Peoples v. Social Security Administration
ORDER reversing the Commissioner's decision & remanding this action as a "sentence four" remand. Signed by Magistrate Judge Beth Deere on 10/31/2011. (jct) (copy forwarded to ALJ and H&A)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CASE NO.: 3:10CV00268 BD
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner,
Social Security Administration
On May 16, 2007, Loretta Peoples filed claims 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. (Tr. 131-38) Ms. Peoples claimed disability
due to fibromyalgia and degenerative disk disease. (Tr. 148) At the hearing, Ms. Peoples
revised her onset date to October 1, 2005. (Tr. 10, 34) She met the insured status
requirements for DIB through September 30, 2009. (Tr. 10)
The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”)
denied Ms. Peoples’s claims initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 49-52) At her
request, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on April 17, 2009, at which
Ms. Peoples appeared with her attorney and testified. (Tr. 24-48)
The ALJ issued a decision on January 8, 2010, finding that Ms. Peoples was not
disabled for purposes of the Act. (Tr. 10-17) On October 13, 2010, the Appeals Council
denied her request for review, making the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final
decision. (Tr. 1-5) Ms. Peoples filed her complaint appealing the Commissioner’s
decision on October 28, 2010. The parties have now filed their briefs (#13,18), and the
case is ready for decision.
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. Boettcher v.
Astrue, 652 F.3d 860, 863 (8th Cir. 2011); 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 Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir.
Here, the ALJ followed the required five-step sequence set forth in 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)-(g), 416.920(a)-(g). At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Peoples had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2005, her alleged onset date. (Tr.
12) At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Peoples’s arthritis of the back was a severe
impairment. (Tr. 12) The ALJ went on to conclude, however, that Ms. Peoples’s right
ankle/foot condition, fibromyalgia, and depression and anxiety were not severe
impairments. (Tr. 13) Because the ALJ found that the arthritis of the back was a severe
impairment, he proceeded to steps three and four and found that Ms. Peoples was not
disabled within the meaning of the Act through the date of his decision, because she
could perform her past relevant work. (Tr. 14-16)
Ms. Peoples raises several arguments in this appeal, but the Court need only
consider her first argument– that the ALJ’s conclusion at step two that her fibromyalgia,
ankle impairment, and mental impairment were not severe is not supported by substantial
While Ms. Peoples had the burden of showing her impairments were severe, this
burden is not a great one. Caviness v. Massanari, 250 F.3d 603, 605 (8th Cir. 2001).
Rather, step two of the sequential evaluation process provides a de minimus screening
device to dispose of groundless claims. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 153-54, 107
S.Ct. 2287 (1986). An impairment is severe if the effect of the impairment on the
claimant’s ability to perform basic work is more than slight or minimal. Warren v.
Shalala, 29 F.3d 1287, 1291 (8th Cir. 1994)(quoting Cook v. Bowen, 797 F.2d 687, 690
(8th Cir. 1986)). Basic work activities are “the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do
most jobs,” such as hearing, standing, walking, sitting, lifting, handling, remembering
simple instructions, using judgment, and dealing with changes in a routine work setting.
20 C.F.R. §404.1521. The Commissioner must resolve any doubt as to whether the
required showing of severity has been made in favor of the claimant. SSR 85-28 at *4
(1985); Dewald v. Astrue, 590 F.Supp.2d 1184, 1199 (D.S.D. 2008)(remanding case for
failure to properly evaluate impairments at step two).
Here, the ALJ determined that Ms. Peoples’s fibromyalgia, ankle impairment, and
mental impairment were not severe. Specifically, he stated that the evidence did not show
that Ms. Peoples’s mild sensory neuropathy in the left lower extremity caused “significant
vocational limitations.” (Tr. 13-14) He further concluded, at step two, that her right
ankle and foot condition was “resolved with treatment and there was no evidence of
treatment for the condition after August 2005,” that her depression and anxiety were
“well controlled with her medications,” and that she was “[not] precluded from all mental
The ALJ improperly held the claimant to a higher standard at step two of the
sequential evaluation process than the minimal standard set forth in Warren v. Shalala, 29
F.3d 1287, 1291 (8th Cir. 1994). Under Warren, Ms. Peoples was not required to
establish that she was precluded from all mental work-related activities in order to have a
mental impairment that was deemed severe at step two. Further, she did not have to show
that the mild sensory neuropathy in the left lower extremity caused significant vocational
limitations in order for it to be considered a severe impairment. As set forth above, the
standard is whether an impairment has more than a slight or minimal effect on her ability
to perform basic work activities Warren, 29 F.3d at 1291.
In this case, contrary to the ALJ’s statement, the evidence indicates that Ms.
Peoples continued to complain of problems with, and to seek treatment for, right ankle
and foot pain after August, 2005, to her treating physicians. (Tr. 575, 581, 583-84, 586-
87, 589) In 2008, Roger Cagle, M.D., noted these complaints and prescribed pain
medication and a “cam boot.” (Tr. 581-90) Accordingly, the ALJ’s conclusion that Ms.
Peoples’s right ankle and foot pain were not severe, because she did not seek treatment
after August, 2005, is not supported by the evidence in the record.
Further, in a letter dated December 4, 2007, Steve Austin, M.D., Ms. Peoples’s
treating physician, and David Baltz, her treating therapist, stated that they had diagnosed
Ms. Peoples with mood disorder NOS and dissociative disorder NOS, and that she had
some symptoms indicating a possible personality disorder.1 (Tr. 551) The letter states
that Ms. Peoples had been attending weekly therapy sessions and monthly medication
management appointments. (Tr. 551) Mr. Baltz and Dr. Austin noted that Ms. Peoples
had “significant difficulties with extreme depressed mood, anxiety, and periods of time
when she loses her memory . . . . inability to be in any social/public setting for extended
periods of time, and very poor concentration.” (Tr. 551)
The ALJ acknowledged the letter, but concluded that Ms. Peoples’s mental
impairments were not severe because her depression and anxiety were “well controlled
with medications,” and because her ability to perform daily activities, such as cooking,
driving, and caring for her five-year-old child, indicated she was not precluded from all
mental work-related activities. (Tr. 14) Again, Ms. Peoples was not burdened with
Dr. Cagle also noted in his December 18, 2007, letter that he had diagnosed Ms.
Peoples with anxiety and depression. (Tr. 552)
proving that she was precluded from all mental work-related activities in order for the
ALJ to find a severe impairment. Further, Dr. Austin’s letter indicates that Ms. Peoples’s
mental impairments had more than a minimal effect on her ability to perform basic work
activities such as remembering simple instructions, using judgment, and dealing with
changes in a routine work setting. There is no medical evidence in the record
contradicting Dr. Austin’s opinion.2
On this record, the Court cannot conclude that there is substantial evidence to
support the ALJ’s determination that Ms. Peoples’s right ankle and foot problems,
fibromyalgia, and anxiety and depression were not severe impairments.
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
The Court notes that the ALJ’s opinion references 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520a(d)(1)
and 416.920a(d)(1). However, the ALJ only analyzed Ms. Peoples’s activities of daily
living instead of considering all four of the functional areas, as required by the
regulations. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520a(c)(3) and 416.920a(c)(3). Further, the record
does not include a Psychiatric Review Technique Form.
IT IS SO ORDERED this 31st day of October, 2011.
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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