Hardiman v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on June 19, 2017. (cnn)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
EL DORADO DIVISION
BETTY L. HARDIMAN
Civil No. 1:16-cv-01067
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Betty Hardiman (“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 applications for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and
XVI 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. 8.1 Pursuant to this authority, the Court
issues this memorandum opinion and orders the entry of a final judgment in this matter.
Plaintiff’s application for DIB and SSI were filed on April 30, 2013. (Tr. 125, 291-305).
Plaintiff alleged she was disabled due to cervical paraspinal muscle spasm, degenerative disease of
the left knee, and stress headaches. (Tr. 325). Plaintiff alleged an onset date of April 25, 2013. (Tr.
125, 325). These applications were denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 125).
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.”
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her applications and this hearing request
was granted. (Tr. 237).
Plaintiff’s administrative hearing was held on October 23, 2014. (Tr. 139-165). Plaintiff
was present and was represented by counsel, Mary Thomason, at this hearing. Id. Plaintiff, her
supervisor, Ronald Hickman, and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Mack Smith, testified at the hearing.
Id. At the time of this hearing, Plaintiff was fifty-four (54) years old and had obtained a GED. (Tr.
On March 25, 2015, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s application
for DIB and SSI. (Tr. 125-134). In this decision, the ALJ determined Plaintiff met the insured status
requirements of the Act through December 31, 2017. (Tr. 127, Finding 1). The ALJ also determined
Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since April 25, 2013. (Tr. 127,
The ALJ also determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of chronic back pain, neck
pain, right shoulder pain, bilateral knee pain, asthma, and headaches. (Tr. 127, Finding 3). The ALJ
then determined Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or medically equal the requirements of any of
the Listing of Impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Regulations No. 4 (“Listings”). (Tr. 128,
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her RFC.
(Tr. 129-133). First, the ALJ indicated he evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found her
claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained
the RFC to perform light work; could lift or carry up to twenty pounds and ten pounds frequently;
could stand or walk for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; could sit for
up to six hours in an eight-hour workday; could stoop, crouch, crawl and kneel only occasionally;
must avoid exposure to respiratory irritants, i.e., dust, fumes, strong odors and temperature extremes;
could perform work where interpersonal contact was incidental to the work performed (with
incidental defined as interpersonal contact requiring a limited degree of interaction, i.e., meeting and
greeting the public, answering simple questions, accepting payment and making changes; where the
complexity of the tasks could be learned by demonstration or repetition within 30 days); where the
tasks required few variables and little judgment; and where the supervision required was simple,
direct and concrete. (Tr. 129, Finding 5).
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's Past Relevant Work ("PRW"). (Tr. 133, Finding 6). The ALJ
found Plaintiff was unable to perform her PRW. Id. The ALJ, however, also determined there was
other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff could perform. (Tr.
134, Finding 10). The ALJ based this determination upon the testimony of the VE. Id. Specifically,
the VE testified that given all Plaintiff's vocational factors, a hypothetical individual would be able
to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as office helper with 1,200 such jobs
in the region and 68,000 such jobs in the nation. Id. Based upon this finding, the ALJ determined
Plaintiff had not been under a disability as defined by the Act from April 25, 2013, through the date
of the decision. (Tr. 134, Finding 11).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s decision. (Tr. 120-121).
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.968. The Appeals Council declined to review this unfavorable decision. (Tr.
1-5). On July 13, 2016, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. The Parties consented to the
jurisdiction of this Court on August 8, 2016. ECF No. 8. Both Parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF
Nos. 12, 13. 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).
Plaintiff brings the present appeal claiming the ALJ erred: (A) in the weight given the
opinions of Plaintiff’s physician, (B) in failing to properly consider Plaintiff’s complaints of pain,
(C) in failing to consider all of Plaintiff’s impairments in combination, and (D) in the Step 5
determination. ECF No. 12, Pgs. 10-17. In response, the Defendant argues the ALJ did not err in
any of his findings. ECF No. 13.
A. ALJ’s Treatment of Treating Physician Opinions
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 argues the ALJ improperly discredited the objective findings of Dr. Joseph Deluca
in assessing Plaintiff’s RFC. ECF No. 12, Pgs. 10-13. However, Plaintiff’s argument is without
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in his consideration of the opinions of Dr. Deluca.
Specifically, Plaintiff refers to Dr. Deluca’s opinion of October 21, 2014 which stated:
Betty Hardiman is a 54-year-old patient of mine with the following medical
diagnoses: chronic back pain, chronic right shoulder pain, insomnia, and migraine
headaches. Recent MRI revealed cervical spinal stenosis, and degenerative disc
disease and osteoarthritis of the cervical spine.
Her recent physical exam on 10/20/14 revealed her vital signs to be stable. She had
muscle spasm and severe pain on motion of her cervical spine. She had painful range
of motion of her right shoulder. The remainder of her physical exam was within
Ms. Hardiman has difficulty with activities of daily living due to her cervical spinal
disease. Due to the severity of her disease, and the fact that she has been refractory
to a host of medical interventions, I have advised Ms. Hardiman to pursue disability.
The ALJ said he gave the opinions of Dr. Deluca “some consideration.” (Tr. 132). In his
opinion, he set forth reasons for his treatment of the opinions of Dr. Deluca. These included no
evidence of more aggressive treatment, examination was essentially normal, the overall treatment
record, and employment after the alleged onset date. Id. The ALJ gave the opinion some
consideration by finding Plaintiff was not capable of performing her past relevant work, which was
at the heavy level. (Tr. 132). The ALJ’s decision accounted for the objective findings in the record
by restricting Plaintiff to light work with postural limitations, but properly noted the overall record
did not preclude all work activity.
The ALJ properly decided to give little weight to the restrictive limitations found by Dr.
Deluca. The ALJ committed no error in his treatment of medical opinions from Plaintiff’s physician.
B. ALJ’s Credibility Determination
Plaintiff also claims the ALJ erred in his credibility determination. ECF No. 12, Pgs. 13-15.
In response, Defendant argues the ALJ properly evaluated and discredited Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints pursuant to the directives of Polaski. ECF No. 13.
In assessing the credibility of a claimant, the ALJ is required to examine and to apply the
five factors from Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320 (8th Cir. 1984) or from 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529
and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929.2 See Shultz v. Astrue, 479 F.3d 979, 983 (2007). The factors to consider
are as follows: (1) the claimant’s daily activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of the
pain; (3) the precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) the dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of
medication; and (5) the functional restrictions. See Polaski, 739 at 1322.
The factors must be analyzed and considered in light of the claimant’s subjective complaints
Social Security Regulations 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929 require the analysis of two
additional factors: (1) “treatment, other than medication, you receive or have received for relief of your pain or other
symptoms” and (2) “any measures you use or have used to relieve your pain or symptoms (e.g., lying flat on your
back, standing for 15 to 20 minutes every hour, sleeping on a board, etc.).” However, under Polaski and its progeny,
the Eighth Circuit has not yet required the analysis of these additional factors. See Shultz v. Astrue, 479 F.3d 979,
983 (2007). Thus, this Court will not require the analysis of these additional factors in this case.
of pain. See id. The ALJ is not required to methodically discuss each factor as long as the ALJ
acknowledges and examines these factors prior to discounting the claimant’s subjective complaints.
See Lowe v. Apfel, 226 F.3d 969, 971-72 (8th Cir. 2000). As long as the ALJ properly applies these
five factors and gives several valid reasons for finding the Plaintiff’s subjective complaints are not
entirely credible, the ALJ’s credibility determination is entitled to deference. See id.; Cox v.
Barnhart, 471 F.3d 902, 907 (8th Cir. 2006). The ALJ, however, cannot discount Plaintiff’s
subjective complaints “solely because the objective medical evidence does not fully support them
[the subjective complaints].” Polaski, 739 F.2d at 1322.
When discounting a claimant’s complaint of pain, the ALJ must make a specific credibility
determination, articulating the reasons for discrediting the testimony, addressing any
inconsistencies, and discussing the Polaski factors. See Baker v. Apfel, 159 F.3d 1140, 1144 (8th
Cir. 1998). The inability to work without some pain or discomfort is not a sufficient reason to find
a Plaintiff disabled within the strict definition of the Act. The issue is not the existence of pain, but
whether the pain a Plaintiff experiences precludes the performance of substantial gainful activity.
See Thomas v. Sullivan, 928 F.2d 255, 259 (8th Cir. 1991).
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in assessing her credibility as it related to the limiting effects
of her impairments and did not fully consider her subjective complaints. The Defendant argues the
ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints of pain in compliance with Polaski.
In the present action, this Court finds the ALJ properly addressed and discounted Plaintiff’s
subjective complaints. In his opinion, the ALJ addressed the factors from Polaski, 20 C.F.R. §
404.1529, and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929, and stated inconsistencies between Plaintiff’s testimony and the
record. (Tr. 130-133). Specifically, the ALJ noted the following: (1) Absence of objective medical
findings to support Plaintiff’s alleged disabling pain, (2) Plaintiff’s described activities of daily living
are not limited to any serious degree, (3) Conservative medical treatment, (4) Medications were
effective in treatment, and (5) Employment following onset date. Id.
These findings are valid reasons supporting the ALJ’s credibility determination, and this
Court finds the ALJ’s credibility determination is supported by substantial evidence and should be
affirmed. See Lowe, 226 F.3d at 971-72. Accordingly, the ALJ did not err in discounting Plaintiff
complaints of pain.
C. Combination of Impairments
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by failing to consider all of her impairments in combination
However, under the facts in the present case and after a thorough review of the ALJ’s opinion and
the record in this case, this Court finds the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff’s impairments in
The Social Security Act requires the ALJ to consider the combined effect of all of the
claimant’s impairments without regard to whether any such impairment, if considered separately,
would be of sufficient severity. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523 (2006). In the present action, in reviewing
these claimed impairments, the ALJ stated Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination
of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (Tr. 128, Finding 4) (emphasis added). The ALJ also found, “after
consideration of the entire record,” the Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with some
limitations. (Tr. 129, Finding 5). The ALJ went on to state Plaintiff’s RFC would not preclude her
from performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 133,
These statements are sufficient under Eighth Circuit precedent to establish that the ALJ
properly considered the combined effect of a claimant’s impairments. See Hajek v. Shalala, 30 F.3d
89, 92 (8th Cir. 1994) (holding that statements such as “the evidence as a whole does not show that
the claimant’s symptoms . . . preclude his past work as a janitor” and “[t]he claimant’s impairments
do not prevent him from performing janitorial work . . .” sufficiently establish that the ALJ properly
considered the combined effects of the plaintiff’s impairments).
Thus, pursuant to the Eighth Circuit’s holding in Hajek, this Court finds the ALJ properly
considered Plaintiff’s impairments in combination. Plaintiff has alleged she suffers from a number
of impairments. However, this Court is not required to find a claimant is disabled simply because
he or she has alleged a long list of medical problems. The ALJ’s opinion sufficiently indicates the
ALJ properly considered the combined effect of Plaintiff’s impairments, and the ALJ properly
considered the severity of the combination of Plaintiff’s impairments. See Hajek, 30 F.3d at 92.
D. Step 5 Determination
At Step Five of a disability determination, the SSA has the burden of establishing that a
claimant retains the ability to perform other work in the economy. See Snead v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d
838, 836 (8th Cir. 2004). The SSA may meet this burden by either applying the Grids or by relying
upon the testimony of a VE. See Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 614, 621 (8th Cir. 2004) (finding the
SSA’s denial of benefits was supported by substantial evidence where the VE’s testimony was based
on a correctly-phrased hypothetical question); Patrick v. Barnhart, 323 F.3d 592, 596 (8th Cir. 2003)
(finding the SSA’s denial of benefits was supported by substantial evidence where the ALJ applied
The SSA may not apply the Grids, and must hear testimony from a VE, where a claimant’s
RFC is significantly diminished by a nonexertional limitation. See McGeorge v. Barnhart, 321 F.3d
766, 768-769 (8th Cir. 2003). If, however, the SSA properly determines a claimant’s RFC is not
significantly diminished by a nonexertional limitation, then the SSA may rely exclusively upon the
Grids and is not required to hear the testimony from a VE. See McGeorge, 321 F.3d at 768-769.
In this matter, the ALJ heard testimony from a VE regarding Plaintiff’s ability to perform
work in the national economy. It is generally accepted that VE testimony, in response to a
hypothetical question, is substantial evidence if the hypothetical sets forth the credible impairments
with reasonable precision. See Starr v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1006 (8th Cir. 1992). It has further been
established the ALJ must only include in the hypothetical those impairments which the ALJ actually
finds credible, and not those which he rejects, assuming his findings are supported by substantial
evidence. See Onstad v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1232 (8th Cir. 1993).
The ALJ found Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with limitations. (Tr. 129,
Finding 5). In response to a hypothetical question containing these limitations, the VE testified work
existed in the national economy consistent with the limitations found by the ALJ. (Tr. 158-159).
The ALJ found a significant number of jobs existed in the national economy which Plaintiff could
perform. (Tr. 134, Finding 10). Relying on the VE testimony, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not under
a disability as defined by the Act. (Tr. 134, Finding 11).
I find the ALJ's hypothetical question properly set forth those limitations the ALJ found
credible and which are supported by the evidence of record. See Haynes v. Shalala, 26 F.3d 812,
815 (8th Cir. 1994); Rappoport v. Sullivan, 942 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir. 1991) (ALJ need only
include in his hypothetical question those impairments he accepts as true). The VE stated jobs
existed in both the national and local economy for the vocational profile of the Plaintiff. Such
testimony, based on a hypothetical question consistent with the record, provided substantial
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 19th day of June 2017.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U. S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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