Bridges v. Social Security Administration
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER reversing and remanding the Commissioner's decision. This is a sentence four remand within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89 (1991). Signed by Magistrate Judge Beth Deere on 1/4/12. (hph)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CASE NO.: 2:10CV00189 BD
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner,
Social Security Administration
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Anthony Bridges appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) that denied his claim for Disability
Insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”) and
Supplemental Security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act. For the following
reasons, the decision of the Commissioner must be REVERSED and REMANDED.
On August 7, 2007, Mr. Bridges filed for DIB and SSI, claiming disability since
December 7, 2005, due to kidney and liver problems, diabetes, spinal arthritis, high
cholesterol, high blood pressure, and right leg problems. (Tr. 87, 106) After denials
initially and upon reconsideration, Mr. Bridges requested a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). A hearing was held on November 30, 2009, at which
Mr. Bridges appeared and testified.1 (Tr. 22-32, 308-322) His friend Christa Bridges and
vocational expert Elizabeth Clem (“VE”) also testified.
The ALJ issued a decision on January 13, 2010, finding that Mr. Bridges was not
disabled under the Act. (Tr. 10-17) On November 5, 2010, the Appeals Council denied a
request for review, making the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final decision. (Tr. 15)
Decision of the Administrative Law Judge:
The ALJ followed the required five-step sequence to determine: (1) whether the
claimant was engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant had a
severe impairment; (3) if so, whether the impairment (or combination of impairments)
met or equaled a listed impairment; (4) if not, whether the impairment (or combination of
impairments) prevented the claimant from performing past relevant work2; and (5) if so,
whether the impairment (or combination of impairments) prevented the claimant from
performing any other jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(g), 416.920(a)-(g).
The ALJ found that Mr. Bridges had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since his alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 12) The ALJ found that Mr. Bridges’s obesity
Mr. Bridges voluntarily waived his right to representation and appeared pro se.
If the claimant has sufficient residual functional capacity to perform past relevant
work, the inquiry ends and benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv),
and back disorders were severe impairments, but that his diabetes and peripheral
neuropathy were not severe. (Tr. 12-16) The ALJ also found that Mr. Bridges did not
have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled an impairment
listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1526, 416.926).
The ALJ determined that Mr. Bridges retained the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of sedentary work activity, with only occasional
climbing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling.3 (Tr. 13-16) The ALJ determined
that Mr. Bridges could not perform his past relevant work in the trucking industry, but
that he could still perform jobs as an assembly worker or inspector, which existed in
significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 16-17) Accordingly, the ALJ
concluded Mr. Bridges was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. 17)
Mr. Bridges claims the findings of the ALJ are not supported by substantial
evidence because: (1) the ALJ failed to find that Mr. Bridges’s diabetes and peripheral
neuropathy were severe impairments; (2) the ALJ erred in assessing the opinions of
Edward Vandenburg, M.D.; (3) the ALJ erred in assessing the credibility of Mr. Bridges’s
subjective complaints; (4) the ALJ erred in assessing the lay witness testimony; and
Sedentary work “involves lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time and
occasionally lifting or carrying articles like docket files, ledgers, and small tools.” 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.967(a).
(5) the ALJ’s RFC determination was flawed. (#15) The Commissioner argues that
substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding that Mr. Bridges was not disabled. (#16)
Standard of Review
In reviewing the Commissioner’s decision, this Court must determine whether
there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the decision. Johnson v.
Astrue, 627 F.3d 316, 319 (8th Cir. 2010); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is
“less than a preponderance, but sufficient for reasonable minds to find it adequate to
support the decision.” Id. (citing Kluesner v. Astrue, 607 F.3d 533, 536 (8th Cir. 2010)).
In reviewing the record as a whole, the Court must consider both evidence that
detracts from the Commissioner’s decision and evidence that supports the decision. But
the decision cannot be reversed, “simply because some evidence may support the opposite
conclusion.” Medhaug v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 805, 813 (8th Cir. 2009)(quoting Goff v.
Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 789 (8th Cir. 2005)).
Mr. Bridges argues that his diabetes and peripheral neuropathy were severe
impairments. A “severe” impairment is, of course, something that significantly limits a
person’s physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. Gwathney v. Chater, 104
F.3d 1043, 1045 (8th Cir. 1997); Browning v. Sullivan, 958 F.2d 817, 821 (8th Cir. 1992).
Basic work activities include walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching,
carrying, and handling, as well as mental or nonexertional functions such as the ability to
see, hear, and speak; the ability to understand, carry out, and remember simple
instructions; to use judgment; to respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and
usual work situations; and to deal with changes in work routine. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1521(b)(1)-(6), 416.921(b)(1)-(6).
The ALJ noted that Mr. Bridges’s diabetes inhibited his ability to perform work.
(Tr. 13) His diabetes was uncontrolled, possibly due to noncompliance with prescribed
medication. (Tr. 13, 15) Also, nerve conduction studies were abnormal, which provided
some objective medical support for the presence of peripheral neuropathy. (Tr. 14)
The medical records of treating, consulting, and examining physicians noted the
presence of diabetes and peripheral neuropathy. A consulting physical examination, a
physical RFC assessment, and a medical source statement all noted limitations due to
diabetes or peripheral neuropathy. (Tr. 226-233, 234-241, 279-280) Despite this
evidence, the ALJ found Mr. Bridges’s diabetes and peripheral neuropathy were not
The claimant has the burden of proving that an impairment is severe, which by
definition significantly limits one or more basic work activities. Gonzales v. Barnhart,
456 F.3d 890, 894 (8th Cir. 2006). Mr. Bridges met this burden with evidence that his
diabetes and peripheral neuropathy would limit his ability to work.
The medical records the ALJ relied on note diabetes and peripheral neuropathy.
However, he barely noted diabetes or peripheral neuropathy in his decision. He did not
discuss how severe diabetes or peripheral neuropathy would impact Mr. Bridges’s ability
to work. (Tr. 13-15)
It is not clear whether the ALJ’s failure to find the impairments “severe” had any
practical effect on the decision. Mr. Bridges, for his part, did not provide any specific
limitations that his diabetes and peripheral neuropathy would cause that were not already
included in the ALJ’s RFC finding. On remand, the ALJ should consider whether Mr.
Bridges’s severe diabetes and peripheral neuropathy would limit his RFC beyond the
current RFC determination.
Assessment of Dr. Vandenburg’s Opinions
Mr. Bridges saw Dr. Vandenburg for treatment of various ailments, including
diabetes and neuropathy. Dr. Vandenburg completed an application for a disabled vehicle
license plate and a medical source statement for Mr. Bridges. (Tr. 271, 279-280)
Numerous records from Dr. Vandenburg also noted Mr. Bridges’s impairments and
condition. (Tr. 273, 275, 277, 281, 289, 291-292, 295-302) Despite this record, the ALJ
never mentioned Dr. Vandenburg in his opinion. The ALJ referenced some records of
Dr. Vandenburg’s treatment, and “gave some weight to the opinions of the claimant’s
treating physician and clinicians,” but failed to provide a sufficient basis for discrediting
Dr. Vandenburg’s opinions. (Tr. 13-15)
An ALJ may reject the opinion of any medical expert if that opinion is inconsistent
with the medical record as a whole. Finch v. Astrue, 547 F.3d 933, 938 (8th Cir. 2008)
(quoting Estes v. Barnhart, 275 F.3d 722, 725 (8th Cir. 2002)). Additionally, a treating
physician’s opinion that a claimant is disabled or cannot be gainfully employed is entitled
to no deference because it invades the province of the Commissioner, whose job it is to
make ultimate disability determinations. House v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 741, 745 (8th Cir.
2007). It is the ALJ’s function to resolve conflicts among the various treating and
examining physicians. Wagner v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 842, 848 (8th Cir. 2007)(quoting
Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1219 (8th Cir. 2001)). In this case, however, the
ALJ provided an insufficient discussion of inconsistencies in the medical record to
discredit Dr. Vandenburg’s opinions. There may be sufficient evidence in the record to
discredit some of Dr. Vandenburg’s opinions, but the ALJ did not allude to any such
evidence. The Court cannot determine from the ALJ’s decision the actual weight given to
Dr. Vandenburg’s opinions, or a reason for discrediting them.
Mr. Bridges argues the ALJ erred in assessing both his, and his friend Christa
Browning’s testimony. The ALJ found Mr. Bridges’s allegations credible to the extent
they were consistent with the ability to perform a reduced range of sedentary work. (Tr.
14) The ALJ found that Ms. Browning’s testimony confirmed Mr. Bridges’s allegations
and helped the ALJ understand the limiting effects of Mr. Bridges’s impairments. (Tr.
13) Mr. Bridges considered this an improper rejection of the testimony, but failed to
specify any rejected testimony that would further reduce the ALJ’s RFC finding. (#15, p.
The ALJ evaluated Mr. Bridges’s allegations under the guidelines set forth in 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 416.929, Social Security Ruling 96-7p, and other relevant authority
and concluded that his credible allegations were consistent with a reduced range of
sedentary work.4 (Tr. 13-15) There is substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s
As the ALJ noted, the medical record evidences a number of limitations, but not a
complete inability to function. (Tr. 13-14) Mr. Bridges was able to mow his lawn on a
riding mower, do laundry while seated, and prepare food for himself. (Tr. 14) Mr.
Bridges had full range of motion in his cervical spine and 70% range of motion in his
lumber spine. His gait, tandem walk, and leg raises were normal. He could squat and rise
from a squatted position, and stand and walk without assistance. (Tr. 14) Mr. Bridges’s
blood pressure was well controlled with medication. (Tr. 320)
Mr. Bridges testified that he spent most days sitting. (Tr. 316, 320) He and Ms.
Browning stated that he could stand for three to four hours a day with breaks. (Tr. 317)
The ALJ’s RFC determination limited Mr. Bridges to sitting six hours a day, and standing
and walking no more than two hours a day. (Tr. 15)
The ALJ did not cite Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320 (8th Cir. 1984), but the
regulations and rulings noted are consistent with the requirements of Polaski.
The ALJ gave good reasons for discounting some of Mr. Bridges’s subjective
complaints. Contrary to Mr. Bridges’s argument, the ALJ credited a great deal of his and
Ms. Browning’s testimony. The ALJ found the testimony credible to the extent Mr.
Bridges was limited to a reduced range on sedentary work. An RFC for less than a full
range of sedentary work is rare and reflects very serious limitations. Social Security
Ruling 96-9p (1). The ALJ’s findings in this regard are entitled to deference because they
are supported by the record. Gregg v. Barnhart, 354 F.3d 710, 714 (8th Cir. 2003).
Residual Functional Capacity
The ALJ bears the primary responsibility for assessing a claimant’s RFC.
Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 969 (8th Cir. 2010). It is the claimant’s burden,
however, to prove RFC. Baldwin v. Barnhart, 349 F.3d 549, 556 (8th Cir. 2003). Mr.
Bridges argues that, when determining RFC, the ALJ failed to properly consider
testimonial evidence, Dr. Vandenburg’s opinions, and the side effects of his medications.
Mr. Bridges failed to allege, however, a single limitation beyond the extremely limited
RFC found by the ALJ.
As noted, the ALJ properly considered the testimonial evidence, but erred in
apparently failing to consider Dr. Vandenburg’s opinions regarding Mr. Bridges’s severe
diabetes and peripheral neuropathy. It appears the ALJ also erred in considering Mr.
Bridges’s morbid obesity.
The ALJ found that Mr. Bridges had vastly reduced his obesity level from his
normal weight of around 300 pounds. (Tr. 14) Medical records for November 5, 2009,
reflect a weight of 210 pounds for Mr. Bridges. (Tr. 273) The ALJ considered this
weight loss as an improvement of Mr. Bridges’s severe obesity. (Tr. 14) The medical
record showing a weight of 210 pounds, however, is obviously a typographical error. Mr.
Bridges’s weight on October 6, 2009, was 310 pounds. (Tr. 275) His weight on
December 29, 2009, was 312 pounds.5 (Tr. 283) It is highly unlikely that Mr. Bridges
lost 100 pounds between October 6, 2009, and November 5, 2009, then gained 100
pounds between November 5, 2009, and December 29, 2009. The ALJ should have
considered Mr. Bridges’s severe obesity at the level supported by the record, instead of
considering it at a vastly improved – and obviously erroneous – level.
Mr. Bridges noted a number of shortcomings in the ALJ’s decision. He failed,
however, to state how any of these shortcomings would affect the decision. It is not clear
from the record if they would have any impact.
On remand, the ALJ should consider whether severe diabetes and peripheral
neuropathy would further limit Mr. Bridges’s RFC. The ALJ should also consider Dr.
Vandenburg’s medical opinions, the weight to be given, and whether consideration of
these opinions would change the RFC determination. Finally, the ALJ should consider
His weight on January 19, 2010, was 313 pounds. (Tr. 281)
Mr. Bridges’s severe obesity, at a level supported by the record. If after consideration of
these issues, the ALJ finds Mr. Bridges retained the same RFC, then it appears from VE
testimony that Mr. Bridges could still perform a significant number of jobs that existed in
the national economy.
After consideration of the record as a whole, the Court finds the decision of the
Commissioner is not supported by substantial evidence. The Commissioner’s decision is
reversed and remanded for action consistent with this opinion. This is a “sentence four”
remand within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89
IT IS SO ORDERED this 4th day of January, 2012.
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?