Butler v. Social Security Administration
ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER. Mr. Butler's complaint is dismissed with prejudice. Signed by Magistrate Judge Beth Deere on 9/6/2016. (jak)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CASE NO. 3:15-CV-368-BD
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner
Social Security Administration
ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER
Plaintiff Burt Butler seeks review of the Commissioner’s decision to deny his
claims for disability benefits. Mr. Butler filed an application for Disability Insurance
Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of
the Social Security Act (the “Act”), alleging disability beginning July 24, 2012. (Tr. 10)
Mr. Butler’s claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he requested a
hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Id. The ALJ determined that Mr.
Butler had not been under a disability as defined by the Act. (Tr. 19) The Appeals
Council denied Mr. Butler’s request for review, thus making the ALJ’s decision the
Commissioner’s final decision. (Tr. 1) Mr. Butler seeks judicial review of the
Commissioner’s denial of his application. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the
Magistrate Judge, and the case is ripe for decision.
I. The Commissioner’s Decision
The ALJ found that Mr. Butler met the insured status requirements of the Act
through September 30, 2016. (Tr. 12) At step one of the sequential five-step evaluation
process, the ALJ found that Mr. Butler had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since his alleged onset date of July 24, 2012. Id. The ALJ concluded at step two that Mr.
Butler had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar
spine, affective disorder, and anxiety disorder. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that
Mr. Butler’s impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment. (Tr. 13) 20 CFR
Part 404 Subpart P, Appendix 1(20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526,
416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that Mr. Butler had the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, but with added limitations.
(Tr. 14) The claimant would be limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks where
interpersonal contact is incidental to work performed and supervision is simple, direct,
and concrete. Id. The ALJ considered the medical evidence, as well as Mr. Butler’s
complaints regarding his pain, treatment, and medication in arriving at the conclusion that
he could perform light work with additional limitations. (Tr. 15) Because the demands
of Mr. Butler’s past work would not exceed his residual functional capacity, the ALJ
concluded at step four that Mr. Butler was capable of performing past relevant work. (Tr.
19) Consequently, the ALJ found that Mr. Butler was not disabled. Id.
A) Standard of Review
Mr. Butler raises two points on appeal: first, that the ALJ erred in finding Mr.
Butler did not meet listing 1.04; and second, that the ALJ erred in finding that Mr. Butler
had the residual functioning capacity to perform past work at the light exertional level.
The Court’s role is to determine whether the Commissioner’s findings are supported by
substantial evidence. Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012 (8th Cir. 2000). “Substantial
evidence” in this context means less than a preponderance but more than a scintilla.
Slusser v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 923, 925 (8th Cir. 2009). In other words, it is “enough that a
reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the ALJ’s decision.” Id. (citation
omitted). The Court must consider not only evidence that supports the Commissioner’s
decision, but also evidence that supports a contrary outcome. The Court cannot reverse
the decision, however, “merely because substantial evidence exists for the opposite
decision.” Long v. Chater, 108 F.3d 185, 187 (8th Cir. 1997) (quoting Johnson v. Chater,
87 F.3d 1015, 1017 (8th Cir. 1996)).
B) Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s Step 3 findings
Mr Butler argues that the ALJ erred in finding he did not meet a listing at step
three. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R 404.1520(d), 404.1525,
404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926) The ALJ addressed listings 12.04 and
12.06, those assigned to affective disorders. Mr. Butler makes no claim regarding the
finding that he did not meet listings 12.04 and 12.06, so that argument is waived.
Instead, Mr. Butler asserts that he did meet listing 1.04. (#10 at 5) The ALJ did
not address listing 1.04, but failure to address a specific listing is not reversible error if
the record supports the overall conclusion. Pepper ex rel. Gardner v. Barnhart, 342 F.3d
853, 855 (8th Cir. 2003) For his argument, Mr. Butler only recited the listing language,
which gives various examples of conditions that qualify when a nerve root is
compromised and the requirements of paragraphs A, B, or C are met. Id. at 6. Spinal
stenosis is one example of such condition, and Mr. Butler relies upon the MRI in the
record to show he had “mild spinal canal stenosis.” (Tr. 397) Mr. Butler also had a
positive straight-leg raise on the left at 10-15 degrees and on the right at 40 degrees,
according to records from Caraway Medical Center. (Tr. 377, 378) Although Mr. Butler
did not set forth which paragraph of listing 1.04 he met, the Court infers that he believes
he met either paragraph A or paragraph C, based on the diagnosed mild spinal stenosis
and positive straight-leg raise.
Paragraph A requires: 1) evidence of nerve root compression characterized by
neuro-anatomic distribution of pain; 2) limitation of motion of the spine; 3) motor loss
accompanied by sensory or reflex loss; and 4) if there is involvement of the lower back,
positive straight-leg raising test. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 § 1.04.
Paragraph C requires lumbar spinal stenosis resulting in pseudoclaudication, established
by findings upon appropriate medically acceptable imaging, manifested by chronic
nonradicular pain and weakness, and resulting in inability to ambulate effectively, as
defined in 1.00B(2)(b). Id.
“To meet a listing, an impairment must meet all of the listing’s specified criteria.”
Carlson v. Astrue, 604 F.3d 589, 593 (8th Cir. 2010). The evidence in the record does not
show that Mr. Butler met all of the requirements of Listing 1.04. Straight-leg raise was
negative in 2012 according to Dr. Troxel, the consultative medical examiner. (Tr. 351)
Mr. Butler’s range of motion was unlimited at that time. Id. Dr. Troxel also noted that
Mr. Butler was able to “stand/walk without assistive devices.” (Tr. 352)
Mr. Butler’s family doctor, Dr. Joseph Pierce, M.D., observed on February 4, 2014
that Mr. Butler had a normal gait and station, full range of motion and strength in
extremities, normal muscle tone, and normal sensory examination and could participate in
an exercise program. (Tr. 13-19, 372) At a March 4, 2014 visit to Dr. Pierce, Mr. Butler
did not complain of any back pain or abnormalities. Dr. Pierce observed that Mr. Butler’s
lumbar radiculopathy had deteriorated, but that he had normal gait, strength, and muscle
tone, with no joint swelling or effusions. (Tr. 367) Although Mr. Butler complained of
radiating pain from his neck to his knee that “hurt[s] all the time,” the medical evidence
renders Mr. Butler’s complaints not entirely credible. Listing 1.04 requires medical
documentation, not just subjective testimony, to prove a claimant met the listing.
It should be noted that the medical evidence concerning Mr. Butler’s back injury is
thin; he submitted only two exhibits on the issue. Ex. 7F and 8F. A claimant has the
burden of proving that an impairment (or combination of impairments) meets or equals a
listing. Johnson v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 1067, 1070 (8th Cir. 2004). Mr. Butler’s attorney
admitted at the hearing that “he’s not had a whole lot of time to get a whole lot of medical
records,” even though nearly two years passed between the initial application and the
hearing date. (Tr. 27) Mr. Butler had the opportunity to submit more substantial medical
evidence, and the court must consider the absence of longitudinal records related to the
condition in making its findings. Mr. Butler did not meet his burden at step three.1
C. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding that Mr. Butler had the
residual functioning capacity to return to past relevant work
The ALJ determined that Mr. Butler could return to his past relevant work at the
light exertional level, with the following limitations: simple, routine, repetitive tasks;
incidental interpersonal contact; and simple, direct, and concrete supervision. (Tr. 14, 15)
The medical records, reviewed above, do not call for more mental or physical limitations
in the hypothetical posed by the ALJ. As for the alleged mental impairment, Mr. Butler
did experience suicidal ideation in 2003. However, the records from 2012 visits to MidSouth Health Systems showed clear speech, logical thought processes, full effect, and
cooperation. (Tr. 342) He had no impairments in cognition and had a good prognosis.
(Tr. 343) There are only two mental health visits in the record, so the Court concludes
that Mr. Butler did not seek consistent or long-term mental health treatment. This
undermines the assertion that he had a serious mental impairment.
Mr. Butler made a tangential argument that Rule 201.11 of the medicalvocational guidelines (“Grids”) directs a finding of disability in this case. (#10 at 9) The
ALJ properly resolved that Mr. Butler could perform past work at Step four; therefore, the
Grids are inapplicable in this case.
Mr. Butler demonstrated mild, if any, limitations physically. He could pick up a
pen and write, had no neurological deficits, and had no decreased ability to walk, stand,
sit, lift, carry, handle, finger, hear or speak. (TR. 352, 353 and 367) A state agency
examination in January 2013 revealed “no limitations on any physical activity.” (Tr. 90)
Moreover, Mr. Butler’s complaints of pain in his neck and back do not align with
his reports of daily activities. He could prepare three-course meals, take care of personal
hygiene needs, take care of his cat, ride a bicycle, talk on the phone, watch TV, shop, do
laundry, vacuum, and clean. (Tr. 272-276)
A claimant’s RFC is what he can do despite his limitations and is based upon all
the relevant evidence including medical records, treating physicians’ and others’
observations, and the claimant’s own descriptions of his limitations. See Pearsall v.
Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); 20 C.F. R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945. The
ALJ properly considered the entire record, including vocational expert testimony (Tr. 50,
51), in finding Mr. Butler could return to past relevant work.
Finally, because the ALJ’s step four analysis provided for a return to past relevant
work, Mr. Butler’s argument that he qualified for disability based on the MedicalVocational Guidelines is moot.
The ALJ properly determined Mr. Butler did not meet a listing and could return to
past relevant work, and there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner’s
decision that Mr. Butler was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.
Accordingly, the final determination of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED, and Mr.
Butler’s complaint is DISMISSED with prejudice.
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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