Stubblefield v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

Filing 16

MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on February 10, 2014. (rw)

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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS FORT SMITH DIVISION LISA M. STUBBLEFIELD PLAINTIFF v. CIVIL NO. 12-2311 CAROLYN W. COLVIN,1 Commissioner Social Security Administration DEFENDANT MEMORANDUM OPINION Plaintiff, Lisa M. Stubblefield, 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 her claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB) under the provisions of Title II 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 moves to supplement the record with additional medical evidence and to have her case remanded to the Commissioner for consideration of this evidence. (Doc. 13). I. Procedural Background: Plaintiff protectively filed her current application for DIB on November 10, 2010, alleging an inability to work since July 17, 2009, due to diabetes, scoliosis, sleep apnea, a left hip spur, and shoulder problems. (Tr. 25, 95,141). An administrative hearing was held on October 27, 2011, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 23-41). 1 Carolyn W. Colvin, has been appointed to serve as acting Commissioner of Social Security, and is substituted as Defendant, pursuant to Rule 25(d)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. AO72A (Rev. 8/82) By written decision dated November 16, 2011, the ALJ found that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr.11). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis of the hip, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, and diabetes mellitus. 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. 12). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to: perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except the claimant can occasionally climb, balance, crawl, kneel, stoop and crouch. (Tr. 12). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work as an assembler. (Tr. 18-19). Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which denied that request on October 31, 2012. (Tr. 1-4). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. (Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc.7 ). 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. II. Applicable Law: 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 -2- AO72A (Rev. 8/82) 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 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 her disability, not simply her impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months. The Commissioner’s regulations require her 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 her 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 -3- AO72A (Rev. 8/82) 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 her age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience in light of her residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. III. Discussion: Plaintiff argues the following issue on appeal: 1) the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating nurse and physician when determining Plaintiff’s RFC. A. Motion for New and Material Evidence: A court may remand a social security claim for consideration of additional evidence “only upon a showing that there is new evidence which is material and that there is good cause for the failure to incorporate such evidence into the record in a prior proceeding.” Hepp v. Astrue, 511 F.3d 798, 808 (8th Cir.2008) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). “To be material, new evidence must be non-cumulative, relevant, and probative of the claimant's condition for the time period for which benefits were denied, and there must be a reasonable likelihood that it would have changed the Secretary's determination.” Woolf v. Shalala, 3 F.3d 1210, 1215 (8th Cir.1993). In the ALJ’s decision of November 16, 2011 , the ALJ expressly noted that the time period under consideration was July 17, 2009 through November 16, 2011. The new evidence Plaintiff moved to submit consists of treatment notes dated February 20, 2013, from the office of Dr. Russell Branum. The Court would note that Plaintiff saw Dr. Branum for the first time fifteen months after the relevant time period. The Court finds this evidence does not alter -4- AO72A (Rev. 8/82) Plaintiff's condition as it existed at the time the ALJ made his decision and, thus, is not material to Plaintiff's instant application. Thomas v. Sullivan, 928 F.2d 255 (8th Cir. 1991). However, the Court notes that this evidence might provide a basis for the filing of a new application for benefits. Based on the above, the Court will not consider this evidence when determining if substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination. B. The ALJ’s RFC Determination and 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 her 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. “The [social security] regulations provide that a treating physician's opinion ... will be granted ‘controlling weight,’ provided the opinion is ‘well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] record.’” Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012-13 (8th Cir.2000) (citations -5- AO72A (Rev. 8/82) omitted). An ALJ may discount such an opinion if other medical assessments are supported by superior medical evidence, or if the treating physician has offered inconsistent opinions. Id. at 1013. Whether the weight accorded the treating physician's opinion by the ALJ is great or small, the ALJ must give good reasons for that weighting. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)) After reviewing the entire record, the Court finds that Plaintiff’s argument is without merit, and there was sufficient evidence for the ALJ to make an informed decision. The Court notes that in determining Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ specifically discussed the relevant medical records, the medical opinions of examining and non-examining medical professionals, and the opinions of “other source” professionals, and set forth the reasons for the weight given to the opinions. Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1065 (8th Cir. 2012) (“It is the ALJ’s function to resolve conflicts among the opinions of various treating and examining physicians”)(citations omitted); Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010 at 1012 (the ALJ may reject the conclusions of any medical expert, whether hired by the claimant or the government, if they are inconsistent with the record as a whole). With regard to the October 3, 2011, assessment completed by Nurse Timbe West, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not give proper weight to this opinion and did not acknowledge that Dr. James Schmitz had also signed this assessment. (Tr. 337, 341, 354). The Court acknowledges that Dr. Schmitz signed off on the assessment; however, the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff’s treatment notes failed to demonstrate that Plaintiff’s impairments limited Plaintiff to the degree indicated in the assessment, is supported by the record. A review of these medical records revealed that upon examination, Plaintiff was noted to have a normal gait and station on October 22, 2010; a normal gait and station and normal range of motion in both upper and lower -6- AO72A (Rev. 8/82) extremities on April 27, 2011; a normal gait and station on May 29, 2011; and that Plaintiff’s primary complaint on July 5, 2011, was an earache. (Tr. 216, 221, 312, 316, 318). In this case, the ALJ specifically addressed the October 3, 2011,assessment, and found the findings to be inconsistent with the Schmitz Family Practice medical records. Davidson v. Astrue, 501 F.3d 987, 990-91 (8th Cir. 2007) (finding ALJ correctly discounted a physician’s assessment report when his treatment notes contradicted the report). Based on the record as a whole, the Court finds substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s RFC determination for the relevant time period. C. 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 her pain; (3) precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of her 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 United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit observed, “Our touchstone is that [a claimant's] credibility is primarily a matter for the ALJ to decide.” Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003). After reviewing the administrative record, and the Defendant’s well-stated reasons set forth in her brief, it is clear that the ALJ properly considered and evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, including the Polaski factors. A review of the record reveals that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff reported that she was able to do household chores; take care of her personal -7- AO72A (Rev. 8/82) needs with the exception of needing help to cut her toenails; prepare simple meals; shop for food; pay bills; watch television and check her email; and visit with her children and grandchildren. Plaintiff also reported some increased pain after mowing her lawn and walking her dog. (Tr. 237, 308). Therefore, although it is clear that Plaintiff suffers with some degree of limitation, she has not established that she was unable to engage in any gainful activity during the relevant time period. Accordingly, the Court concludes that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff’s subjective complaints were not totally credible. D. 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 her from performing work as an assembler during the relevant time period. Pickney v. Chater, 96 F.3d 294, 296 (8th Cir. 1996)(testimony from vocational expert based on properly phrased hypothetical question constitutes substantial evidence). IV. Conclusion: Accordingly, having carefully reviewed the record, the undersigned finds substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's decision denying the Plaintiff benefits, and thus the decision -8- AO72A (Rev. 8/82) should be affirmed. The undersigned further finds that the Plaintiff’s Complaint should be dismissed with prejudice. DATED this 10th day of February, 2014. /s/ Erin L. Setser HON. ERIN L. SETSER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE -9- AO72A (Rev. 8/82)

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