Couture v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on April 11, 2018. (cnn)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
EL DORADO DIVISION
PAUL ROY COUTURE
Civil No. 1:17-cv-01034
Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Paul Roy Couture (“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 his applications for a
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. 11.1 Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues
this memorandum opinion and orders the entry of a final judgment in this matter.
Plaintiff protectively filed his disability applications on October 4, 2013. (Tr. 21). In these
applications, Plaintiff alleges being disabled due to seizures. (Tr. 259). Plaintiff alleged an onset
date of March 1, 2011. Id. These applications were denied initially and again upon reconsideration.
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 November 2, 2015, Plaintiff had an administrative hearing on his applications. (Tr. 3892). Plaintiff was present and was represented by Russell J. Byrne. Id. Plaintiff, and Vocational
Expert (“VE”) Thomas Mungall III, testified at this hearing. Id. At this hearing, Plaintiff testified
he was fifty (50) years old and had a seventh grade education. (Tr. 45, 48).
On April 1, 2016, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s applications.
(Tr. 21-32). In this decision, the ALJ determined Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the
Act through September 30, 2015. (Tr. 23, Finding 1). The ALJ also found Plaintiff had not engaged
in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) since March 1, 2011, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 23, Finding
The ALJ then found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc
disease, seizure disorder and affective disorder. (Tr. 23, Finding 3). The ALJ then determined those
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. 24, Finding 4).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined his RFC.
(Tr. 25-30). First, the ALJ indicated she evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found his
claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the
RFC for medium work, except is limited to frequent climbing of ramps and stairs; never climbing
ladders, ropes or scaffolds; never balancing; and frequent stooping kneeling, crouching or crawling;
precluded from exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts or
operating a motor vehicle; limited to routine and repetitive tasks, not performed at production rate
pace; simple work-related decisions; only occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers and the
public; and few changes in a routine work setting. Id.
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 30, Finding 6). The ALJ
found Plaintiff was unable to perform any PRW. Id. The ALJ, however, also determined there was
other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 30,
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 kitchen helper with 544,148 such
jobs in the nation, housekeeping with 229,918 such jobs in the nation, and day worker with 856,481
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 March 1, 2011, through the date of the decision. (Tr.
31, Finding 11).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council’s review of the ALJ’s unfavorable
decision. (Tr. 16-17). The Appeals Council declined to review this unfavorable decision. (Tr. 2-4).
On May 19, 2017, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. Both Parties have filed appeal
briefs. ECF Nos. 16, 17. 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 his appeal brief, Plaintiff raises the following arguments for reversal: (1) the ALJ erred in
the treatment of his treating physician’s opinions, and (2) the ALJ erred in assessing his credibility.
ECF No. 16 at 10-12. In response, the Defendant argues the ALJ did not err in any of his findings.
ECF No. 17. Upon review, the Court finds the ALJ improperly evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints. Thus, the Court will only evaluate Plaintiff’s second argument for reversal.
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
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.
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.
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 that 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).
In the present action, the ALJ did not perform a Polaski evaluation. Instead of evaluating the
Polaski factors outlined above and providing valid reasons for discounting Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints, the ALJ outlined Plaintiff’s medical records and then proceeded to discount his
subjective complaints because they were not supported by the medical records.
Notably, instead of evaluating the Polaski factors as the ALJ understood she was required to
do and instead of stating inconsistencies in the record as required by Polaski, the ALJ stated the
After careful consideration of the evidence, the undersigned finds that the claimant’s
medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the
alleged symptoms; however, the claimant’s statements concerning the intensity,
persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely supported by the
objective evidence, for the reasons explained in this decision.
Other than mentioning some of Plaintiff’s medication, the ALJ made no specific findings
regarding the inconsistencies between Plaintiff’s claimed subjective complaints and the record
evidence. The ALJ must make a specific credibility determination, articulate the reasons for
discrediting the Plaintiff’s testimony, and address any inconsistencies between the testimony and the
record. The ALJ failed to perform this analysis.
The ALJ’s decision to discount Plaintiff’s subjective complaints because the medical
evidence did not support those allegations was entirely improper under Polaski. See Polaski, 739
F.2d at 1322 (recognizing the ALJ cannot discount a claimant’s subjective complaints “solely
because the objective medical evidence does not fully support them [the subjective complaints]”).
Thus, because the ALJ did not comply with the requirements of Polaski, this case must be reversed
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 11th day of April 2018.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U. S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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