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Perae v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Western Division

March 19, 2014

NICOLE A. PERAE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


JEFFREY L. VIKEN, Chief Judge.


Plaintiff Nicole A. Perae filed a complaint appealing from an administrative law judge's ("ALJ") decision denying disability benefits. (Docket 1). Defendant denies plaintiff is entitled to benefits. (Docket 5). The court issued a briefing schedule requiring the parties to file a joint statement of material facts ("JSMF"). (Docket 7). The parties filed their JSMF. (Docket 8). For the reasons stated below, plaintiff's motion to reverse the decision of the Commissioner (Docket 9) is granted.


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

On January 23, 2009, plaintiff Nicole A. Perae filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits alleging disability beginning April 21, 2007. (Docket 8 at ¶ 1). The claims were initially denied on April 14, 2009, and upon reconsideration on August 12, 2009. Id. at ¶ 2. Thereafter, Ms. Perae filed a request for a hearing and an evidentiary hearing was held on August 25, 2010. Id . On October 15, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision finding Ms. Perae was not disabled and denying benefits. (Administrative Record at pp. 10-20).[1]

Ms. Perae sought review from the Appeals Council. (Docket 8 at ¶ 4). The Appeals Council denied Ms. Perae's review request. Id . The ALJ's decision constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 20 CFR § 422.210(a). It is from this decision which Ms. Perae timely appeals.

The issue before the court is whether the ALJ's decision of October 15, 2010, (the "2010 ALJ decision") that Ms. Perae was not "under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act... from April 21, 2007, through [October 15, 2010]" is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. (AR at p. 20); see also Howard v. Massanari , 255 F.3d 577, 580 (8th Cir. 2001) ("By statute, the findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.") (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)).


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); Howard , 255 F.3d at 580. 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).

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 decide 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)).


"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).

The Social Security Administration established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled. 20 CFR § 404.1520(a)(4). 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 that there are other jobs in the national economy that 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. (AR at pp. 16-23). At step five of the evaluation, the ALJ found Ms. Perae was capable of performing jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy and was, therefore, not disabled. Id. at 19-20.


Ms. Perae's brief in support of her motion to reverse the decision of the Commissioner identifies two main issues. First, Ms. Perae argues the ALJ improperly evaluated and discredited her subjective complaints. (Docket 10 at pp. 3-15). Ms. Perae also argues the ALJ erred in concluding Ms. Perae was capable of ...

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