Releford v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on July 13, 2015. (hnc)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
FORT SMITH DIVISION
BRENT EDWARD RELEFORD
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Brent Edward Releford, 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 March 19, 2012,
alleging an inability to work since September 30, 2011, due to no vision in the left eye, nerve
damage and pain in the left eye, depression, and an unspecified learning disability. (Tr. 119,
126, 147). An administrative hearing was held on December 3, 2012, at which Plaintiff
appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 32-54).
By written decision dated January 4, 2013, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 21).
Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: blindness/low
vision of the left eye. 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. 23). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: The claimant is unable to perform work that requires
(Tr. 23). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform his
part relevant work as a certified nurse assistant, and a delivery truck driver. (Tr. 26).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
after reviewing additional evidence submitted by Plaintiff, denied that request on January 18,
2014. (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 did not have a severe mental
impairment which is reflected in the RFC as it includes no mental limitations. In assessing
Plaintiff’s mental capacity, the ALJ stated that he gave consultative examiner, Dr. Robert L.
Spray’s, opinion “substantial weight with respect to showing that the claimant’s allegations are
not entirely credibly.” (Tr. 25). A review of the record reveals that on April 26, 2012, Dr.
Spray evaluated Plaintiff. (Tr. 224-228). Dr. Spray summarized as follows:
Test scores are suspect because of his work history. Further, although he claims
to be able to shop independently and manage his own money, he has never lived
independently and did extremely poor on the Arithmetic subtest of the WAISIV. It is felt his test scores [Full Scale IQ of 50] are probably invalid and
unreliable, but that his real score may not be above 70.
(Tr. 226). Dr. Spray further noted that Plaintiff’s ability to attend and sustain concentration
was poor; that he did not persist well; and that his pace was slow. Dr. Spray indicated that
there was no evidence of conscious malingering or exaggeration, and he suspected Plaintiff
“minimized limitations in adaptive functioning.” (Tr. 227-228). The ALJ did not address the
weight given to Dr. Spray’s opinion regarding Plaintiff’s concentration, persistence, and pace.
The record also included a medical opinion from Dr. Jerry R. Henderson, who after reviewing
the record, opined that Plaintiff had the “capacity for simple and repetitive tasks in an
environment in which interpersonal contact is only incidental.” (Tr. 235). After reviewing the
entire record, the Court believes remand is necessary for the ALJ to more fully and fairly
develop the record regarding Plaintiff’s mental RFC.
On remand, the ALJ is directed to address interrogatories to Dr. Spray requesting that
he review Plaintiff's medical records; complete a mental RFC assessment regarding Plaintiff's
capabilities during the time period in question; and give the objective basis for the opinion so
that an informed decision can be made regarding Plaintiff's ability to perform basic work
activities on a sustained basis.
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 and supported by the evidence.
Accordingly, the Court concludes that the ALJ’s decision is not supported by
substantial evidence, 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 13th day of July, 2015.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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