Townley v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable James R. Marschewski on December 4, 2014. (rw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
FORT SMITH DIVISION
RAY C. TOWNLEY
Civil No. 13-2235
CAROLYN W. COLVIN1, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Ray Townley, 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 a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title
II of the Social Security Act (hereinafter “the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 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).
The Plaintiff filed his applications for DIB on March 29, 2010, alleging an onset date of
September 12, 2009, due to post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), sleep apnea, coronary artery
disease (“CAD”), and high blood pressure. Tr. 70, 122, 137. His claims were denied both
initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 67, 81. An administrative hearing was then held on
December 13, 2011. Plaintiff was both present and represented at that hearing.
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.
A the time of the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was 47 years old and possessed a
general equivalency degree. Tr. 31, 32, 39, 122, 136, 138. He had past relevant work (“PRW”)
as an oilfield equipment mechanic and welder. Tr. 55, 149-164.
On January 31, 2012, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) concluded that, although
severe, Plaintiff’s status-post myocardial infarction, angioplasty with stent placement, and
affective mood disorder did not meet or equal any Appendix 1 listing. Tr. 26-28. The ALJ
determined that Plaintiff maintained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light
work, except “due to psychologically based factors claimant has some limitations but it able [sic]
to perform simple and some, but not all, complex tasks in a familiar setting with occasional
supervision. He can relate to others on a superficial work basis and he is able to adapt to a work
situation.” Tr. 28. With the assistance of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could
perform work as a cafeteria attendant. Tr. 32.
Plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies when the Appeals Council denied his
request for review on August 22, 2013. Tr. 1-7. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. ECF
No. 1. This case is before the undersigned by consent of the parties. Both parties have filed
appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. ECF No. 14, 15.
The Court has reviewed the entire transcript. The complete set of facts and arguments
are presented in the parties’ briefs and the ALJ’s opinion, and are repeated here only to the extent
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 we find it possible “to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence,
and one of those positions represents the Secretary’s findings, we 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 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 Evaluation Process:
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 or 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
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 or her 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).
The undersigned is concerned by the ALJ’s RFC determination in this case. 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.” Davidson v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 838, 844
(8th Cir. 2009); see also Jones v. Astrue, 619 F.3d 963, 971 (8th Cir. 2010) (ALJ is responsible
for determining RFC based on all relevant evidence, including medical records, observations of
treating physicians and others, and claimant’s own description of his limitations). 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); see also Jones, 619 F.3d at
971 (RFC finding must be supported by some medical evidence).
The record makes clear that Plaintiff suffers from chronic lower back pain, chronic left
shoulder pain, poorly controlled hypertension, and coronary artery disease status post myocardial
infarction and stent placement. Physical examinations have revealed a painful range of motion
in his back and some range of motion limitations in his left shoulder with pain. Tr. 683-691.
A CT scan of his lumbar spine also showed disk protrusions and bulges at the L4-5 and L5-S1
levels with nerve root abutment. Tr. 773-776. Unfortunately, Plaintiff’s treating doctor was not
asked to complete an RFC assessment or a treating source statement.
In March 2011, the ALJ sent Plaintiff for a consultative examination with cardiologist,
Dr. Alemaparte. Tr. 742-761. The doctor noted that although tests did not show any changes
suggestive of ischemia, Plaintiff experienced angina symptoms and had a hypertensive response
to exercise. He was of the opinion that Plaintiff should be considered for full cardiac disability
because he could not perform a significant amount of physical activity and could not tolerate
extreme temperatures. However, the ALJ did not ask Dr. Alemparte to complete an RFC
assessment. And, the doctor was not asked to elaborate on his comments.
The only RFC assessments contained in the record were completed by non-examining
consultants prior to the CT scan of Plaintiff’s lumbar spine. Tr. 710-717. 764-771. See Jenkins
v. Apfel, 196 F.3d 922, 925 (8th Cir. 1999) (holding that the opinion of a consulting physician
who examined the plaintiff once or not at all does not generally constitute substantial evidence).
And, aside from these outdated RFCs, the record contains no evidence that correlates Plaintiff’s
symptoms into work related limitations. Accordingly, the case must be remanded to the ALJ for
On remand, the ALJ is directed to obtain an RFC assessment from Plaintiff’s treating
doctors, both general practitioner and cardiologist. If this cannot be obtained, then the ALJ is
directed to order consultative orthopedic and cardiac exams complete with actual RFC
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 4th day of December 2014.
/s/ J. Marschewski
HON. JAMES R. MARSCHEWSKI
CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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