Buford v. Social Security Administration
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER denying plaintiff's appeal. The oral argument hearing scheduled for September 10, 2015, is cancelled, and the Clerk of Court is directed to close the case. Signed by Magistrate Judge Beth Deere on 7/20/2015. (ks)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CASE NO. 3:14CV00295-BD
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner,
Social Security Administration
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Samuel Buford appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying his claims for Disability
Insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). For
reasons set out below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
On December 3, 2012, Mr. Buford protectively filed for benefits due to gout,
arthritis, hypertension, and high cholesterol. (Tr. 41, 167) His claims were denied
initially and upon reconsideration. At Mr. Buford’s request, an Administrative Law
Judge1 (“ALJ”) held a hearing on May 1, 2014, at which Mr. Buford, represented by
counsel, appeared and testified. (Tr. 66-80)
The ALJ issued a decision on June 24, 2014, finding that Mr. Buford was not
disabled under the Act. (Tr. 41-49) On December 5, 2014, the Appeals Council denied
Mr. Buford’s request for review, making the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final
decision. (Tr. 1-4)
The Honorable William R. Ingram.
Mr. Buford, who was fifty-six years old at the time of the hearing, has an eleventhgrade education and past relevant work as a farm worker. (Tr. 47, 79)
Decision of the Administrative Law Judge2
The ALJ found that Mr. Buford had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since October 15, 2012, and had the following severe impairments: gout, diabetes,
hypertension, and obesity. (Tr. 43) The ALJ also found that Mr. Buford 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 1.3 (Tr. 43-44)
According to the ALJ, Mr. Buford has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to
do medium work, except that he could only occasionally kneel, crawl, climb ladders,
ropes, and scaffolds; and could frequently climb ramps, stairs, balance, stoop, and crouch.
(Tr. 44) The ALJ found that Mr. Buford’s past relevant work as a farm worker fit within
his RFC. (Tr. 47-48) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Mr. Buford could perform
his past relevant work and was not disabled. (Tr. 48)
The ALJ followed the required sequential analysis 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; and (4) if not, whether the impairment (or
combination of impairments) prevented the claimant from performing past relevant work;
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. § 416.920(a)-(g).
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526.
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. 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.
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.” Id. (citing Pelkey v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 578 (8th Cir. 2006)).
Mr. Buford’s Arguments for Reversal
Mr. Buford asserts that the Commissioner’s decision should be reversed because:
(1) his chronic back pain and gout prevent him from performing medium work; (2) the
ALJ found that he had no manipulative limitations despite Mr. Buford’s carpal tunnel
syndrome and arthritis; and (3) the ALJ failed to fully and fairly develop the record.
(Doc. entry #11)
RFC of Medium Work.
Mr. Buford claims that his gout and back pain prevent him from performing
medium work. Id. While Mr. Buford has often complained of the pain and swelling due
to his gout and chronic back pain, his medical records do not establish that his symptoms
prevent him from the sitting, standing, or walking required for medium work.
On February 24, 2012, Mr. Buford presented to Crittenden Regional Hospital
(“Crittenden”) for abdominal pain, but had no joint pain, leg or ankle swelling, and had a
normal range of motion (“ROM”) in his extremities. (Tr. 290, 291) He had no issues
ambulating. (Tr. 292)
He returned on August 15, 2012, complaining of knee and wrist pain. (Tr. 278).
Despite swelling in his right knee, he ambulated without assistance and drove himself to
and from the hospital. Id. He was treated and discharged. Id.
On November 7, 2012, Mr. Buford presented to Crittenden complaining of pain,
swelling, and tenderness in his foot. (Tr. 265) The records indicate that his joints were
normal and that they had a normal ROM. (Tr. 266) He was ambulatory but walked with
an antalgic gait. (Tr. 266) Mr. Buford was treated for pain and discharged, ambulating
without aid. (Tr. 268) Two days later, he went to East Arkansas Family Health Center
(“East Arkansas FHC”) complaining of pain in his left foot from his gout. (Tr. 371) The
record indicates only that he had “swelling, redness and tenderness to [his] left great toe.”
Id. He admitted that he had not taken the pain medication prescribed by the physicians at
Three months later, in February 2013, Mr. Buford went to East Arkansas FHC
complaining of bilateral foot pain and joint swelling. (Tr. 369) Despite his complaints,
he was in no acute distress, had normal peripheral pulses, and had no edema. Id. A
month later, he returned to East Arkansas FHC, complaining of lower extremity pain,
swelling, and, for the first time, complained that he had difficulty “standing or walking
for long periods of time.” (Tr. 365) Again, he had no edema of his extremities, was in no
acute distress, and had normal peripheral pulses. (Tr. 366)
On May 6, 2013, Mr. Buford went to Crittenden complaining of pain in his right
foot, but had no swelling, tenderness, numbness, or tingling. (Tr. 255) He was
ambulatory, had no problems with mobility, breathed normally, and was in no acute
distress. (Tr. 257, 258) Later the same day, he presented to East Arkansas FHC
complaining of gout pain in his feet. (Tr. 363) He still had no swelling, but complained
that the top of his right foot was tender. Id.
In June 2013, Mr. Buford returned to East Arkansas FHC complaining that his
joints were stiff, that he had difficulty walking or standing for long periods of time, and
that he had some numbness and tingling in his right foot and leg. (Tr. 360) He had no
edema, however; had a normal heart rate, normal peripheral pulses, and was in no acute
distress. Id. He was treated and discharged without limitations or restrictions placed on
his activities. (Tr. 361-32)
Mr. Buford went back to East Arkansas FHC in September and December 2013.
(Tr. 386, 383) He complained of tingling in his lower extremities (but no foot swelling or
pain), some difficulty standing or sitting for long periods of time, but was in no acute
distress, had no edema, and had normal peripheral pulses. Id. In February 2014, Mr.
Buford returned to East Arkansas FHC, complaining of arm, wrist, and back pain. (Tr.
381) He was in no acute distress, had no edema, and, importantly, full ROM of both his
lumbar spine and wrists despite his pain. Id.
In March 2014, Mr. Buford underwent physical therapy for back, arm, and
shoulder pain. (Tr. 389-95) According to Mr. Buford’s self-assessment, he was able to
lie down, sit, go down stairs, drive a car, and perform housework with some difficulty; he
was able to stand, walk, perform yard work, and dress himself with great difficulty. (Tr.
395). He indicated that “standing” improved his back pain. (Tr. 394)
The following month Mr. Buford reported to East Arkansas FHC that he had pain
in his wrist, back, and ankle, but no swelling. (Tr. 405-06) During his visit he stated that
when he was treated with an injection, he was able to go “about 8 weeks without pain and
[that he] would like to get those injections again.” (Tr. 405) Mr. Buford further stated
that he was able to control the gout swelling by taking his prescribed medication. Id. He
was in no acute distress, had no edema, and no swelling. (Tr. 405-06) It is well-settled
that “impairment[s] which can be controlled by treatment or medication [are] not
considered disabling.” Estes v. Barnhart, 275 F.3d 722, 725 (8th Cir. 2002).
The ALJ properly relied on the substantial evidence set out above to support his
disability determination. The ALJ noted that Mr. Buford did not have persistent, ongoing
complaints of symptoms associated with his gout or low back pain. (Tr. 44, 46) He noted
that on more than one occasion, Mr. Buford’s joints were normal; he had no edema in his
extremities; and his gout was treatable by medication. (Tr. 44) The ALJ also noted that
Mr. Buford did not consistently seek treatment for his back pain, had full lumbar ROM in
February 2013, and denied any gait disturbance in April 2014. (Tr. 45-46) While there is
some evidence that Mr. Buford had issues related to his gout and back pain, the mere fact
that working might cause him pain or discomfort does not mandate a finding of disability.
Jones v. Chater, 86 F.3d 823, 826 (8th Cir. 1996). Accordingly, the ALJ’s finding that
Mr. Buford retained the RFC of medium work is supported by the record. He was able to
sit, stand, and walk months after his alleged disability onset date, and his symptoms were
controlled by treatment or medication. See Estes, 275 F.3d at 725.
Carpal Tunnel and Arthritis
Mr. Buford also argues that because of his severe carpal tunnel syndrome and
arthritis, the ALJ should have found that he had “manipulative limitations.” (Doc. entry
#11) As the ALJ noted, Mr. Buford presented no evidence that his bilateral wrist pain
was expected to last for a continuous period of more than twelve months. (Tr. 46)
Medical records from the relevant time period indicate that Mr. Buford first sought
treatment for bilateral wrist pain in June 2013. (Tr. 360) A treating doctor noted that Mr.
Buford had “mild” left-median-type, “mild” bilateral-ulnar-entrapment, and “early”
sensory neuropathy. (Tr. 419) The ALJ specifically noted that there was no evidence in
the record that these “mild” or “early” issues were expected to last for a sufficient period
for them to be considered severe. (Tr. 46)
Additionally, there is no evidence that Mr. Buford’s carpal tunnel syndrome or
arthritis required more than infrequent narcotic pain relievers or conservative treatment.
Smith v. Colvin, 756 F.3d 621, 626 (8th Cir. 2014) (lack of need for narcotic pain
relievers is properly considered in weighing the credibility of a claimant’s complaints);
Black v. Apfel, 143 F.3d 383, 386 (8th Cir. 1998). An orthopedic surgeon noted that,
despite Mr. Buford’s subjective pain complaints, he could “give a thumbs up, make an
okay sign, spread and cross his fingers, and touch his thumb with the small finger.” (Tr.
400) The surgeon observed that light touch sensation was still intact and that the
radiographs of Mr. Buford’s wrists were unremarkable. Id. He discussed a conservative
treatment regimen with Mr. Buford, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
(“NSAIDs”), splints, or injections. Id. He began Mr. Buford’s treatment with a trial of
“bilateral night splints,” with the option to consider either injections or surgery in the
future. Id. There is no evidence that Mr. Buford required further treatment from the
surgeon or narcotic pain relievers on more than two occasions. (Tr. 382, 384)
Despite receiving several additional NSAID treatments for wrist pain, Mr. Buford
presented no evidence, other than his own statements, that his symptoms caused more
than a minimal limitation on his ability to work. (Tr. 47, 405-06, Tr. 11-13) Notably, Mr.
Buford did not consistently seek treatment from his alleged disability onset date; none of
his physicians restricted or limited his activities; he was able to manipulate his hands
when examined by an orthopedic surgeon; he only underwent conservative treatments for
his impairments; and only took narcotic medication for pain relief on two occasions. All
of this evidence supports the ALJ’s determination that Mr. Buford’s carpal tunnel
syndrome and arthritis were not severe and did not cause “more than a minimal effect on
his ability to work.” See Kirby v. Astrue, 500 F.3d 705, 707-08 (8th Cir. 2007).
The ALJ Fully and Fairly Developed the Record.
Mr. Buford claims that because the record contains no functional capacity
assessment (“FCA”) from Mr. Buford’s treating or examining physicians, the ALJ did not
fully and fairly develop the record. (Doc. entry #11) Here, however, all of the nonexamining, state-agency medical consultants provided thorough explanations supporting
their findings that Mr. Buford retained the RFC for medium work. (Tr. 82-90, 91-101)
The ALJ gave great weight to these medical opinions in making his RFC determination.
The ALJ correctly relied on the professional medical opinions of the state agency
consultants, all of whom explained their reasoning for coming to their conclusions. There
was no need for additional medical examinations where the medical record before the
ALJ provided him with sufficient evidence to determine that Mr. Buford retained the
RFC for medium work. See Martise v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 909, 926-27 (8th Cir. 2011)
(explaining that the ALJ must order additional medical examinations only if the record
does not provide sufficient evidence to determine whether a claimant is disabled). The
ALJ did not need to go to inordinate lengths to develop Mr. Buford’s case; if Mr. Buford
required an FCA, his lawyer had every opportunity to request one at his hearing. Battles
v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 43, 45 (8th Cir. 1994) (citation omitted).
The Court has reviewed the entire record, including the briefs, the ALJ’s decision,
the transcript of the hearing, and the medical and other evidence. There is sufficient
evidence in the record as a whole to support the Commissioner’s decision.
Accordingly, Mr. Buford’s appeal is DENIED, the oral argument hearing
scheduled for September 10, 2015, is cancelled, and the Clerk of Court is directed to
close the case.
IT IS SO ORDERED, this 20th day of July, 2015.
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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