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Christofferson v. Berryhill

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

March 6, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Christine Christofferson filed a complaint appealing the final decision of Nancy A. Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, finding plaintiff not disabled. (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 14). For the reasons stated below, plaintiff's motion to reverse the decision of the Commissioner (Docket 15) is granted and defendant's motion to affirm the decision of the Commissioner (Docket 17) is denied.


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

         Plaintiff filed an application for social security disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) alleging an onset of disability date of March 28, 2013. Id. ¶ 1. An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) issued a decision finding plaintiff was not disabled. Id. ¶ 3; see also Administrative Record at pp. 138-50 (hereinafter “AR at p.___ ”). Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision and the Appeals Council denied her request for review and affirmed the ALJ's decision. (Docket 14 ¶ 6). The ALJ's decision constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. It is from this decision which plaintiff timely appeals.

         The issue before the court is whether the ALJ's decision that Ms. Christofferson was not “under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from March 28, 2013, [through April 24, 2015]” is supported by the substantial evidence in the record as a whole. (AR at p. 150) (bold omitted); 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 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 and entitled to DIB benefits under Title II. 20 CFR § 404.1520(a). 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). See also Boyd v. Sullivan, 960 F.2d 733, 735 (8th Cir. 1992). The ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation required by the Social Security Administration regulations. (AR at pp. 139-40; see also Docket 14 ¶¶ 179-85).

         STEP ONE

         At step one, the ALJ determined plaintiff had “not [been] engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 28, 2013, the alleged onset date.” (AR at p. 140).

         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 [her] 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 § 404.1521. 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 Ms. Christofferson suffered from “the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and thoracic spine, osteoarthritis of the left knee, right ankle degenerative changes, and obesity.” (Docket 14 ¶ 180). Ms. Christofferson challenges this finding. (Docket 16 at pp. 16-20).

         Ms. Christofferson asserts the ALJ failed to address the following impairments and to find them severe:

Curvature of the spine;
Spinal central canal stenosis;
Calcaneal spurs bilaterally, and chronic plantar fasciitis;[1]
Pedicle fractures at L 4 [and] L 5;
Right knee degenerative disease;
Degenerative arthritis and impingement of the left hip with marked weakness of hip flexors;[2]
Painful hand with mild to moderate degenerative joint disease in both hands, also with numbness and weakness treated with a wrist splint;
Weakness and atrophy of scapular girdle and shoulders;
Chronic pain, or chronic pain syndrome; and
Sjogren's, or “sicca, ” autoimmune inflammatory disease.[3]

Id. at p. 17. Plaintiff identifies these medical conditions in her argument, including the diagnoses, medical treatment and her response to those treatments. Id. at pp. 3-12. But, plaintiff fails to point to any medical record which asserts any one or ...

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