Nowden v. Social Security Administration
OPINION AND ORDER affirming the decision of the Commissioner. Signed by Chief Judge J. Leon Holmes on 2/6/12. (vjt)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
PINE BLUFF DIVISION
LAQUEITA K. NOWDEN
No. 5:10CV00270 JLH
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner,
Social Security Administration
OPINION AND ORDER
On March 12, 2007, Laqueita Nowden applied for supplemental security income pursuant
to Title XVI of the Social Security Act. She alleged that she has been disabled and unable to work
since January 1, 2007 because of “[d]iabetes, leg swells, breathing problems, fatigue[,] loose grip
in [her] hand[, and an abscess] in her breast.” (Tr. 125) Her application was initially denied on June
29, 2007, and upon reconsideration on August 29, 2007. At Nowden’s request, an administrative
law judge held a video hearing on July 10, 2009. Nowden and her mother appeared and testified
from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, while the ALJ presided from Little Rock, Arkansas. A vocational expert
also testified. In an opinion issued on September 11, 2009, the ALJ concluded that Nowden was
not disabled. On July 17, 2010, the Appeals Council denied Nowden’s request to review the ALJ’s
Subsequently, Nowden commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006),
seeking judicial review of the ALJ’s determination. Review by the Court is limited. The Court must
determine whether the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole
and whether it is based on legal error. Long v. Chater, 108 F.3d 185, 187 (8th Cir. 1997); 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). In making that determination, the Court must consider evidence that detracts from the
Commissioner’s decision as well as evidence that supports it; the Court may not, however, reverse
the Commissioner’s decision merely because substantial evidence would have supported the
opposite decision. Sultan v. Barnhart, 368 F.3d 857, 863 (8th Cir. 2004) (“Substantial evidence is
less than a preponderance, but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support
the Commissioner’s conclusion.”) (quotation omitted); Woolf v. Shalala, 3 F.3d 1210, 1213 (8th Cir.
The Social Security Administration has promulgated a five-step sequential evaluation
process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (2011). The first step
is to determine whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. If so, benefits are
denied. The second step is to determine based solely on the medical evidence whether the claimant
has an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits the claimant’s ability to
perform basic work activities, that is, a “severe” impairment. If not, benefits are denied. The third
step is to determine, again based solely on the medical evidence, whether the severe impairments
meet or equal a listed impairment that is presumed to be disabling. If so, and if the duration
requirement is met, benefits are awarded. If the claimant does not meet or equal a Listing, then a
residual functional capacity assessment is made based on all the relevant evidence. The fourth step
is to determine whether the claimant has sufficient residual functional capacity, despite the
impairments, to perform the physical and mental demands of past relevant work. If so, benefits are
denied. The fifth step is to determine whether the claimant is able to make an adjustment to other
work, given the claimant’s age, education and work experience. If so, benefits are denied; if not,
benefits are awarded. Id.
Nowden was born on May 28, 1984, and has at least a high school education. (Tr. 17)
Although she worked as a part-time waitress after the alleged disability onset date, the ALJ
concluded that this work did not rise to the level of “substantial gainful activity” and, consequently,
found that Nowden had no past relevant work experience. (Tr. 13, 17) Nowden stated in her
function report that she cares for her minor children, including cooking, cleaning, and playing with
them. (Tr. 143-44) She performs such household functions as “cleaning, ironing, laundry, [and]
washing dishes.” (Tr. 146) Nowden explained, however, that these activities take her an extra long
time because she must stop to rest. She takes her children to the park, the doctor’s office, and the
store. (Tr. 147) She shops for groceries and household appliances. Id. She has no problem
handling money. (Tr. 147-48) Nowden engages in social activities on a daily basis and attends
church weekly. Id. She stated that she can only walk ten to twenty minutes at a time, but that she
has no attention problems, can follow instructions, and gets along well with authority figures. (Tr.
149-50) Nowden testified that she can read, write, and do basic arithmetic. (Tr. 23)
Nowden suffers from type 1 diabetes. She must take several insulin injections daily.
Nowden’s medical records and her admissions reveal that she has a history of failing to comply with
her prescribed treatments. (Tr. 13, 15, 17, 34-35) However, she testified that he has been compliant
with her medication regimen since April of 2009. (Tr. 31-32) Nevertheless, Nowden’s mother
testified that Nowden has had to be hospitalized even when properly taking her medications. (Tr.
49-50) Nowden testified that she can only stand for fifteen to twenty minutes before her feet swell,
but that she has no problem sitting and can lift a gallon of milk. (Tr. 29) She testified that her feet
felt better when she was taking her medications correctly. (Tr. 33) She also testified that he
fingertips are very sore because she must prick them to test her blood sugar levels, but stated that
otherwise she has no problems with her hands and can reach for, grab, and hold things. Id.
Nowden’s breast abscess was surgically resolved in June of 2006. (Tr. 444)
Nowden’s medical records contain no opinions from treating or examining physicians. (Tr.
14) However, a physician working as a consultant for the state agency, Disability Determination
for Social Security Administration, performed a physical residual functional capacity assessment.
(Tr. 450-58) The physician concluded that Nowden could occasionally lift twenty pounds,
frequently lift ten pounds, and sit, stand or walk about six hours in an eight-hour work day. Id. The
physician found no postural, manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental limitations.
Id. Another state physician reviewed the medical records and confirmed the above findings. (Tr.
Finally, Nowden testified that she suffers from some mental health issues. (Tr. 38)
However, the ALJ found no evidence in the medical records that Nowden received any mental health
treatment. (Tr. 13)
At the first step, the ALJ found that Nowden had worked as a part-time waitress from March
of 2008 until April of 2009 but concluded that this work did not rise to the level of substantial
gainful activity. Consequently, the ALJ found that Nowden had not engaged in any substantial
gainful activity since the alleged onset date and, therefore, satisfied the first step. At the second
step, the ALJ found that Nowden’s diabetes was severe; that is, it caused limitations or restrictions
having more than a minimal effect on Nowden’s ability to do basic work-related activities.1 The
Although the ALJ identifies “insulin dependant diabetes mellitus” as Nowden’s only severe
impairment, the decision mentions Nowden’s complaints of leg swelling, breathing problems,
ALJ also noted that Nowden alleged that she suffered from some mental health issues. Citing a lack
of medical evidence and Nowden’s failure to mention this allegation in her function report, the ALJ
concluded that any mental health issues from which Nowden might suffer did not create more than
minimal limitations and, therefore, were not severe.
Turning to the third step, the ALJ considered Listing 9.08 (diabetes) but concluded that
Nowden’s diabetes did not meet the requirements of that particular listing. After considering the
entire record and applying the guidelines from Social Security Ruling 96–7p and Polaski v. Heckler,
739 F.2d 1320 (8th Cir. 1984), the ALJ found that Nowden’s diabetes could reasonably be expected
to produce Nowden’s alleged symptoms but that Nowden’s statements regarding the “intensity,
persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms” were not credible to the extent they were
inconsistent with the ALJ’s residual functional capacity determination. The ALJ concluded that
has the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of sedentary
work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a). Specifically, the claimant can occasionally
lift no more than 10 pounds at a time with less than 10 pounds frequently. She can
stand and/or walk 2 hours of an 8-hour workday. The claimant can sit 6 hours of an
8-hour workday. She can occasionally use her fingers for fine manipulation. She is
limited in using her fingers for frequent or constant fingering due to soreness but
otherwise can use her hands and fingers to manipulate objects.
At the fourth step, the ALJ found that Nowden had no past relevant work. Finally, at the
fifth step, the ALJ found, based on the evidence and the vocational expert’s testimony, that jobs
which Nowden could perform exist in significant numbers in the national economy. The ALJ stated:
fatigue, problems with her grip, and an abscess in her breast, and subsequently states that the “above
impairments cause” work-related limitations and restrictions in more than a minimal manner. At
the second step, however, the ALJ does not cite any medical evidence to support the conclusion that
any of the mentioned conditions, besides diabetes, are “severe.” Because Nowden does not
challenge the ALJ’s findings at the second step, the Court need not resolve the ambiguity created
by the decision’s change from the singular to the plural.
If the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of
sedentary work, a finding of “not disabled” would be directed by Medical-Vocational
Rule 201.27. However, the claimant’s ability to perform all or substantially all of
the requirements of this level of work has been impeded by additional limitations.
To determine the extent to which these limitations erode the unskilled sedentary
occupational base, the Administrative Law Judge asked the vocational expert
whether jobs exist in the national economy for an individual with the claimant’s age,
education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. The vocational expert
testified that given all of these factors the individual would be able to perform the
requirements of representative occupations such as a clerk (679 jobs in the state and
85,000 jobs nationally); as a general office clerk (1,104 jobs in the state and 136,000
jobs nationally); and as a escort driver (1,146 jobs in the state and 170,000 jobs
Pursuant to SSR 00-4p, the vocational expert’s testimony is consistent with the
information contained in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.
Based on the testimony of the vocational expert, the undersigned concludes that,
considering the claimant’s age, education, work experience, and residual functional
capacity, the claimant is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work
that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. A finding of “not
disabled” is therefore appropriate under the framework of the above-cited rule.
Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Nowden was not disabled and denied her disability claim.
Nowden contends that the ALJ erred as a matter of law and that his decision is not supported
by substantial evidence. She contends that the vocational expert’s testimony was inconsistent with
the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. Nowden also contends that the ALJ failed to factor all of her
medically determinable impairments into the residual functional capacity determination and failed
to support that determination with substantial medical evidence.
The Vocational Expert’s Testimony
Robinson argues that the vocational expert’s testimony is unreliable because it conflicts with
the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. See Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 978 (8th Cir. 2010) (when
expert testimony conflicts with the DOT, the DOT controls unless the DOT classifications are
rebutted). At the hearing, the ALJ had the following exchange with the vocational expert:
[ALJ] All right. I’d like you then to assume an individual the same age and
education and I’m not going to consider Ms. Nowden as having any past relevant
work so consider this hypothetical individual as having no past relevant work. And
further assume that this individual can lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally and less
than 10 pounds frequently. Can stand and walk two hours in an eight hour day and
sit for six in an eight hour day. Include that the individual would be limited in using
her fingers for frequent constant fingering through the soreness but otherwise would
be able to use her hands and fingers to manipulate objects but just not the fine
fingering such as typing or things of that nature.
[VE] Okay. She’s limited to occasional, she can’t do frequent or constant, she’s
limited to occasional?
[ALJ] Occasional fingering but otherwise she could do any limitations with the
handling or reaching.
[VE] Okay, okay. Is that the only limitation?
[ALJ] Those are the limitations for hypothetical number one.
[VE] Yes, sir, there would be jobs the person could do. The person could work as
a sedentary information clerk, SVP of 2, DOT number 237.367-046, for the United
States 85,985, for the state of Arkansas 679. The person could work as a sedentary
office clerk, SVP of 2, DOT number 249.587-018, for the United States 136,797, for
the state of Arkansas 1,104. Do you want one more?
[ALJ] Please, go ahead.
[VE] The person could work as a sedentary escort driver, SVP of 2, DOT number
919.663-022, for the United States 170,321, and for the state of Arkansas 1,146.2
Nowden states, “for purposes of clarification,” that the DOT codes cited by the vocational
expert have different titles than the titles used by the expert. Specifically, “telephone quotation
clerk” rather than “information clerk” (DOT 237.367-046), “document preparer, microfilming”
rather than “office clerk” (DOT 249.587-018), “escort - vehicle driver” rather than “escort driver”
(DOT 919.663-022). The Commissioner points out that the DOT recognizes “information clerk”
as an alternative title for DOT number 237.367-046.
(Tr. 45-46) Nowden contends that the DOT’s descriptions of the jobs cited by the vocational expert
establishes that these positions are not compatible with Nowden’s ability. Specifically, Nowden
argues that the document preparer and telephone quotation clerk positions do not fit within
Nowden’s residual functional capacity because the DOT indicates that these jobs both require
frequent3 fingering and handling.4 Employment & Training Admin., U.S. Dept. of Labor, Selected
Characteristics of Occupations Defined in the Revised Dictionary of Occupational Titles 336, 341,
app. C at C-3 (1993) (“SCO”).
However, the escort driver position does not require frequent fingering. SCO at 93, app. C
at C-3. Nowden offers nothing to substantiate her generalized allegation that the vocational expert’s
testimony about the escort driver position conflicts with the requirements of the DOT. Furthermore,
the vocational expert testified that 1,146 escort driver positions are available in Arkansas and that
170,321 such jobs are available in the United States. Based on the vocational expert’s testimony,
the ALJ could conclude that escort driver positions “exist[ in significant numbers] in the national
economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which [Nowden] lives,
or whether a specific job vacancy exists for [her], or whether [s]he would be hired if [s]he applied
for work.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A) (2006) (“For purposes of the preceding sentence (with respect
to any individual), ‘work which exists in the national economy’ means work which exists in
significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the
country.”); see also Hall, 109 F.3d at 1259-60; Jenkins v. Bowen, 861 F.2d 1083, 1087 (8th Cir.
“Frequently” denotes an activity or condition which exists from one-third to two-thirds of
the time. See SCO app. C at C-3.
As the Commissioner notes, the ALJ imposed no limitations on Nowden’s “handling”
ability in her residual functional capacity. Therefore, Nowden’s argument that the vocational
expert’s testimony conflicts with the DOT with respect to “handling” requirements must be rejected.
1988) (500 jobs); Oxner v. Chater, 103 F.3d 135, 135 (8th Cir. 1996) (per curiam) (1,000 jobs in
area, 5,000 jobs in state, and 200,000 jobs in national economy).
Consequently, regardless of whether the vocational expert’s testimony about the document
preparer and telephone quotation clerk positions conflicted with the DOT, the ALJ’s determination
is supported by substantial evidence on the basis of the expert’s testimony regarding the escort
driver position. Any error with respect to the other two positions is harmless. See Young v. Apfel,
221 F.3d 1065, 1070 (8th Cir. 2000) (even if the vocational expert did not rebut the DOT definitions,
the ALJ identified other positions which the claimant could perform).
The ALJ’s Residual Functional Capacity Determination
Nowden also contends that the ALJ failed to include one of her important limitations in the
residual functional capacity determination. Specifically, Nowden argues that, “[i]n light of the
uncontrolled nature of her insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus,” the residual functional capacity
determination should have included her need “to take unscheduled breaks to, inter alia, check her
blood-sugar and administer insulin injections.”
The problem with Nowden’s argument is that her need to take unscheduled breaks turns on
her need to respond to her uncontrolled diabetes.5 She testified that her blood sugar levels are “very
controlled now[.]” (Tr. 33) Moreover, the ALJ found that Nowden’s problems related to her
diabetes, such as instances of diabetic ketoacidosis, were due to her failure to comply with her
prescribed medication regimen. (Tr. 13, 17) In the context of the residual functional capacity
Although, in her brief, Nowden mentions that she must take insulin injections in the
morning, in the evening, and with each meal, Nowden does not argue that the ALJ erred by failing
to include her need to take breaks to perform scheduled insulin injections with her meals. In fact,
the vocational expert testified that the need to have access to carbohydrates as well as to regularly
perform blood tests and insulin injections would not interfere with Nowden’s ability to perform any
of the jobs identified as long as the blood sugar levels are controlled. (Tr. 46, 48)
determination, “[i]f an impairment can be controlled by treatment or medication, it cannot be
considered disabling.” Schultz v. Astrue, 479 F.3d 979, 983 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting Brown v.
Barnhart, 390 F.3d 535, 540 (8th Cir. 2004)).
Nowden also attacks the ALJ’s residual functional capacity determination on the grounds
that it was not supported by medical evidence derived from a treating or examining physician. See
Mathis v. Astrue, No. 08-3027, 2009 WL 2496684, at *2 (W.D. Ark. Aug. 13, 2009) (“Of particular
concern to the undersigned is the fact that the record does not contain an RFC assessment from any
of plaintiff’s treating physicians.”) (citing Jenkins v. Apfel, 196 F.3d 922, 925 (8th Cir. 1999)). In
certain circumstances, the Eighth Circuit has held that an ALJ’s reliance on a mere consulting
physician’s opinion is not substantial evidence. See, e.g., Laurer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700 (8th Cir.
2001); Thompson v. Bowen, 850 F.2d 346, 349 (8th Cir. 1988); Onstead v. Sullivan, 962 F.2d 803,
805 (8th Cir. 1992). However, those decisions “involve situations where the consulting physician’s
opinion contradicts that of the treating physician.” Richardson v. Astrue, No. 3:10CV00147, 2011
WL 4479215, at *3 (E.D. Ark. Sept. 28, 2011). There is no conflicting evidence from a treating or
examining physician in the instant case. Furthermore, the residual functional capacity determination
is based upon all of the evidence—although some medical evidence must support the determination.
Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019, 1024 (8th Cir. 2002). Therefore, even without a treating
physician’s opinion, an ALJ’s residual functional capacity determination may be supported by
substantial evidence where it is based upon the medical records, observations of reviewing
physicians, the claimant’s own testimony, and other evidence in the record. Id.; Richardson, 2011
WL 4479215, at *3; see also Sultan, 368 F.3d at 863 (The ALJ has a duty to develop the record by
seeking the opinion of a treating or examining physician “only if the available evidence does not
provide an adequate basis for determining the merits of the disability claim.” ) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§
416.912(e), 416.919a(b)); Hight v. Shalala, 986 F.2d 1242, 1244 n.1 (8th Cir. 1993) (“We have
never held that the opinions of consulting physicians cannot constitute substantial evidence; indeed,
such a holding would make the provisions allowing the Secretary to require claimants to submit to
consultative exams, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1517-.1518, meaningless.”). Here, the ALJ relied upon the
opinions of reviewing physicians; Nowden’s testimony about her condition, abilities, and past work
experience as a waitress and at home; and Nowden’s medical records. (Tr. 14-17) Thus, there is
substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ’s decision.
For the foregoing reasons, the Commissioner is affirmed.
IT IS SO ORDERED this 6th day of February, 2012.
J. LEON HOLMES
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?