Dean v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on July 22, 2014. (rw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
FORT SMITH DIVISION
JAMES A. DEAN
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, James A. Dean, 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 his claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits
(DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under the provisions of Titles II and XVI
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 protectively filed his current applications for DIB and SSI on January 27, 2010,
alleging an inability to work since April 28, 2008, due to a broken back at the L-4 vertebrae. (Tr.
188, 190, 278). An administrative hearing was held on November 22, 2011, at which Plaintiff
appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 25-62).
By written decision dated March 8, 2012, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 13).
Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: a disorder of the
back and a mood disorder. 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. 13). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except he
can occasionally climb, balance, crawl, kneel, stoop, and crouch. From a mental
standpoint, he is able to perform unskilled work; i.e., work where interpersonal
contact is incidental to the work performed; the complexity of tasks is learned
and performed by rote, with few variables and little judgment; and the
supervision required is simple, direct, and concrete.
(Tr. 15). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work
as an assembler of small products, and a poultry processing deboner. (Tr. 18).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
after reviewing additional evidence submitted, denied that request on March 8, 2013. (Tr. 1-6).
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.
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. 2000).
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 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 disability, not simply his 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 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, 416.920. Only
if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff’s age, education, and work
experience in light of his residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138,
1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
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.” Eichelberger v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584,
591 (8th Cir. 2004); Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005). 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).
In the present case, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was able to perform light work with
limitations. The medical evidence revealed that Plaintiff sought treatment for chronic back pain,
as well as, various other physical and mental impairments during the relevant time period. A
review of the evidence of record revealed that the only opinion from a medical professional was
that of Dr. Bill F. Payne, a non-examining medical professional, who opined that Plaintiff had
no severe physical impairment in March of 2010. (Tr. 443). The record is void of any medical
source statement from either an examining or non-examining medical professional opining as
to Plaintiff’s capabilities during the relevant time period.1 Accordingly, the Court finds remand
necessary so that the ALJ can more fully and fairly develop the record regarding Plaintiff’s RFC.
On remand, the ALJ is directed to address interrogatories to both a physical and mental
medical professional to review Plaintiff's medical records; to complete a RFC assessment
regarding Plaintiff's capabilities during the time period in question; and to give the objective
basis for their opinions so that an informed decision can be made regarding Plaintiff's ability to
perform basic work activities on a sustained basis. The ALJ may also order a consultative
examination, in which, the consultative examiner should be asked to review the medical
evidence of record, perform examinations and appropriate testing needed to properly diagnosis
Plaintiff's condition(s), and complete a medical assessment of Plaintiff's abilities to perform work
related activities. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.917.
With this evidence, the ALJ should then re-evaluate Plaintiff's RFC and specifically list
in a hypothetical to a vocational expert any limitations that are indicated in the RFC assessments
The Court would also note that in the administrative decision, the ALJ referenced and gave little weight to the
September 17, 2009, opinion of a Dr. Randal Spurgin and cited to Exhibit 18F. (Tr. 17). The Court would note that
there is no evidence of record to show that Plaintiff had a treating physician named Dr. Spurgin, and there is not an
Exhibit 18F in the administrative transcript filed with this Court. Neither party noted this medical reference in the
appeal briefs filed with this Court.
and supported by the evidence.
The undersigned acknowledges that the ALJ=s decision may be the same after proper
analysis. Nonetheless, proper analysis must occur. Groeper v. Sullivan, 932 F.2d 1234, 1239
(8th Cir. 1991).
Accordingly, the Court concludes that the ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial
evidence, and therefore, the denial of benefits to the Plaintiff should be reversed and this matter
should be remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration pursuant to sentence four of
42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
DATED this 22nd day of July, 2014.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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