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Cummings v. Colvin

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

March 24, 2014

DALE K. CUMMINGS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JEFFREY L. VIKEN, Chief District Judge.


Plaintiff Dale K. Cummings 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 9). The court issued a briefing schedule requiring the parties to file a joint statement of material facts ("JSMF"). (Docket 11). The parties filed their JSMF. (Docket 15). For the reasons stated below, plaintiff's motion to reverse the decision of the Commissioner (Docket 16) is denied and defendant's motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner (Docket 22) is granted.


The parties' JSMF (Docket 15) is incorporated by reference. Further recitation of salient facts is included in the discussion section of this order.

On January 20, 2011, plaintiff Dale K. Cummings applied for social security disability benefits alleging a disability onset date of September 18, 2009. (Docket 15 at ¶ 1). The claims were denied initially on March 18, 2011, and on reconsideration on July 29, 2011. Id. at ¶¶ 3, 5. Mr. Cummings filed a request for a hearing on August 22, 2011, and a hearing was held on February 13, 2012. Id. at ¶¶ 6, 11. Id . On April 26, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding Mr. Cummings was not disabled and denying benefits. Id. at ¶ 11; see also administrative Record, pp. 9-19.[1] Mr. Cummings subsequently sought review from the Appeals Council and on December 11, 2012, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. (Docket 15 at ¶ 12). Mr. Cummings then filed a complaint requesting judicial review. (Docket 1). The ALJ's decision constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. It is from this decision which Mr. Cummings timely appeals.

This issue before the court is whether the ALJ's decision of April 26, 2012, (the "2012 ALJ decision") that Mr. Cummings was not "under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from September 18, 2009, through [April 26, 2012]" is supported by the substantial evidence on the record as a whole. (AR at p. 19); 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. 11-19). At step five of the evaluation, the ALJ found there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Cummings could perform, and he was, therefore, not disabled. Id. at pp. 18-19.


Mr. Cummings identifies the following issues: (1) the ALJ failed to identify "severe" impairments at step two of the sequential evaluation; (2) the ALJ failed to properly develop the record; (3) the ALJ failed to properly assess Mr. Cummings' credibility; (4) the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinion evidence; and (5) the ALJ improperly ...

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