to deny disability benefits is "more than an examination of the record for the existence of substantial evidence in support of the Commissioner's decision . . . [the court must also] take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from that decision." Reed v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 917, 920 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001)).

It is not the role of the court to re-weigh the evidence and, even if this court would have decided the case differently, it cannot reverse the Commissioner's decision if that decision is supported by good reason and is based on substantial evidence. Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005). A reviewing court may not reverse the Commissioner's decision " 'merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.' " Reed, 399 F.3d at 920 (quoting Shannon v. Chater, 54 F.3d 484, 486 (8th Cir. 1995)).

DISCUSSION

"Disability" is defined as the inability "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment [or combination of impairments] 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). Although SSI is not payable prior to the month following the month in which the application was filed, the ALJ is required to consider a claimant's complete medical history.

20 CFR §§ 416.335 and 416.912(d).

The Social Security Administration established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled.*fn2

20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4).*fn3 If the ALJ determines a claimant is not disabled at any step of the process, the evaluation does not proceed to the next step as the claimant is not disabled. Id. The five-step sequential evaluation process is:

(1) whether the claimant is presently engaged in a "substantial gainful activity"; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment-- one that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities; (3) whether the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals a presumptively disabling impairment listed in the regulations (if so, the claimant is disabled without regard to age, education, and work experience); (4) whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform . . . past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform the past work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove there are other jobs in the national economy the claimant can perform.

Baker v. Apfel, 159 F.3d 1140, 1143-44 (8th Cir. 1998). The ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation required by the Social Security Administration regulations. (Docket 8 at pp. 1-2).

THE FIRST STEP

At step one, the ALJ must determine if the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity ("SGA"). 20 CFR § 416.920(b). SGA is defined as "work activity that is both substantial and gainful." 20 CFR § 416.972. "Substantial work activity is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities." 20 CFR § 416.972(a). "Gainful work activity is work activity that . . . is . . . usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized." 20 CFR § 416.972(b). If a claimant is not engaging in SGA, the analysis proceeds to step two.

The ALJ determined Mr. Waddell had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 25, 2006, the date he applied for SSI benefits. (Docket 8 at p. 3). Thus, the evaluation proceeds to step two.

THE SECOND STEP

At step two, the ALJ must decide whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment that is severe or a combination of impairments that are severe. 20 CPR § 416.920(c). A medically determinable impairment can only be established by an acceptable medical source. 20 CFR § 416.913(a). Accepted medical sources include, among others, licensed psychologists.

20 CFR § 416.913(a)(2). An impairment or combination of impairments is severe if it significantly limits an individual's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 CFR § 416.921. Basic work activities focus on "the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." Id. at subsection (b). Examples of those abilities and aptitudes are:

(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, co-workers and usual work situations; and

(6) Dealing with changes in a routine work setting.

Id. If a claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments which are severe, the analysis continues to step three.

At step two, the ALJ found Mr. Waddell had right knee arthritis, obesity, depression, and a personality disorder, all "severe" impairments under the regulations. (Docket 8 at p. 3). The evaluation then proceeds to step three.

THE THIRD STEP

At step three, the ALJ determines whether claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 CFR §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926. If a claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the criteria for one of the impairments listed and meets the duration requirement of 20 CFR § 416.909, claimant is considered disabled. If not covered by these criteria, the analysis is not over and the ALJ proceeds to the next step.

The ALJ determined Mr. Waddell did not have an impairment or combination of impairments which met or were medically equal to one of the impairments listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Docket 8 at p. 3). Mr. Waddell does not challenge that conclusion. (Docket 10). THE FOURTH STEP

Before considering step four of the evaluation process, the ALJ is required to determine a claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC").

20 CFR § 416.920(e). RFC is a claimant's ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite any limitations from his impairments. 20 CFR § 416.945(a). In making this finding, the ALJ must consider all of the claimant's impairments, including those which are not severe. 20 CFR § 416.945(e). All of the relevant medical and non-medical evidence in the record must be considered. 20 CFR §§ 416.920(e) and 416.945.

Mr. Waddell is 5' 11" tall and his weight remained in the 311-313 pounds range throughout the relevant time period. (AR, pp. 114, 357 and 516). He has a tenth grade education and his past work experience was as a cook, fast food worker, and dish washer. (Docket 8 at p. 3). Mr. Waddell was 46 years old as of the date of his application and 49 years old as of the date of the ALJ's decision.*fn4 Id.

At step four, the ALJ found Mr. Waddell had the RFC for sedentary work. Id. at p. 2. "Sedentary work involves lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time and occasionally lifting or carrying articles like docket files, ledgers, and small tools." 20 CFR § 416.967(a). The ALJ specifically found Mr. Waddell's RFC allowed him to engage in the following work-related physical activities:

[C]an lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk (with normal breaks) for a total of at least [two] hours in an [eight]-hour workday, sit (with normal breaks) for a total of about [six] hours in an [eight]-hour workday, [was] unlimited in push and/or pull activities (including operation of hand and/or foot controls) other than as stated above for lift and/or carry, occasionally climb ramps and stairs but should not be required to climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl, and has moderate limitations (i.e., there is more than slight limitation in this area, but [Mr. Waddell was] still able to function satisfactorily) in an ability to interact appropriately with the public, interact appropriately with supervisors, interact appropriately with co-workers, and respond to usual work situations and to changes in a routine work setting. (Docket 8, p. 2).

At step four, the ALJ found Mr. Waddell could not perform any of his past relevant work. Id. at p. 3. The evaluation then proceeds to step five.

THE FIFTH STEP

At step five, "the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove there are other jobs in the national economy the claimant can perform." Baker, 159 F.3d at 1144. "[T]he Commissioner's burden is to demonstrate that . . . jobs are available in the national economy, realistically suited to the claimant's residual functional capabilities." Id. "In determining the availability of such jobs, the claimant's exertional and non-exertional impairments, together with his age, education, and previous work experience, must be considered." Id. The Commissioner may satisfy this burden of proof by use of a hypothetical question, posed to a vocational expert, which "fairly reflects the abilities and impairments of the claimant as evidenced in the record." Id.

At step five, the ALJ found Mr. Waddell could perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy, including jobs as a telephone information clerk and a stone setter. (Docket 8 at p. 3). Based on this finding, the ALJ concluded Mr. Waddell was not disabled and denied benefits. Id. at p. 1.

PLAINTIFF'S ISSUES ON APPEAL

Plaintiff's brief in support of his motion to reverse the decision of the Commissioner identifies two issues. (Docket 10). Those are:

1. The Commissioner's finding that plaintiff's subjective complaints of symptoms and functional limitations are not credible is not supported by substantial evidence in that the Commissioner improperly evaluated ...


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