Price v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable James R. Marschewski on February 26, 2013. (lw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
FORT SMITH DIVISION
Civil No. 12-2036
CAROLYN W. COLVIN1, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Christy Price, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of
a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her claim
for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (hereinafter “the Act”),
42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). 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 filed her application for DIB on September 29, 2009, alleging an onset date of April 1,
2009, due to degenerative disk disease (“DDD”) of the lumbar spine with radiculopathy, bilateral carpal
tunnel syndrome (“CTS”), personality disorder, mood disorder, dyslexia, and post traumatic stress
disorder (“PTSD”). Tr. 83-84, 165-166, 196, 258-259, 274, 294, 307. The Commissioner denied
Plaintiff’s application initially and on reconsideration. Tr.83-92. An administrative hearing was held
on May 3, 2011. Tr. 27-82. Plaintiff was present and represented by counsel.
At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 43 years old , possessed a high school education, and
was enrolled in college to obtain an Associate’s Degree in Health Information Technology (medical
billing, coding, and transcription). Tr. 33-34. The previous semester she had taken nine hours, and was
Carolyn W. Colvin became the Social Security Commissioner on February 14, 2013. Pursuant to Rule 25(d)(1)
of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Carolyn W. Colvin has been substituted for Commissioner Michael J. Astrue as the
defendant in this suit.
enrolled in twelve hours on the date of the hearing. Tr. 34. Plaintiff had past relevant work (“PRW”)
experience as a receiving clerk, department manager, cashier/supervisor, doorkeeper/greeter, and baker.
Tr. 18, 35-42, 211-218, 283-289.
On October 17, 2011, the ALJ found Plaintiff’s lumbar DDD status post fusion with
radiculopathy, bilateral CTS, mood disorder, PTSD, and personality disorder to be severe, but concluded
they did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation
No. 4. Tr. 12-14. After partially discrediting Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, the ALJ determined that
Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, but must avoid
frequent rapid, repetitive flexion/extension of the wrists bilaterally and is limited to only occasional
climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. Further, he concluded that she was
able to perform work where the interpersonal contact was routine but superficial, the complexity of the
tasks was learned by experience with several variables and judgment within limits, and the supervision
required is little for routine but detailed for non-routine work. Tr. 14-18. With the assistance of a
vocational expert, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform work as an industrial order clerk,
reconsignment clerk, traffic clerk, auction clerk, cashier at a check cashing agency, and a food checker.
Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council, but said request for review was denied
on January 19, 2012. Tr. 1-4. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. ECF No. 1. This case is before
the undersigned by consent of the parties. Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now
ready for decision. ECF Nos. 11, 13.
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.
It is well-established that a claimant for Social Security disability benefits has the burden of
proving her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one year and
that prevents her 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 or her
disability, not simply their 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(a)- (f)(2003). Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider
the plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience in light of his or her residual functional capacity. See
McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C .F.R. § § 404.1520, 416.920 (2003).
Of particular concern to the undersigned is the ALJ’s RFC determination. RFC is the most a
person can do despite that person’s limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). A disability claimant has
the burden of establishing his or her RFC. See Masterson v. Barnhart, 363 F.3d 731, 737 (8th Cir. 2004).
“The ALJ determines a claimant’s RFC based on all relevant evidence in the record, including medical
records, observations of treating physicians and others, and the claimant’s own descriptions of his or her
limitations.” Davidson v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 838, 844 (8th Cir. 2009); see also Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d
963, 971 (8th Cir. 2010) (ALJ is responsible for determining RFC based on all relevant evidence,
including medical records, observations of treating physicians and others, and claimant’s own description
of his limitations). 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); see also Jones, 619 F.3d at 971 (RFC finding must be
supported by some medical evidence).
In the present case, Plaintiff suffers from bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. In November 2008,
she underwent right carpal tunnel release surgery. Tr. 379, 391-395, 412, 428-429. In May 2009,
Plaintiff had surgery performed on her left wrist. Tr. 386-388, 395-399, 406, 426-427. Plaintiff
underwent a general physical examination with Dr. Michael Westbrook on January 13, 2010, which
revealed a decreased grip strength bilaterally and resulted in diagnoses of osteoarthritis of the thumb and
bilateral CTS. However, he improperly interpreted Dr. Westbrook’s failure to comment on Plaintiff’s
limitations as an indication that Plaintiff had no such limitations. See Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935
(8th Cir. 2009) (quoting Hutsell v. Massanari, 259 F.3d 707, 712 (8th Cir. 2001) (“A treating doctor’s
silence on the claimant’s work capacity does not constitute substantial evidence supporting ALJ’s
functional capacity determination when the doctor was not asked to express an opinion on the matter and
did not do so, particularly when that doctor did not discharge the claimant from treatment.”). Relying
solely on the assessment of a non-examining, consultative doctor, the ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff
must only avoid frequent rapid, repetitive flexion/extension of the wrists bilaterally. See Jenkins v.
Apfel, 196 F.3d 922, 925 (8th Cir. 1999) (holding that the opinion of a consulting physician who
examined the plaintiff once or not at all does not generally constitute substantial evidence). However,
he made no findings regarding Plaintiff’s ability to handle and finger, and failed to consider her reduced
grip strength. We note that repetitive tasks that require bending of the wrists or grasping with the hands,
including typing, cutting, sewing, playing a musical instrument, overuse of small hand tools, and use of
vibrating tools are factors that can contribute to the development of CTS. See PHYSICIAN’S DESK
REFERENCE, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, http://www.pdrhealth.com/diseases/carpal-tunnel-syndrome (Last
accessed February 25, 2013). It seems reasonable that an individual who has undergone surgical
correction for CTS might need to avoid these activities, which do not just involve the rapid and repetitive
use of their wrists, in order to prevent further complications. Accordingly, remand is necessary to allow
the ALJ to reassess the limitations imposed by Plaintiff’s CTS.2
Our review of the record also reveals that the ALJ failed to conduct a proper credibility analysis
as is required by Polaski. And, while we note that Polaski does not require that the ALJ methodically
While we do note that Plaintiff was attending college, taking 12 hours, we also note that special accommodations
were made for her, given her learning and physical disabilities. Plaintiff indicated that she was afforded additional time to
write essays and to stop typing or writing whenever necessary with additional assistance from the professors after class. Tr.
57, 66. In fact, the evaluation conducted by Arkansas Rehabilitation Services indicated that she would have frequent
mistakes in written work performance; limited ability to write on the job; difficulty reading advanced technical materials;
difficulties in studying independently requiring special instructional methods; difficulty with advanced computation or
mathematics; and, difficulty with spelling tasks. Tr. 565-568.
discuss all of the evidence, he is required to provide reasons for his credibility determination. See
Juszczyk v. Astrue, 542 F.3d 626, 632 (8th Cir.2008) (holding if ALJ explicitly discredits the claimant's
testimony and gives good reason for doing so, appellate court will defer to the ALJ's credibility
determination). He did not do so in this case. Instead, he merely recited Plaintiff’s testimony and the
medical evidence, and concluded that her limitations were not as severe as she alleged.
inconsistencies were pointed out, and no reasons were included in his analysis. Therefore, remand is
also necessary to allow the ALJ to perform a proper credibility analysis.
Accordingly, we conclude that the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence and
should be reversed and remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration pursuant to sentence
four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
DATED this 26th day of February 2013.
HON. JAMES R. MARSCHEWSKI
CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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