Clemons v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on June 9, 2017. (cnn)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
EL DORADO DIVISION
Civil No. 1:16-cv-01048
NANCY A. BERRYHILL
Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Wendie Clemons (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to § 205(g) of Title II of the Social
Security Act (“The Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2010), seeking judicial review of a final decision of
the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying her application for a
period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) 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 post-judgment proceedings. ECF No. 7. Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues
this memorandum opinion and orders the entry of a final judgment in this matter.
Plaintiff protectively filed her DIB application on September 6, 2013. (Tr. 8). In this
application, Plaintiff alleges being disabled due to high blood pressure, diabetes, back surgery,
neuropathy, and severe migraines. (Tr. 145). Plaintiff alleges an onset date of September 6, 2013.
(Tr. 8). This application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 47-70).
Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her application. (Tr. 79-80). This request
was granted, and Plaintiff’s administrative hearing was held on December 17, 2014 in El Dorado,
Arkansas. (Tr. 30-46). At this hearing, Plaintiff was present and was represented by counsel, Mary
Thomason. Id. Plaintiff and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Elizabeth Clem testified at this hearing. Id.
During this hearing, Plaintiff testified she was thirty-nine (39) years old, which is defined as a
“younger person” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c). (Tr. 33). As for her education, Plaintiff testified
she had completed “some college.” Id.
On March 10, 2015, after the administrative hearing, the ALJ entered a fully unfavorable
decision denying Plaintiff’s application. (Tr. 5-23). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had not engaged
in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since September 6, 2013, her alleged onset date. (Tr. 10,
Finding 2). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “diabetes mellitus,
migraine headaches, epilepsy and recurrent seizures (not supported by objective testing, diagnosis
only), hypertension, obesity, and degenerative disc disease of the spine (Exhibits 1F-10F). The
above impairments cause limitations or restrictions having more than a minimal effect on the
claimant’s ability to do basic work-related activities; and therefore, are found to be severe.” (Tr. 1013, Finding 3). The ALJ also determined Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or medically equal
the requirements of any of the Listings of Impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Regulations
No. 4 (“Listings”). (Tr. 13-15, Finding 4).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her RFC.
(Tr. 15-22, Finding 5). First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found her
claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained
the capacity to perform the following:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the
claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined
in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except reduced further with the additional limitations: The
claimant can occasionally climb, balance, stoop, crouch, crawl, and kneel; and, she
must also work in an environment free from temperature extremes, very noisy work
places, and exposure to respiratory irritant such as dust, fumes, and gases; and, she
should have no exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights, moving machinery,
and open flames.
The ALJ then evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 15-22, Finding 5).
The VE testified at the administrative hearing regarding this issue. Based upon this testimony and
considering her RFC, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform her PRW as a
dispatcher (semiskilled, sedentary). (Tr. 23, Finding 6). Because Plaintiff retained the capacity to
perform her PRW, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the
Act, from September 6, 2013 (application date) through March 10, 2015 (ALJ’s decision date). (Tr.
23, Finding 7).
Plaintiff sought review with the Appeals Council. (Tr. 28). On April 19, 2016, the Appeals
Council denied her request for review. (Tr. 1-3). On June 7, 2016, Plaintiff filed her Complaint in
this case. ECF No. 1. Both Parties have filed appeal briefs and have consented to the jurisdiction
of this Court. ECF Nos. 7, 11-12. This case is now ready for decision.
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)
(2010); 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 following: (A) the ALJ erred in not considering the
opinions of her treating physician; and (B) the ALJ improperly determined she could return to her
PRW. ECF No. 11 at 10-15. The Court will consider both of these arguments.
Plaintiff claims the ALJ did not properly evaluate the findings of her treating physician. ECF
No. 11 at 10-12. In his opinion, however, the ALJ considered, in great detail, the findings of her
treating physician, Dr. Joseph Sarnicki. (Tr. 17-18, 222, 253-254).
Furthermore, although Dr. Sarnicki is Plaintiff’s treating physician, his opinions are one-page
letter opinions that supply no more than conclusory findings. The ALJ noted as much stating that
Dr. Sarnicki’s opinions were apparently based upon Plaintiff’s “subjective allegations at face value.”
(Tr. 17). Accordingly, the Court finds the ALJ did not err in discounting those findings.
Past Relevant Work
Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred in finding she retained the capacity to perform her PRW. ECF
No. 11 at 12-16. Specifically, she claims that due to her seizures and vision problems, she would
be unable to work as a dispatcher. Id. In support of her claim that she suffers from these limitations,
Plaintiff again references the findings of Dr. Sarnicki. Id. As noted above, however, the ALJ
properly discounted the findings of Dr. Sarnicki. Thus, the Court also finds no basis for reversal on
Based on the foregoing, the undersigned finds that the decision of the ALJ, denying benefits
to Plaintiff, is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. A judgment incorporating
these findings will be entered pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 52 and 58.
ENTERED this 9th day of June 2017.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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