Stringer v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on October 9, 2012. (lw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
FORT SMITH DIVISION
ANTHONY P. STRINGER
CIVIL NO. 11-2219
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a
decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying
his claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental
security income (SSI) benefits under the provisions of Titles II and XVI of the Social Security
Act (Act). In this judicial review, the Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence
in the administrative record to support the Commissioner's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Plaintiff protectively filed his current applications for DIB and SSI on March 31, 2008,
alleging an inability to work since March 14, 2008, due to degenerative disc disease, depression,
and substance abuse early remission. (Tr. 118, 122). For DIB purposes, Plaintiff maintained
insured status through June 30, 2008. (Tr. 8, 126). An administrative hearing was held on June
16, 2009, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 25-61).
By written decision dated February 19, 2010, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 10).
Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc
disease, depression, and substance abuse in early remission. However, after reviewing all of the
evidence presented, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or equal the
level of severity of any impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments found in Appendix I,
Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. (Tr. 10). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional
capacity (RFC) to:
perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except
such work should be unskilled and require only incidental interaction with others.
(Doc. 12). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work
as a warehouse worker, a conveyor feeder/off-bearer, and a dump truck driver. (Tr. 14, 191215).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on October 25, 2011. (Tr. 1-4). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action.
(Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 5).
Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 11, 12).
The Court has reviewed the entire transcript. The complete set of facts and arguments
are presented in the parties’ briefs, and are repeated here only to the extent necessary.
This Court's role is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by
substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir.
2002). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but it is enough that a reasonable mind
would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's decision. The ALJ's decision must be
affirmed if the record contains substantial evidence to support it. Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d
964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003). 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. Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). In other
words, 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. 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 disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one
year and that prevents him from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. Pearsall v.
Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir.2001); see also 42 U.S.C. § § 423(d)(1)(A),
1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act defines “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 disability, not simply his impairment, has lasted for
at least twelve consecutive months.
The Commissioner’s regulations require him to apply a five-step sequential evaluation
process to each claim for disability benefits: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial
gainful activity since filing his claim; (2) whether the claimant has a severe physical and/or
mental impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment(s) meet or equal
an impairment in the listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevent the claimant from doing past
relevant work; and, (5) whether the claimant is able to perform other work in the national
economy given his age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Only
if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff’s age, education, and work
experience in light of his residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138,
1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in concluding that the Plaintiff was not disabled
because (1) the ALJ erred in the weight given to the medical opinion evidence; and (2) the ALJ
erred in making the RFC determination. Defendant argues substantial evidence supports the
In order to have insured status under the Act, an individual is required to have twenty
quarters of coverage in each forty-quarter period ending with the first quarter of disability. 42
U.S.C. § 416(i)(3)(B). Plaintiff last met this requirement on June 30, 2008. Regarding
Plaintiff’s application for DIB, the overreaching issue in this case is the question of whether
Plaintiff was disabled during the relevant time period of March 14, 2008, his alleged onset date
of disability, through June 30, 2008, the last date he was in insured status under Title II of the
In order for Plaintiff to qualify for DIB he must prove that, on or before the expiration
of his insured status he was unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically
determinable physical or mental impairment which is expected to last for at least twelve months
or result in death. Basinger v. Heckler, 725 F.2d 1166, 1168 (8th Cir. 1984). Records and
medical opinions from outside the insured period can only be used in “helping to elucidate a
medical condition during the time for which benefits might be rewarded.” Cox v. Barnhart, 471
F.3d 902, 907 (8th Cir.2006) (holding that the parties must focus their attention on claimant's
condition at the time she last met insured status requirements).
RFC Determination and Weight Given to Medical Opinions:
RFC is the most a person can do despite that person’s limitations. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(1). It is assessed using all relevant evidence in the record. Id. This includes medical
records, observations of treating physicians and others, and the claimant’s own descriptions of
his limitations. Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005); Eichelberger v.
Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004). Limitations resulting from symptoms such as pain
are also factored into the assessment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). The United States Court of
Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has held that a “claimant’s residual functional capacity is a
medical question.” Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700, 704 (8th Cir. 2001). Therefore, an ALJ’s
determination concerning a claimant’s RFC must be supported by medical evidence that
addresses the claimant’s ability to function in the workplace. Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642,
646 (8th Cir. 2003). “[T]he ALJ is [also] required to set forth specifically a claimant’s
limitations and to determine how those limitations affect his RFC.” Id.
In determining that Plaintiff maintained the RFC to perform medium work with
limitations, the ALJ considered the medical assessments of the non-examining agency medical
consultants; the assessments completed by “other source” medical professionals including, Dr.
Marie Pham, an APN; Plaintiff’s subjective complaints; and his medical records. As pointed out
by Plaintiff, the ALJ mistakenly found that Dr. Stephanie Frisbie completed the June of 2008
consultative examination and gave the opinion “great weight,” when it appears from the record
that Nurse Pham actually completed this examination. (Tr. 220). However, the record further
reveals that the non-examining medical consultants who reviewed Plaintiff’s medical records,
including the findings of Nurse Pham, also opined that Plaintiff could perform the RFC
determined by the ALJ. (Tr. 234, 367). The Court finds, based upon the well-stated reasons
outlined in the Defendant’s brief, that Plaintiff’s argument is without merit, and there was
sufficient evidence for the ALJ to make an informed decision. Therefore, the Court finds there
is substantial evidence of record to support the ALJ’s RFC findings.
Subjective Complaints and Credibility Analysis:
The ALJ was required to consider all the evidence relating to Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints including evidence presented by third parties that relates to: (1) Plaintiff’s daily
activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of his pain; (3) precipitating and aggravating
factors; (4) dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of his medication; and (5) functional
restrictions. See Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir. 1984). While an ALJ may not
discount a claimant’s subjective complaints solely because the medical evidence fails to support
them, an ALJ may discount those complaints where inconsistencies appear in the record as a
whole. Id. As the Eighth Circuit has observed, “Our touchstone is that [a claimant’s] credibility
is primarily a matter for the ALJ to decide.” Edwards, 314 F.3d at 966.
Based on the record as a whole, the Court finds that the ALJ properly considered and
evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, including the Polaski factors; and that there is
substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s credibility findings.
Hypothetical Question to the Vocational Expert:
After thoroughly reviewing the hearing transcript along with the entire evidence of
record, the Court finds that the hypothetical the ALJ posed to the vocational expert fully set forth
the impairments which the ALJ accepted as true and which were supported by the record as a
whole. Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 794 (8th Cir. 2005). Accordingly, the Court finds that the
vocational expert's opinion constitutes substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's conclusion that
Plaintiff's impairments did not preclude him from performing work as a warehouse worker, a
conveyor feeder/off-bearer, and a dump truck driver. Pickney v. Chater, 96 F.3d 294, 296 (8th
Cir. 1996)(testimony from vocational expert based on properly phrased hypothetical question
constitutes substantial evidence).
Accordingly, having carefully reviewed the record, the undersigned finds substantial
evidence supporting the ALJ's decision denying the Plaintiff benefits, and thus the decision
should be affirmed. The undersigned further finds that the Plaintiff’s Complaint should be
dismissed with prejudice.
DATED this 9th day of October, 2012.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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