Davis v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on February 18, 2013. (cnn)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
EL DORADO DIVISION
ELLA L. DAVIS
Civil No. 1:12-cv-01023
CAROLYN W. COLVIN
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Ella Davis (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to § 205(g) of Title II of the Social
Security Act (“The Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006), seeking judicial review of a final decision of
the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying her application for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and a period of disability under Title II of the Act. The parties
have consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge to conduct any and all proceedings in this
case, including conducting the trial, ordering the entry of a final judgment, and conducting all postjudgment proceedings. ECF No. 5.1 Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues this memorandum
opinion and orders the entry of a final judgment in this matter.
Plaintiff filed her application for DIB on January 14, 2009. (Tr. 32, 115). Plaintiff alleged
she was disabled due to left side numbness and pain, back pain, high blood pressure, and congestive
heart failure. (Tr. 51, 169, 177). Plaintiff alleged an onset date of June 1, 1993. (Tr. 169).
Plaintiff’s application was denied initially and at the reconsideration level. (Tr. 73-77).
The docket numbers for this case are referenced by the designation “ECF No.” The transcript pages for
this case are referenced by the designation “Tr.”
On May 11, 2009, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her application. (Tr. 80).
This hearing was held on March 22, 2010 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. (Tr. 44-70). Plaintiff was present
and was represented by his attorney, Denver Thornton, at this hearing. See id. Plaintiff and
Vocational Expert (“VE”) Dianne Smith testified at this hearing. See id. On the date of this hearing,
Plaintiff was forty-seven (47) years old, which is defined as a “younger person” under 20 C.F.R. §
404.1563(c) (2009), and had a high school education. (Tr. 48).
On July 23, 2010, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s application
for DIB. (Tr. 32-40). The ALJ determined Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act
through December 31, 2012. (Tr. 34, Finding 1). The ALJ also determined Plaintiff had engaged
in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) from January 1, 2000 through December 18, 2000, and
January 1, 2005 through December 18, 2008. (Tr. 34, Finding 2). However the ALJ found there had
been a continuous 12 month period during which Plaintiff did not engage in SGA. (Tr. 34, Finding
The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of status post remote history of
lumbar surgery, arthralgias, diastolic congestive heart failure, history of valve prolapse, and obesity.
(Tr. 34, Finding 4). The ALJ also determined, however, that Plaintiff did not have an impairment
or a combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in the
Listing of Impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Regulations No. 4 (“Listings”). (Tr. 35,
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her RFC.
(Tr. 36-38). First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints pursuant to the requirements
of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929 and found her claimed limitations were not totally
credible. (Tr. 35). Second, the ALJ determined, based upon his review of Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints, the hearing testimony, and the evidence in the record, that Plaintiff retained the RFC for
light work. (Tr. 36, Finding 6).
The ALJ then evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”) and her ability to perform
that work and other work in the national economy. (Tr. 38, Finding 7). The ALJ determined,
considering her RFC, that Plaintiff would be able to perform her PRW as a poultry grader and floor
grader. Id. Even though the Plaintiff was capable of performing her PRW, the ALJ also determined
there was other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff could
perform. (Tr. 39, Finding 8). The VE testified at the administrative hearing regarding this issue.
(Tr. 66-69). Based upon that testimony, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the ability to perform
other work such as a packing line worker with 29,000 such jobs in the region and 550,000 such jobs
in the nation. (Tr. 39). Given this, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not been under a disability as
defined in the Act from June 1, 1993 through the date of his decision. (Tr. 40, Finding 13).
On August 4, 2010, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s unfavorable
decision. (Tr. 28). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.968. On February 22, 2012, the Appeals Council declined
to review the ALJ’s unfavorable decision. (Tr. 1-5). On March 8, 2012, Plaintiff filed the present
appeal. ECF No. 1. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of this Court on March 22, 2012. ECF
No. 5. Both parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF Nos. 7, 9. This case is now ready for decision.
2. Applicable Law:
In reviewing this case, this Court is required to determine whether the Commissioner’s
findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
(2006); Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is less than
a preponderance of the evidence, but it is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to
support the Commissioner’s decision. See Johnson v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1145, 1147 (8th Cir. 2001).
As long as there is substantial evidence in the record that supports the Commissioner’s decision, the
Court may not reverse it simply because substantial evidence exists in the record that would have
supported a contrary outcome or because the Court would have decided the case differently. See
Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). If, after reviewing the record, it is possible
to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the
findings of the ALJ, the decision of the ALJ must be affirmed. See Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065,
1068 (8th Cir. 2000).
It is well established that a claimant for Social Security disability benefits has the burden of
proving his or her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that lasted at least one
year and that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. See Cox v. Apfel,
160 F.3d 1203, 1206 (8th Cir. 1998); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act defines
a “physical or mental impairment” as “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological,
or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382(3)(c). A plaintiff must show that
his or her disability, not simply his or her impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive
months. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
To determine whether the adult claimant suffers from a disability, the Commissioner uses
the familiar five-step sequential evaluation. He determines: (1) whether the claimant is presently
engaged in a “substantial gainful activity”; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment that
significantly limits the claimant’s physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities; (3)
whether the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals a presumptively disabling impairment
listed in the regulations (if so, the claimant is disabled without regard to age, education, and work
experience); (4) whether the claimant has the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform his
or her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform the past work, the burden shifts to
the Commissioner to prove that there are other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can
perform. See Cox, 160 F.3d at 1206; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f). The fact finder only considers
the plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience in light of his or her RFC if the final stage of this
analysis is reached. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2003).
In her appeal brief, Plaintiff claims the ALJ’s disability determination is not supported by
substantial evidence in the record. ECF No. 7 at 3-16. Specifically, Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred
(1) by failing to give proper weight to the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating physician, (2) by failing to
properly appreciate Plaintiff’s impairments and consider them in combination, (3) by failing in the
credibility determination of Plaintiff, (4) by asking an improper hypothetical to the VE, and (5) in
his RFC determination of Plaintiff. Id. In response, the Defendant argues the ALJ did not err in any
of his findings. ECF No. 9. Because this Court finds the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinions of
Plaintiff’s treating physician, this Court will only address this issue.
Prior to Step Four of the sequential analysis in a disability determination, the ALJ is required
to determine a claimant’s RFC. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). This RFC determination must
be based on medical evidence that addresses the claimant’s ability to function in the workplace. See
Stormo v. Barnhart, 377 F.3d 801, 807 (8th Cir. 2004). The ALJ should consider “‘all the evidence
in the record’ in determining the RFC, including ‘the medical records, observations of treating
physicians and others, and an individual’s own description of his limitations.’” Stormo v. Barnhart,
377 F.3d 801, 807 (8th Cir. 2004) (quoting Krogmeier v. Barnhart, 294 F.3d 1019 (8th Cir. 2002)).
The Plaintiff has the burden of producing documents and evidence to support his or her claimed
RFC. See Cox, 160 F.3d at1206; 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A).
The ALJ, however, bears the primary responsibility for making the RFC determination and
for ensuring there is “some medical evidence” regarding the claimant’s “ability to function in the
workplace” that supports the RFC determination. Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700, 703-04 (8th Cir.
2001). Furthermore, this Court is required to affirm the ALJ’s RFC determination if that
determination is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. See McKinney v. Apfel,
228 F.3d 860, 862 (8th Cir. 2000).
In this matter, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the RFC for light work. (Tr. 36, Finding 6).
Plaintiff claims substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s RFC determination because the ALJ
erred in his treatment of the opinions of his treating physician, Dr. Joseph Sarnicki. ECF No. 7, Pgs.
4-7. Defendant argues the ALJ considered these opinions but properly disregarded them for being
inconsistent with the evidence in the record. ECF No. 9, Pgs, 4-5.
Social Security Regulations and case law state that a treating physician's opinion will be
granted “controlling weight,” provided it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the]
record.” See SSR 96-2p; Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012-13 (8th Cir. 2000)(citing 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1527(d)(2)). An ALJ is required to give good reasons for the particular weight given to a
treating physician’s evaluation. See Prosch, 201 F.3d at1013 (citing 20 C.F.R § 404.1527(d)(2), and
SSR 96-2p). An ALJ may disregard the opinion of a treating physician only where other medical
assessments “are supported by better or more thorough medical evidence,” or where a treating
physician renders inconsistent opinions that undermine the credibility of such opinions. Id. at 1013
(quoting Rogers v. Chater, 118 F.3d 600, 602 (8th Cir. 1997), and Cruze v. Chater, 85 F.3d 1320,
1324-25 (8th Cir. 1996)).
Plaintiff was first seen by his treating physician, Dr. Sarnicki, on May 12, 2009. (Tr. 231).
Plaintiff complained of spine pain to degenerative disc disease and pain all over her body. Id. Dr.
Sarnicki indicated Plaintiff had back surgery in 1993. Id. Plaintiff returned to see Dr. Sarnicki on
May 29, 2009. (Tr. 224). Plaintiff had new complaints of chest pain and radicular pain down her
left arm and was referred to a cardiologist. Id. Following Plaintiff’s referral to a cardiologist, she
underwent a left heart catheterization on July 16, 2009. (Tr. 250-255).
Plaintiff returned to Dr. Sarnicki on November 2, 2009. (Tr. 275). Plaintiff had low back
pain due to previous herniated nucleus pulposus. Id. Plaintiff was also treated for hypertension. Id.
On January 5, 2010, Plaintiff returned to see Dr. Sarnicki. (Tr. 272). Plaintiff had complaints of
shoulder pain and had her blood pressure checked. Id. Plaintiff returned to Dr. Sarnicki on February
2, 2010 with similar complaints. (Tr. 278).
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in his treatment of the opinions of his treating physician, Dr.
Sarnicki. In his opinion, the ALJ stated the following regarding his review of Dr. Sarnicki’s
treatment of Plaintiff:
“Joseph Sarnicki, D.O., claimant’s general practitioner, opined on October 21, 2009
that the claimant is unable to work (Exhibit 15F2) (TR 270). However, the
determination of disability is reserved to the Commissioner under 20 C.F.R. §
416.927(e). This opinion is conclusory, intrudes upon the ultimate issue of disability
reserved by regulation to the Commissioner and is unsupported by the objective
evidence. Therefore, the undersigned assigns no weight to this opinion.”
(Tr. 38) (emphasis added).
On October 21, 2009, Dr. Sarnicki indicated Plaintiff was being treated for moderately
severe hypertensive cardiovascular disease, chronic low back pain secondary to “probable”
degenerative disk disease versus herniated disk, atypical chest pain, and arthralgias (joint pains)
with positive ANA. (Tr. 270). Dr. Sarnicki indicated Plaintiff was seeing other physicians for these
conditions, required multiple medications for these conditions, and he did not believe she was
capable of working. Id. Dr. Sarnicki gave similar statements when in correspondence dated
December 8, 2011, he felt Plaintiff was functionally disabled due to multiple medical and
orthopedic problems. (Tr. 292).
Defendant is correct in stating the ALJ was not required to give controlling weight to the
opinion of Dr. Sarnicki regarding Plaintiff being “disabled” because opinions that a Plaintiff is
disabled or unable to work concern issues reserved for the ALJ. See Vossen v. Astrue, 612 F.3d
1011, 1015 (8th Cir. 2010). However, in this matter it was error to give Dr. Sarnicki’s opinions no
weight and to make no other findings or discussion regarding Dr. Sarnicki’s treatment of Plaintiff.
In his opinion, the ALJ only mentioned Dr. Sarnicki’s report from October 21, 2009. (Tr.
38). He then stated he gave that opinion no weight because it was conclusory, unsupported and
intruded on the ultimate issue of disability. Id. There was no further discussion or detail given by
the ALJ regarding Dr. Sarnicki’s other treatment or opinions or the basis for discounting them.
The ALJ has the responsibility to determine which findings are inconsistent and which
opinions should be given greater weight than other opinions. See Brown v. Astrue, 611 F.3d 941,
951-52. However, when an ALJ determines that a treating physician’s opinion should be
discounted, “he should give good reasons for doing so.” Id. (internal quotation and citation
omitted). In this matter, The ALJ’s complete lack of analysis and review certainly does not amount
to “good reasons” for discounting Dr. Sarnicki’s findings. See Brown, 611 F.3d at 951-52.
Furthermore, the record does not contain other medical assessments which are supported by better
or more thorough medical evidence as required by SSR 96-2p in order to disregard a treating
In this matter substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s decision of Plaintiff being not
disabled because the ALJ failed to properly analyze the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating physician,
Dr. Sarnicki. Because the ALJ did not properly review the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating physician,
this case should be reversed and remanded for proper review and analysis of the opinions of Dr.
Sarnicki. Upon remand, the ALJ may still find Plaintiff not disabled, however a proper and
complete analysis pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2) must be performed.2
Based on the foregoing, the undersigned finds that the decision of the ALJ, denying benefits
to Plaintiff, is not supported by substantial evidence and should be reversed and remanded. A
judgment incorporating these findings will be entered pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure
52 and 58.
ENTERED this 18th day of February 2013.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Based on these findings, I do not find it necessary to reach to other points of error raised by the Plaintiff in this
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