Young v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable James R. Marschewski on May 23, 2014. (lw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
FORT SMITH DIVISION
Civil No. 13-2077
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,1 Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Nathaniel Young, 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 his claim
for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (hereinafter “the Act”),
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 applied for SSI on February 18, 2011. (Tr. 11.) Plaintiff alleged an onset date of January
1, 2009 due to Hepatitis C, hand injury, back injury, learning disability, anxiety, and depression. (Tr. 11,
198.) Plaintiff’s applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff requested an
administrative hearing, which was held on January 24, 2012. (Tr. 27.) Plaintiff was present to testify and
was represented by counsel. The ALJ also heard testimony from Vocational Expert (“VE”) Monty
Lumpkin. (Tr. 27.)
At the time of the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was 29 years old, and possessed a high school
diploma. The ALJ listed no past relevant work experience in the decision. (Tr. 19.)
On February 16, 2012, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe
impairments: “discomfort in the left hand preventing prolonged use of the left hand in heavy work; a
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.
history of long-term severe substance abuse in reported remission; and a personality disorder.” (Tr. 13.)
The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity “to perform medium work, except
he cannot perform heavy work with his left hand. Nonexertionally, the claimant has limited educational
capabilities but is able to perform work in which interpersonal contact is incidental to the work performed;
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. He can perform only work that does not require a high
quota or is fast-paced.” (Tr. 15.) With the assistance of the VE, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff could
perform such representative occupations as industrial cleaner, hand packer, video rental clerk, traffic
flagger, and courier. (Tr. 20.)
Plaintiff requested a review by the Appeals Council on February 29, 2012. (Tr. 6.) The Appeals
Council declined review on February 15, 2013. (Tr. 1.)
This Court's role is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial
evidence on the record as a whole. Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 614, 617 (8th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence
is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the
Commissioner’s decision. Id. “Our review extends beyond examining the record to find substantial
evidence in support of the ALJ’s decision; we also consider evidence in the record that fairly detracts from
that decision.” Id. As long as there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Commissioner’s
decision, the court may not reverse the decision simply because substantial evidence exists in the record
to support a contrary outcome, or because the court would have decided the case differently. Haley v.
Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). If the court finds it possible “to draw two inconsistent
positions from the evidence, and one of those positions represents the Secretary’s findings, the court must
affirm the decision of the Secretary.” Cox, 495 F.3d at 617 (internal quotation and alteration omitted).
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 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. Titus v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 590, 594 (8th Cir. 1993).
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).
Plaintiff raises four issues on appeal: 1) the ALJ’s Step 5 finding is in error because the
hypothetical question presented to the VE is not consistent with the ALJ’s RFC assessment; 2) the ALJ
erred by limiting the Plaintiff to medium work but then limiting him to heavy work with his injured hand;
3) the ALJ erred at Step 2 because he failed to find that Plaintiff’‘s lumbar degenerative disc disease, left
lower extremity radiculopathy, cervical compression fracture, and cervical degenerative disc disease were
severe impairments; and 4) the ALJ erred by failed to fully and fairly develop the record regarding
Plaintiff’s intellectual functioning. (Pl.’s Br. 7-11.) Because this Court finds that the ALJ failed to fully
develop the record as to Plaintiff’s Physical RFC, the other issues will not be addressed.
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, a claimant’s RFC assessment “must be based
on medical evidence that addresses the claimant's ability to function in the workplace.”“An administrative
law judge may not draw upon his own inferences from medical reports.”Nevland v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 853,
858 (8th Cir. 2000); Strongson v. Barnhart, 361 F. 3d 1066, 1070 (8th Cir. 2004.). Instead, the ALJ
should seek opinions from a claimant’s treating physicians or from consultative examiners regarding the
claimant’s mental and physical RFC. Nevland, 204 F.3d at 858.
In this case, there are three physical function reports from three different physicians in the record.
The ALJ either discredited or failed to discuss all three. Thus, the ALJ appears to have formulated the
physical portion of Plaintiff’s RFC based upon his own inferences from the general medical reports.
Further, the ALJ’s RFC differs significantly from those function reports.
Plaintiff was seen for a consultative examination by Dr. Magness on February 2, 2009. (Tr. 494.)
Dr. Magness assessed severe limitations in lifting and carrying, moderate to severe limitations in handling,
and moderate limitations in walking and standing. (Tr. 17, 496.) The ALJ gave Dr. Magness’s opinion
“little weight.” (Tr. 17.)
Plaintiff’s treating physician, Dr. Van Hoang, completed a function report on November 17, 2009.
At that point he had been treating Plaintiff since October 2007. (Tr. 298.) He indicated that the Plaintiff’s
symptoms were severe enough to interfere with attention and concentration, and his ability to tolerate work
stress. He noted that he would need to take unscheduled breaks during an 8 hour working shift, and would
miss about one day per month. He noted that the Plaintiff could not use his left hand for repetitive pulling
or fine manipulation. (Tr. 298.) The ALJ gave this report weight only to the extent that it was consistent
with the ALJ’s RFC. (Tr. 17.)
Nonexamining Agency physician Dr. Lucy Sauer completed an Agency Physical RFC form on
April 22, 2011. At this time, the pain and ADL forms were not available to her. (Tr. 662.) Dr. Sauer
assessed a “Light RFC.” (Tr. 662.) After the pain and ADL forms were available, she affirmed the “Light
RFC” on April 28, 2011. (Tr. 667.) The ALJ did not discuss Dr. Sauer’s report in his opinion.
As noted above, the ALJ assessed a Medium Physical RFC, except he cannot perform heavy work
with his left hand.
If the ALJ did not find any of these three function reports from three different physicians to be
reliable, he had a duty to order another Physical RFC to be completed by either Plaintiff’s treating
physician or a consultative examiner. He did not do so. Therefore a remand is necessary.
On remand, the ALJ is directed to order a consultative examination with an orthopedic specialist
in order to fully assess Plaintiff’s musculoskeletal issues. That specialist must complete a Physical RFC
form. Once that information is provided, the ALJ is further directed to present that updated information
in hypotheticals to the VE, either in person or by interrogatory.
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 23rd day of May 2014.
HON. JAMES R. MARSCHEWSKI
CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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