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Courtney v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 10, 2018

Chantel Courtney Plaintiff- Appellant
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: January 11, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, MELLOY and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.

          SMITH, CHIEF JUDGE

         Chantel Courtney appeals from the district court's[1] affirmance of the Social Security Commissioner's decision denying her claims for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. We affirm.

         I. Background

         Courtney's daily activities primarily involve caring for her children and household. They include cooking, helping her kids get ready for school, and picking them up at the end of the day. She spends time with her sister, grocery shops, and manages the household finances. Courtney suffers from degenerative disc disease/degenerative joint disease of the spine, and has a history of syncopal episodes. She also suffers from left ankle degenerative osteoarthritis and has a history of bone fractures. Courtney has also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.

         In 2011, Courtney alleged she was disabled and applied for social security benefits. After remand from the Appeals Council, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held a supplemental hearing. In his written opinion, proceeding through the five-step evaluation process, 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4), the ALJ found at steps one through three that Courtney had not engaged in substantial gainful activity in the relevant period and that she has severe mental and physical impairments. The ALJ concluded, however, that these impairments do not meet or equal impairments listed in the social security regulations. The ALJ then determined Courtney's residual functional capacity (RFC). At step four, the ALJ concluded that Courtney could no longer perform her past relevant work but can perform light work with appropriate limitations. At step five, the ALJ found that Courtney can adjust to other work with jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. He thus found that Courtney was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

         The Appeals Council denied Courtney's request for review. The ALJ's denial thus became the final agency decision and subject to judicial review. Lott v. Colvin, 772 F.3d 546, 548 (8th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). Courtney sought judicial review. After the district court heard oral argument, it affirmed the ALJ's decision.

         II. Discussion

         We review the district court's judgment affirming the denial of benefits de novo, and "[w]e will reverse the findings of an agency only if they are not supported by substantial evidence or result from an error of law." Draper v. Colvin, 779 F.3d 556, 559 (8th Cir. 2015) (citations omitted). In this appeal, we address whether the Commissioner failed at step five to show that Courtney could perform jobs in the national economy, by erroneously relying on the vocational expert's (VE) testimony.

         At the hearing, the ALJ asked the VE a hypothetical question about an individual limited by factors not found in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) or its companion publication, the Selected Characteristics of Occupations (SCO). Specifically, the ALJ asked the VE to assume a hypothetical claimant who can do the following:

[L]ift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; can stand or walk for six hours out of eight; sit for six; should never climb ropes, ladders and scaffolds; can occasionally climb stairs and ramps, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; should avoid even moderate exposure to unprotected heights.
She is able to understand, remember and carry out at least simple instructions and non-detailed tasks. She can demonstrate adequate judgment to make simple/work-related decisions and can respond appropriately to supervisors and co-workers, adapt to routine/simple ...

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