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Erstad v. Colvin

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

September 28, 2015

PAUL ERSTAD, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

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

JEFFREY L. VIKEN CHIEF JUDGE

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Paul Erstad filed a complaint appealing from an administrative law judge’s (“ALJ”) decision denying disability insurance benefits. (Docket 1). Defendant denies plaintiff is entitled to benefits. (Docket 6). The court issued a briefing schedule requiring the parties to file a joint statement of material facts (“JSMF”). (Docket 8). The parties filed their JSMF. (Docket 14). For the reasons stated below, plaintiff’s motion to reverse the decision of the Commissioner (Docket 17) is granted.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The parties’ JSMF (Docket 14) is incorporated by reference. Further recitation of salient facts is incorporated in the discussion section of this order.

On April 10, 2013, Mr. Erstad filed applications for disability insurance benefits alleging an onset of disability date of November 14, 2012. Id. ¶ I(1). On June 2, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Mr. Erstad was not disabled. Id.; see also Administrative Record at pp. 11-23 (hereinafter “AR at p. ”). The Appeals Council denied Mr. Erstad’s request for review. (Docket 14 ¶ I(1)). The ALJ’s decision constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Id. It is from this decision which Mr. Erstad timely appeals.

The issue before the court is whether the ALJ’s decision of June 2, 2014, that Mr. Erstad was not “under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from November 14, 2012 through [June 2, 2014]” is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. (AR at p. 23); 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)).

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); 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 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)). Issues of law are reviewed de novo with deference given to the Commissioner’s construction of the Social Security Act. See Smith, 982 F.2d at 311.

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:

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. (AR at pp. 11-13).

STEP ONE

At step one, the ALJ determined Mr. Erstad had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 14, 2012. Id. at p. 13.

STEP TWO

“At the second step, [the agency] consider[s] the medical severity of your impairment(s).” 20 CFR § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). “It is the claimant’s burden to establish that his impairment or combination of impairments are severe.” Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707 (8th Cir. 2007). A severe impairment is defined as one which significantly limits a physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 CFR § 1521. An impairment is not severe, however, if it “amounts to only a slight abnormality that would not significantly limit the claimant’s physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Kirby, 500 F.3d at 707. “If the impairment would have no more than a minimal effect on the claimant’s ability to work, then it does not satisfy the requirement of step two.” Id. (citation omitted). Additionally, the impairment must have lasted at least twelve months or be expected to result in death. See 20 CFR § 404.1509.

The ALJ found Mr. Erstad suffered from the following severe impairments: “cervicalgia [neck pain] and degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine with status post 2003 cervical fusion of the C3 through C6 vertebrae and 2013 discectomy and decompression at the C6-C7 level . . ...


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