Stewart v. Social Security Administration
ORDER REMANDING TO THE COMMISSIONER. The ALJ's decision is reversed and remanded, with instructions to further develop the record as necessary and to fully and properly consider all opinion evidence. Signed by Magistrate Judge J. Thomas Ray on 5/11/2017. (jak)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
JACQUELINE KAY STEWART
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,1
Social Security Administration
ORDER REMANDING TO THE COMMISSIONER
Jacqueline Stewart (“Stewart”) applied for social security disability benefits
with an alleged disability onset date of July 24, 2013. (R. at 118). Her applications
were denied by the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) after a hearing. (R. at 18). The
Appeals Council denied her request for review. (R. at 1). Thus, the ALJ’s decision
now stands as the Commissioner’s final decision. Stewart has requested judicial
For the reasons stated below, this Court reverses and remands the
The Commissioner’s Decision
The ALJ found that Stewart had the severe impairments of inflammatory
arthritis, lumbar disk bulge, and obesity. (R. at 13). Based on her limitations, the
Berryhill is now the Acting Commissioner of Social Security and is automatically
substituted as Defendant pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 25(d).
The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge.
ALJ determined that Stewart had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to
perform a full range of light work. (R. at 14). The ALJ took testimony from a
vocational expert (“VE”) and found that Stewart could return to her past relevant
work as an inspector. (R. at 16–17). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Stewart was
not disabled. (R. at 18).
The Court’s function on review is to determine whether the Commissioner’s
decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole and whether
it is based on legal error. Miller v. Colvin, 784 F.3d 472, 477 (8th Cir. 2015); see
also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). While “substantial evidence” is that which a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, “substantial evidence on the
record as a whole” requires a court to engage in a more scrutinizing analysis:
“[O]ur review is more than an examination of the record for the
existence of substantial evidence in support of the Commissioner’s
decision; we also take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts
from that decision.” Reversal is not warranted, however, “merely
because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite
Reed v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 917, 920 (8th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted).
Stewart argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) giving no weight to the opinion of
Stuart Jones, a physical therapist; (2) failing to fully and fairly develop the record;
and (3) performing an inadequate credibility analysis. Because this Court holds that
the ALJ erred in weighing Jones’s opinion, the Court need not address Stewart’s
other arguments for reversal.
On September 17, 2013, Jones performed a “comprehensive functional
capacity evaluation to determine [Stewart’s] current functional status.” (R. at 348).
During the four-hour evaluation, Jones tested Stewart’s physical abilities in eighteen
areas,3 rating her functional level in each area. (R. at 348-62). In his fifteen-page
report, Jones concluded that, “overall,” Stewart had demonstrated the ability to
perform work at the sedentary level. (R. at 350).
In determining that Stewart had the RFC to perform “the full range of light
work” (R. at 14), the ALJ gave no weight to Jones’s opinion on the basis that it was
internally inconsistent and unsupported by his objective evaluation. Specifically, the
ALJ noted that, even though Jones’s evaluation showed that Stewart could “lift/carry
at the light exertional level,” he “opined that she could only function at the sedentary
level.” (R. at 16).
A fair reading of Jones’s opinion reveals that it is not internally contradictory
and that Jones fully and adequately explained any inconsistencies in his findings.
In assessing Stewart’s ability to perform “material handling,” Jones opined
that she could lift and carry at the “light” exertional level but that her “overall
Walking, immediate reaching, overhead reaching, reaching with a five-pound weight,
handling, fingering, range of motion, grip strength, pinch strength, balancing, floor-to-knuckle
lifting, knuckle-to-shoulder lifting, carrying, stooping, crouching, kneeling, climbing stairs/stepups, and pushing/pulling.
strength” in that category was “sedentary.” (R. at 348). Jones explained the seeming
contradiction, stating that, even though Stewart “exhibited the ability to perform an
Occasional bi-manual lift of up to 20 lbs. and Occasional carry of up to 15 lbs.,” she
“did not demonstrate the ability to carry on more than an Occasional basis.” (R. at
348-49) (emphasis added). He observed that she “shift[ed] her weight away from her
[right left extremity] and complained of increased foot pain as the weight increased,”
and she “reported that right foot and hip pain limited her from carrying more
weight.” (R. at 350-51). Thus, Jones found that Stewart demonstrated a “maximal
occasional lift/carry of up to 15 lbs.” (R. at 348). This restriction would prevent the
performance of light work, which requires frequent lifting/carrying of 10 pounds.4
Jones went on to find, in his objective evaluation of Stewart’s other abilities,
that she: (1) could walk and stand on an “occasional” basis; and (2) could “work in
the standing position for up to 10 minutes prior to taking brief breaks to sit. (R. at
349). These additional restrictions would also preclude the performance of the full
range of light work.5
Light work requires the ability to lift objects weighing up to 20 pounds at a time, and to
frequently lift or carry up to 10 pounds. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b).
Since “frequent” lifting or carrying requires being on one’s feet up to two-thirds of a
workday, the full range of light work requires the ability to stand or walk a total of six hours in an
eight-hour workday, with intermittent sitting during the remaining time. SSR 83-10, 1983 WL
31251, at *6 (1983). The “primary difference” between light and sedentary jobs is the amount of
walking or standing involved. Id. at *5.
Finally, in reaching his “overall” conclusion that Stewart could perform only
sedentary work, Jones explained: “It is noted that even though Ms. Stewart
demonstrated the ability to perform some material handling at the Light Physical
Demand Level, her functional limitations render her unable to work above the
Sedentary level with these limitations.” (R. at 350). This conclusion is fully
supported by Jones’s specific objective findings as described in his report.
Because a physical therapist is not an “acceptable medical source” under the
relevant Social Security regulations, the therapist’s opinions are not entitled to
controlling weight. Michel v. Colvin, 640 F. App’x 585, 594-95 (8th Cir. 2016); see
20 C.F.R. § 404.1513(a) & (d) (2015).6 In weighing such opinions – defined as
“other medical evidence” -- an ALJ “has more discretion and is permitted to consider
any inconsistencies found within the record.” Nowling v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 1110,
1123 (8th Cir. 2016). However, an ALJ is required to consider these opinions, and
he must evaluate them in light of several factors, including the nature and extent of
the relationship between the source and the claimant, the examinations and testing
performed by the source, the source’s explanation and supporting evidence
presented for the opinion, the opinion’s consistency with other evidence, and
The regulations regarding “acceptable medical sources” were substantially amended,
effective March 27, 2017. See Revisions to Rules Regarding the Evaluation of Medical Evidence,
82 Fed. Reg. 5844-01, 5844-45, 2017 WL 168819 (Jan. 18, 2017).
whether the source has a specialty or area of expertise related to the impairment.7 Id.
In this instance, the ALJ failed to fully and accurately discuss Jones’s opinion.
The ALJ did not discuss Jones’s explanations for the supposed “inconsistencies,”
and he ultimately rejected that opinion based on contradictions that simply did not
exist. Notably, the only opinions in the record are those of Jones and state agency
“reviewing physicians,” who never examined Stewart and based their opinions
entirely on their review of her medical records. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(1)
(“Generally, we give more weight to the medical opinion of a source who has
examined you than to the medical opinion of a medical source who has not examined
you.”). After erroneously rejecting Jones’s opinion, the ALJ was left with a record
that contained no opinion from an examining medical source about Stewart’s
limitations and her ability to perform work-related activities. A claimant’s RFC is a
medical question, and some medical evidence is required to support the RFC
determination. Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700, 704 (8th Cir. 2001). After rejecting
Jones’s opinion, the record did not contain substantial medical evidence to support
the ALJ’s RFC determination. Accordingly, the ALJ’s decision must be reversed
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) & (f) (codifying amendments regarding evaluation of
opinions “from medical sources who are not acceptable medical sources,” for claims filed before
March 27, 2017); see also 82 Fed. Reg. 5844, 5854, 5869-71.
It is not the task of this Court to review the evidence and make an independent
decision. Neither is it to reverse the decision of the ALJ because there is evidence in
the record which contradicts his findings. The test is whether there is substantial
evidence in the record as a whole which supports the decision of the ALJ. Miller,
784 F.3d at 477. The Court has reviewed the entire record, including the briefs, the
ALJ's decision, and the transcript of the hearing. The Court concludes that the record
as a whole does not contain ample evidence that "a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support [the] conclusion" of the ALJ in this case. Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). The ALJ’s decision is therefore REVERSED and
REMANDED, with instructions to further develop the record as necessary and to
fully and properly consider all opinion evidence.
It is so ordered this 11th day of May, 2017.
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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