Phillips v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on March 29, 2013. (rw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
FORT SMITH DIVISION
Civil No. 2:12-cv-02052
CAROLYN W. COLVIN
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Carolyn Phillips (“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 applications for a
period of disability, 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. 5.1
Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues this memorandum opinion and orders the entry of a final
judgment in this matter.
Plaintiff protectively filed her current disability applications on May 5, 2010.2 (Tr. 12, 127-
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.”
Plaintiff previously filed disability applications on October 23, 2008. (Tr. 51). Those applications were
also denied initially, on reconsideration, and at the hearing level. (Tr. 51-58). Plaintiff appealed those denials to the
United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas. Phillips v. Astrue, 2:11-cv-02007-ELS, ECF No.
1. Citing an improper RFC determination, the Honorable Judge Erin L. Setser found those denials were not
supported by substantial evidence in the record. Id. Judge Setser then reversed and remanded that case for further
development of the record. ECF Nos. 9-10. Based upon Plaintiff’s representations, that remand is still pending at
137). Plaintiff alleges she is disabled due to knee problems, back problems, and arm injuries. (Tr.
152). Plaintiff alleges an onset date of April 8, 2010. (Tr. 12). These applications were denied
initially and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 62-65).
Thereafter, on October 19, 2010, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her
applications, and this hearing request was granted. (Tr. 85-100, 23-47). Plaintiff’s administrative
hearing was held on June 14, 2011 in Clarksville, Arkansas. (Tr. 23-47). Plaintiff was present and
was represented by counsel, Abby Rice, at this hearing. Id. Plaintiff and a witness for Plaintiff
testified at this hearing. Id. At the time of this hearing, Plaintiff was fifty-one (51) years old, which
is defined as a “person closely approaching advanced age” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(d) (2008)
(DIB) and 20 C.F.R. § 416.963(d) (2008) (SSI). (Tr. 26). Plaintiff also testified she had completed
high school. Id.
On July 15, 2011, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s applications
for DIB and SSI. (Tr. 12-22). In this decision, the ALJ determined Plaintiff met the insured status
requirements of the Act through June 30, 2012. (Tr. 14, Finding 1). The ALJ determined Plaintiff
had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since April 8, 2010, her alleged onset date.
(Tr. 14, Finding 2). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairment: early
degenerative joint disease in the left knee. (Tr. 14-15, Finding 3). The ALJ also determined
Plaintiff’s impairment 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. 15, Finding 4).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her RFC.
(Tr. 15-21, Finding 5). First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found her
the administrative level. ECF No. 7.
claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained
the RFC to perform the full range of “light” work. Id. Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b), “light” work includes the following:
(b) Light work. Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with
frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds. Even though the
weight lifted may be very little, a job is in this category when it requires a good deal
of walking or standing, or when it involves sitting most of the time with some
pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls. To be considered capable of performing
a full or wide range of light work, you must have the ability to do substantially all of
these activities. If someone can do light work, we determine that he or she can also
do sedentary work, unless there are additional limiting factors such as loss of fine
dexterity or inability to sit for long periods of time.
After evaluating her RFC, the ALJ then evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 21,
Finding 6). Specifically, upon review of her PRW, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had no PRW she
could perform. Id.
Finally, the ALJ determined whether Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform other work
existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 21, Finding 10). The ALJ applied the
Medical-Vocational Guidelines or “Grids” to make that determination. Id. In accordance with Rule
202.13 of the Grids, and considering Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC for light
work, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was “not disabled.” Id. Accordingly, the ALJ determined
Plaintiff had not been under a disability as defined in the Act from April 8, 2010 through the date
of his decision or through July 15, 2011. (Tr. 21-22, Finding 11).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council’s review of the ALJ’s unfavorable
decision. (Tr. 7-8). The Appeals Council declined to review this unfavorable decision. (Tr. 1-5).
On March 12, 2012, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. The Parties consented to the
jurisdiction of this Court on April 27, 2012. ECF No. 5. Both Parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF
Nos. 7-8. 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)
(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).
In her appeal brief, Plaintiff claims the ALJ’s disability determination is not supported by
substantial evidence in the record. ECF No. 7. Specifically, Plaintiff claims the following: (1) the
ALJ erred by failing to fully and fairly develop the record; (2) the ALJ erred by failing to fully
consider her alleged mental impairments; (3) the ALJ erred in assessing the credibility of her
subjective complaints; (4) the ALJ made “multiple errors” in his RFC determination; and (5) the ALJ
erred by failing to use the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”). Id. In response, Defendant
argues the ALJ fully and fairly developed the record because he had sufficient evidence to make an
informed decision. ECF No. 8 at 4-6. Defendant also argues the ALJ properly evaluated the severity
of Plaintiff’s mental impairments, properly determined her RFC, and properly determined she
retained the capacity for other work. Id. at 6-19. Because this Court finds the ALJ erred in his RFC
determination, this Court will only address Plaintiff’s fourth argument for reversal.
As noted above, Plaintiff previously filed an appeal with the U.S. District Court for the
Western District of Arkansas. See Phillips v. Astrue, 2:11-cv-02007-ELS, ECF No. 1. This appeal
was filed because Plaintiff was denied disability benefits based upon prior applications. Id. In that
appeal, Plaintiff claimed the ALJ’s RFC determination was not supported by substantial evidence
in the record. ECF No. 7. Judge Setser agreed with that argument and reversed and remanded
Plaintiff’s case. ECF Nos. 9-10. Specifically, Judge Setser remanded Plaintiff’s case because the
RFC determination–that she retained the RFC for light work–was not supported by substantial
evidence in the record. Id. Judge Setser focused upon the fact that the ALJ in that case provided no
evidence to support her conclusion that Plaintiff retained the RFC for light work even when she
suffered from a left knee impairment. Id. As noted above, that case was remanded on February 9,
2012, and it is still pending at the administrative level. ECF No. 7.
In the present action, the ALJ also determined Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform the
full range of light work. (Tr. 15-21). This determination was made even though Plaintiff has a
documented history of knee pain. (Tr. 18). In discounting her claim left knee pain causes her to be
unable to work, the ALJ noted the following:
The claimant has alleged she is unable to work due to left knee pain. Although the
claimant has received treatment for this allegedly disabling impairment(s), that
treatment has been essentially routine and/or conservative in nature. She underwent
arthroscopic surgery and had some repair done on her knee. However, MRIs and xrays reveal only early degenerative changes that are not so severe to render her
incapable of working.
Id (emphasis added). Indeed, the ALJ summarily determined Plaintiff’s MRIs and x-rays of her left
knee do not establish she is “incapable of working.” Id. Such a determination without any
supporting evidence certainly does not provide substantial evidence for the ALJ’s determination that
Plaintiff retains the RFC for light work. This was precisely the same issue that caused Judge Setser
to remand Plaintiff’s prior action. See Phillips, 2:11-cv-02007-ELS, ECF Nos. 9-10. Accordingly,
consistent with that prior to determination, the Court also finds the current ALJ’s disability
determination is not supported by substantial evidence in the record and must be reversed and
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 29th day of March 2013.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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