Dotson v. Social Security Administration
ORDER affirming the Commissioner's final decision and dismissing Plaintiff's complaint with prejudice. Signed by Judge D. P. Marshall Jr. on 8/15/11. (kpr)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
PINE BLUFF DIVISION
Case No. 5:10-cv-230-DPM
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner,
Social Security Administration
Gwendolyn Dotson challenges the sufficiency of the record supporting
denial of the Social Security benefits she sought. She argues that decision
failed to consider her medical conditions. Dotson also presses a due process
violation because the Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge, not the
Administrative Law Judge who presided at Dotson’s hearing, signed the
decision. The Court takes the constitutional issue first.
1. Dotson got due process. She is correct; one part of the HEARINGS,
APPEALS, AND LITIGATION LAW MANUAL counsels the Chief Judge to re-weigh
Dotson’s testimony in certain circumstances. Document No. 11-1, at 1. This
part applies when the presiding ALJ does not participate in the written
decision. It encourages the new ALJ (here the Chief Judge) to hold a second
hearing in cases like Dotson’s, which turn on credibility. But another part of
the Manual (on the same page) allows the Chief Judge “to sign the final
decision/order if the [presiding] ALJ gave the [Chief Judge] prior affirmative
written authorization[.]” Document No. 11-1, at 1. This part applies when the
“ALJ has approved a final decision draft but is unavailable to sign the final
Dotson’s decision falls under the approved-but-unavailable-to-sign
The Administrative Law Judge who presided at the hearing
approved this decision but was unavailable to sign it when it was
ready to be mailed. . . . [T]he Administrative Law Judge who
presided at the hearing authorized the Hearing Office Chief Judge
or Acting Hearing Office Chief Judge to sign this decision
pursuant to HALLEX § I-2-8-40.
Transcript, at 15.
The decision is signed “Michael Cheek for John A.
Thawley[.]” Ibid. Dotson’s due process challenge fails because the presiding
ALJ approved the decision in her case. Wilburn v. Astrue, 626 F.3d 999,
1002–04 (8th Cir. 2010).
2. The record supports denial of benefits. The Court reviews the
Commissioner’s decision for legal error and for whether the decision finds
support in substantial evidence on the whole record. Long v. Chater, 108 F.3d
185, 187 (8th Cir. 1997). Dotson argues that the ALJ failed to develop the
record fully, consider her treating physician’s opinions, and ask the vocational
expert a proper hypothetical question. These arguments all challenge the
sufficiency of the evidence. Kinsling v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1255, 1257 & n.3 (8th
Dotson agrees “the ALJ correctly determined [ ] Steps 1–3 of the
Sequential Evaluation.” Document No. 11, at 11. The problem, according to
Dotson, comes in Step 4, where the ALJ found Dotson could handle light
work. Transcript, at 11–12. Dotson says her pain is totally disabling.
Transcript, at 30.
On the hearing date, Dotson was 46 years old. She is a high school
graduate who spent some time in college. During the last decade, she has
worked as a cashier, teacher’s assistant, and substitute teacher. She has also
suffered from chronic pelvic pain, hypertension, and anxiety. Her pain causes
her problems with standing and sitting for long periods.
The record includes much evidence of Dotson’s pain. Part of her
discomfort comes from hemorrhoids. Transcript, at 314. She also has a history
of chest pain. Transcript, at 371–72. Chronic pelvic pain, however, is her
biggest problem. Transcript, at 25. According to a 2008 medical report from
UAMS, “[Dotson] has a characteristic symptom pattern of chronic pelvic pain
syndrome. There is no known cause of this syndrome. It is comparable to
migraine headaches of the pelvis.”
Transcript, at 264.
Dotson takes a
combination of medication to alleviate her pain. Transcript, at 25–26.
Dotson began slowing down her work in 2007. The pain led Dotson to
a two-day admission in 2008 at Chicot Memorial Hospital: “abdominal pain,
lower abdominal, right lower quadrant, and pelvic pain. . . . severe 8-9/10[.]”
Transcript, at 180. At the hearing, however, Dotson said her pain level was
twelve on a scale of ten. Transcript, at 30. Two 2009 letters from Doston’s
friends also document her extensive pain. Transcript, at 158–59. Both note
Dotson can be “bed confined and unable to walk for several days at a time.”
Dotson testified that she is bedridden two weeks every month.
Transcript, at 31–32. Confined to her home, she needs help with some
household chores. But she is able to watch TV, bathe herself, clean her teeth,
and brush her hair. Transcript, at 34.
The ALJ specifically discredited the severity of Dotson’s suffering:
“[her] statements concerning the intensity, persistence[,] and limiting effects
of these symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the
above residual functional capacity assessment.” Transcript, at 13. This
conclusion considered Dotson’s medical history, including a letter from Dr.
Fauzia Qadir, her treating physician. Dr. Qadir stated that Dotson “suffers
from debilitating pelvic pain[.]” Transcript, at 522. The ALJ read this letter as
opining that Dotson is suffering, not disabled. Debilitating is weakening, not
disabling; and the ALJ’s reading is a reasonable one.
The Court understands Dotson’s “suboptimal response” to medication.
There is little doubt that she hurts often. But as the ALJ found, “the record on
this case reveals no restrictions recommended by Dr. [Qadir;]” nor does the
Court see any professionally imposed restrictions—work related or
otherwise—in Dotson’s lengthy medical records. The ALJ’s credibility finding
was therefore based on more than personal observation. Polaski v. Heckler, 739
F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir. 1984). And this record, developed by the ALJ and
Dotson’s counsel, is full and thorough. Cox v. Apfel, 160 F.3d 1203, 1209 (8th
The vocational expert, appearing by telephone, had reviewed Dotson’s
records and he heard her testimony. The ALJ’s hypothetical questions, the
Court concludes, fairly captured Dotson’s restrictions. Cox, 160 F.3d at 1207.
“Start off by assuming a person the same age, education[,] and work
experience as [Dotson] . . . retains a light residual functional capacity, with
push or pull limited to the light level, with no climbing . . . [and] no more than
occasional . . . stooping, crouching, kneeling, or crawling[.]” Transcript, at 44.
The ALJ then added a “sit/stand option” and reduced the functional capacity
Transcript, at 45–46.
These specifics covered Dotson’s
restrictions. And this record therefore supports the denial of benefits. Long,
108 F.3d at 187.
The Commissioner’s final decision is affirmed. Dotson’s complaint is
dismissed with prejudice.
D.P. Marshall Jr.
United States District Judge
15 August 2011
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