Standridge v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on October 1, 2013. (lw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
FORT SMITH DIVISION
LACEY C. STANDRIDGE
Civil No. 2:12-cv-02236
CAROLYN W. COLVIN
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Lacy C. Standridge (“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. 8.1 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 disability applications on December 17, 2009. (Tr. 10, 154-
160). Plaintiff alleges being disabled due to a blood disorder, thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura,
and hemolytic-uremic syndrome (“TTP/HUS”). (Tr. 196). Plaintiff alleges an onset date of
September 15, 2009. (Tr. 10, 154, 158). These applications were denied initially and again upon
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.”
reconsideration. (Tr. 65-68). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her
applications, and this hearing request was granted. (Tr. 85-99).
This hearing was held on July 23, 2010 in Fort Smith, Arkansas. (Tr. 38-64). Plaintiff was
present at this hearing and was represented by David Harp. Id. Plaintiff, a witness for Plaintiff, and
Vocational Expert (“VE”) Dale Thomas testified at this hearing. Id. During this administrative
hearing, Plaintiff testified she was twenty-three (23) years old. (Tr. 42). Such an individual is
defined as a “younger person” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c) (2008). Plaintiff also testified she had
graduated from high school. Id.
On July 15, 2011, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s applications
for DIB and SSI. (Tr. 10-21). In this decision, the ALJ determined Plaintiff met the insured status
requirements of the Act through September 30, 2013. (Tr. 12, Finding 1). The ALJ determined
Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since September 15, 2009, her
alleged onset date. (Tr. 12, Finding 2). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe
impairments: TTP/HUS, renal insufficiency, hypertension, multi-nodular thyroid, and bipolar II
disorder. (Tr. 12, Finding 3). The ALJ also determined, however, that Plaintiff’s 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. 12-14, Finding 4).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her RFC.
(Tr. 14-19, Finding 5). First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found her
claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained
the following RFC:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the
claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined
in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except that she is further limited to work
where interpersonal contact is incidental to the work performed, the complexity of
tasks is learned and performed by rote with few variables and use of little judgment,
and the supervision required is simple, direct, and concrete.
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 19, Finding 6). The ALJ
determined Plaintiff’s PRW included work as a general office clerk (semiskilled, light) and as a
waitress (semiskilled, light). Id. The VE testified at the administrative hearing regarding her PRW.
(Tr. 19, 54-56). Based upon this testimony, the ALJ determined Plaintiff would be unable to perform
any of her PRW because this work would require interpersonal contact that would be “more than
incidental.” (Tr. 19, Finding 6).
The ALJ then considered whether Plaintiff would be able to perform other work existing in
significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 20, Finding 10). The VE responded to posthearing interrogatories regarding this issue.2 (Tr. 20). Based upon those interrogatories, the VE
stated that a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff’s limitations would be able to perform the
requirements of representative occupations such as production worker with one example being a
patcher with 15,500 such jobs in the national economy and 500 such jobs in the regional economy.
Id. Based upon this testimony, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform other
work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and Plaintiff had not been under a
disability as defined in the Act from September 15, 2009 through the date of his decision or through
July 15, 2011. (Tr. 21, Finding 11).
The ALJ also held a separate hearing on April 5, 2011 to give Plaintiff’s attorney the opportunity to
question the VE regarding his responses to these post-hearing interrogatories. (Tr. 26-37).
Thereafter, on July 27, 2011, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council’s review of the ALJ’s
unfavorable decision. (Tr. 6). The Appeals Council denied this request for review on August 31,
2012. (Tr. 1-4). On October 10, 2012, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. The Parties
consented to the jurisdiction of this Court on October 17, 2012. ECF No. 8. Both Parties have filed
appeal briefs. ECF Nos. 13, 16. 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 her appeal brief, Plaintiff raises the following four arguments for reversal: (A) the ALJ did
not fully and fairly develop the record; (B) the ALJ conducted an improper credibility evaluation;
(C) the ALJ improperly assessed her RFC; and (D) the ALJ erred with his Step Five determination.
ECF No. 13 at 1-16. In response, Defendant argues the ALJ fully and fairly developed the record
in this case, the ALJ performed a proper credibility analysis, the ALJ correctly assessed Plaintiff’s
RFC, and the ALJ fully supported his decision at Step Five of the Analysis. ECF No. 16. The Court
will address each of the arguments Plaintiff has raised.
Development of the Record
Plaintiff claims the ALJ did not “fully and fairly develop the facts in the record” in her case.
ECF No. 13 at 9-10. Specifically, Plaintiff claims her impairment of TTP/HUS “is simply too
specific and specialized for the ALJ to rely on his own layman’s assumptions or even on the
knowledge of the state agency medical consultants.” Id. Plaintiff claims the ALJ should have
further developed the record in this case to completely assess her limitations due to this impairment.
Id. In response, Defendant argues the ALJ fully developed and fully considered the medical
evidence included in the record. ECF No. 16 at 5-6. Defendant also argues Plaintiff has provided
no basis for her argument that the record was not fully developed or for her claim that the medical
experts the ALJ relied upon were not sufficient. Id.
Upon review of Plaintiff’s claim, the Court finds no basis for reversal on this issue. Plaintiff
is correct that the ALJ has the duty “to develop the record fairly and fully.” See Snead v. Barnhart,
360 F.3d 834, 838 (8th Cir. 2004). That duty is not without limitation. The ALJ must only have a
“sufficient basis” for his or her decision. See Naber v. Shalala, 22 F.3d 186, 189 (8th Cir. 1994).
In the present action, there are approximately four hundred pages of medical records. (Tr. 293-675).
Plaintiff herself stated in briefing that there was a “plethora of medical records.” ECF No. 13 at 10.
Thus, there appears to be a “sufficient basis” for the ALJ’s decision. Further, Plaintiff has not
demonstrated that any further development of the record would have been beneficial to the ALJ or
resulted in a different outcome. Accordingly, no remand is required. See Onstad v. Shalala, 999
F.2d 1232, 1234 (8th Cir. 1993) (holding “absent unfairness or prejudice, we will not remand” for
further record development).
Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred in assessing the credibility of her subjective complaints. ECF
No. 13 at 10-11. Plaintiff does not state in her briefing which part of the credibility determination
was improper. Id. Accordingly, the Court will generally review that determination. 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. §
416.929.3 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.
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
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.
[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 fully complied with Polaski. (Tr. 14-17). In his opinion, the
ALJ provided several valid reasons for discounting Plaintiff’s subjective complaints.
Specifically, the ALJ noted Plaintiff was able to perform a number of daily activities, including “care
for her young son, take care of her personal needs . . . fix simple meals, do the laundry, drive, shop,
and handle her finances.” (Tr. 15). The ALJ also noted Plaintiff did not consistently follow the
recommended course of medical treatment and did not seek, for example, an MRI scan to assess her
headaches even though it was recommended that she undergo such a scan. (Tr. 16). Further, due
to TTP/HUS, her doctor recommended that apheresis treatment be reinstituted, but Plaintiff declined
to do so. Id. Considering these findings, the Court finds no basis for reversing the ALJ’s evaluation
of Plaintiff’s subjective complaints. See Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1067 (8th Cir. 2012)
(holding “[b]ecause the ALJ gave good reasons for discounting Renstrom’s credibility, we defer to
the ALJ’s credibility findings”).
Plaintiff argues the ALJ did not fully consider her limitations when he evaluated her RFC.
ECF No. 13 at 11-14. In making this claim, Plaintiff first argues the ALJ improperly evaluated the
findings of her consultative examiner, Dr. Patricia J. Walz, Ph.D. (Tr. 440-449), and the ALJ did
not properly account for the limitations Dr. Walz found she had as a result of her mental
impairments. ECF No. 13 at 11-13.
For example, Plaintiff claims the ALJ did not consider the fact Dr. Walz indicated she
“would have problems with attendance, punctuality, and schedules.” Id. Plaintiff does not provide
in her briefing where this limitation can be found in Dr. Walz’s report. Id. Upon review, it appears
Plaintiff is referring to the fact Dr. Walz found she has a “moderate” limitation in “[t]he ability to
perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary
tolerances.” (Tr. 447). The term “moderate,” however, is a defined term and provides that the
limitation “[a]ffects but does not preclude ability to perform basic work functions.” (Tr. 446)
(emphasis added). Accordingly, the Court finds the ALJ did not err by not including this limitation
in his RFC determination.
Plaintiff also argues the ALJ did not properly consider the limitations caused by her physical
impairments, including her need to take frequent bathroom breaks. ECF No. 13 at 13-14. In
assessing Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ did not account for this limitation because he found such a need
to take frequent bathroom breaks was not supported by the medical record. (Tr. 18). He stated,
“there is no medical evidence to support the claimant’s allegation of urination 10 to 15 times daily
in any of her records.” Id. In this case, apart from her bare claim, Plaintiff has not demonstrated she
is required to take these frequent bathroom breaks. ECF No. 13. Plaintiff has the burden of
demonstrating her RFC and her limitations. See Perks v. Astrue, 687 F.3d 1086, 1092 (8th Cir.
2012) (citation omitted). Because she has not met this burden by providing credible evidence
demonstrating this limitation, the Court finds the ALJ did not err in assessing her physical
Step Five Evaluation
Plaintiff claims the ALJ’s disability determination is not supported by substantial evidence
in the record because his hypothetical to the vocational expert was deficient. ECF No. 13 at 14-15.
Specifically, Plaintiff claims the ALJ did not include in his hypothetical the limitation that she
would have to take frequent bathroom breaks. Id. Despite this claim, as noted above, the ALJ
properly concluded Plaintiff did not have this limitation. Accordingly, because the ALJ presented
to the vocational expert the limitations he found to be credible based upon his assessment of
Plaintiff’s RFC, his Step Five determination is supported by substantial evidence in the record. See
Gragg v. Astrue, 615 F.3d 932, 940 (8th Cir. 2010) (holding “[t]he hypothetical question need only
include those impairments and limitations found credible by the ALJ”). Thus, the Court finds no
basis for reversal on this issue.
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 1st day of October 2013.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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