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Hughes v. Berryhill

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

March 30, 2019

ERICA HUGHES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DANETA WOLLMANN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         On October 31, 2017, plaintiff Erica Hughes filed a complaint appealing the final decision of Nancy A. Berryhill, the acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, finding her not disabled. (Docket 1). Defendant denies plaintiff is entitled to benefits. (Docket 7). The court issued a briefing schedule requiring the parties to file a joint statement of materials facts (“JSMF”). (Docket 9). For the reasons stated below, plaintiff's motion to reverse the decision of the Commissioner (Docket 19) is granted.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

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

         On April 21, 2014, Ms. Hughes filed an application for Social Security disability benefits alleging an onset of disability date of August 30, 2009. (Docket 14 at ¶ 1). On December 15, 2016, the administrative law judge (“ALJ” issued a decision finding Ms. Hughes was not disabled. Id. ¶ 3; see also Administrative Record at pp. 12-23 (hereinafter “AR at p. ”). On October 18, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Hughes' request for review and affirmed the ALJ's decision. (Docket 14 ¶ 3; AR 1-4). The ALJ's decision constitutes the final decision of the Commission of the Social Security Administration. It is from this decision which Ms. Hughes timely appeals.

         The issue before the court is whether the ALJ's decision of December 15, 2016, that Ms. Hughes was not “under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since August 30, 2009, through [December 15, 2016]” is supported by the substantial evidence in the record as a whole. (AR at 12-23); 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, 901 (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 benefits under Title XVI. 20 CFR § 416.920(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 criteria under 20 CFR § 416.920 are the same under 20 CFR § 404.1520 for disability insurance benefits). The ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation required by the Social Security Administration regulations. (AR at pp. 12-23).

         DISCUSSION

         STEP ONE

         At step one, the ALJ determined claimant “had not [been] engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 30, 2009, the alleged ...


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