Hale v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on October 25, 2016. (hnc)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
FORT SMITH DIVISION
JEANETTE S. HALE
Civil No. 2:15-cv-02206
CAROLYN W. COLVIN
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Jeanette S. Hale (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to § 205(g) of Title II of the Social
Security Act (“The Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2010), seeking judicial review of a final decision of
the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying her applications for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), and a period of
disability under Titles II and XVI of the Act.
The Parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge to conduct any and all
proceedings in this case, including conducting the trial, ordering the entry of a final judgment, and
conducting all post-judgment proceedings. ECF No. 5.1 Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues
this memorandum opinion and orders the entry of a final judgment in this matter.
Plaintiff protectively filed her disability applications on March 17, 2010. (Tr. 10). In her
applications, Plaintiff alleges being disabled due to peripheral neuropathy and panic disorder. (Tr.
177). At the administrative hearing in this matter, Plaintiff also alleged being disabled due to facial
pain caused by trigeminal neuralgia. (Tr. 36). Plaintiff alleges an onset date of March 31, 2008. (Tr.
The docket numbers for this case are referenced by the designation “ECF No. ____” The
transcript pages for this case are referenced by the designation “Tr.”
10). These applications were denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 49-52).
After Plaintiff’s applications were denied, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on
her applications, and this hearing request was granted. (Tr. 66-74). Thereafter, on September 19,
2011, the ALJ held an administrative hearing on Plaintiff’s applications. (Tr. 26-48). At this
hearing, Plaintiff was present and was represented by Fred Cadell. Id. Plaintiff and Vocational
Expert (“VE”) John Massey testified at this hearing. Id. During this hearing, Plaintiff testified she
was thirty-seven (37) years old, which is defined as a “younger person” under 20 C.F.R. § 416.963(c)
(2008) (SSI) and 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c) (2008) (DIB). (Tr. 29). As for her education, Plaintiff
testified she had received her high school diploma and had completed some college. (Tr. 29).
ALJ’s First Administrative Decision
On October 28, 2011, after the administrative hearing, the ALJ entered a fully unfavorable
decision denying Plaintiff’s applications. (Tr. 7-20). The ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured status
requirements of the Act through December 31, 2013. (Tr. 12, Finding 1). The ALJ determined
Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since March 31, 2008, her alleged
onset date. (Tr. 12, Finding 2). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairment:
peripheral neuropathy. (Tr. 12-13, Finding 3). The ALJ also determined Plaintiff’s impairment did
not meet or medically equal the requirements of any of the Listings of Impairments in Appendix 1
to Subpart P of Regulations No. 4 (“Listings”). (Tr. 14, Finding 4).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her RFC.
(Tr. 14-18, Finding 5). First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found her
claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained
the capacity for the following:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the
claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined
in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except that she is limited in the abilities to
push and pull and operate hand or foot controls. She can occasionally balance, stoop,
kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds and can frequently climb
ramps and stairs. She must also avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as
machinery and heights.
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”) and found Plaintiff was unable
to perform any of her PRW. (Tr. 18-19, Finding 6). The ALJ then determined whether Plaintiff
retained the capacity to perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.
(Tr. 18-19, Finding 10). In addressing this issue, the ALJ applied the Medical-Vocational Guidelines
or the “Grids.” Id. Specifically, the ALJ found that under Rule 201.28 of the Grids, Plaintiff was
not disabled. Id. Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined
by the Act, from March 31, 2008 through the date of his decision or through October 28, 2011. (Tr.
19, Finding 11).
Plaintiff sought review with the Appeals Council. (Tr. 4). Thereafter, on October 1, 2012,
the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. (Tr. 1-3). Plaintiff then appealed her case
to this Court, and this Court reversed and remanded Plaintiff’s case for further administrative review.
See Hale v. SSA, 2:12-cv-02302 (ECF No. 20).
ALJ’s Second Administrative Decision
The ALJ then held a second administrative hearing on March 19, 2014. (Tr. 426-453). After
this hearing, the ALJ entered a second fully unfavorable decision. (Tr. 399-419). In this decision,
the ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through March 31, 2014. (Tr.
405, Finding 1). The ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”)
since March 31, 2008, her alleged onset date. (Tr. 405, Finding 2). The ALJ found Plaintiff had the
following severe impairments: peripheral neuropathy, including mildly reduced sensory function of
the right sural nerve and mildly reduced sensory and motor function of the right superficial peroneal
nerve, and obesity. (Tr. 405-408, Finding 3). The ALJ also determined Plaintiff’s impairments did
not meet or medically equal the requirements of any of the Listings of Impairments in Appendix 1
to Subpart P of Regulations No. 4 (“Listings”). (Tr. 408, Finding 4).
In this second decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined
her RFC. (Tr. 408-417, Finding 5). First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and
found her claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff
retained the capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work. (Tr. 408-417, Finding 5).
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s PRW and found Plaintiff did not retain the capacity to perform
any of her PRW. (Tr. 417, Finding 6). The ALJ then considered whether Plaintiff retained the
capacity to perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 417418, Finding 10). The VE testified at the administrative hearing regarding this issue. (Tr. 418).
Specifically, the VE testified a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff’s limitations retained the
capacity to perform the following occupations: (1) telephone solicitor or telemarketer (sedentary,
semiskilled) with 175,000 such jobs in the national economy and 1,500 such jobs in Arkansas; (2)
receptionist (sedentary, semiskilled) with 250,000 such jobs in the national economy and 1,500 such
jobs in Arkansas; and (3) data entry clerk (sedentary, semiskilled) with 150,000 such jobs in the
national economy and 1,000 such jobs in Arkansas. (Tr. 418). Based upon this finding, the ALJ
determined Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, from March 31, 2008
through the date of his decision or through August 1, 2014. (Tr. 417-418, Finding 10).
On October 5, 2015, Plaintiff filed her Complaint in this case. ECF No. 1. Both Parties
have filed appeal briefs and have consented to the jurisdiction of this Court. ECF Nos. 5, 12, 14.
This case is now ready for decision.
In reviewing this case, this Court is required to determine whether the Commissioner’s
findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
(2010); Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is less than
a preponderance of the evidence, but it is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to
support the Commissioner’s decision. See Johnson v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1145, 1147 (8th Cir. 2001).
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. See
Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). 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. See 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 or her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that lasted at least one
year and that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. See Cox v. Apfel,
160 F.3d 1203, 1206 (8th Cir. 1998); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act defines
a “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 or her disability, not simply his or her impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive
months. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
To determine whether the adult claimant suffers from a disability, the Commissioner uses
the familiar five-step sequential evaluation. He determines: (1) whether the claimant is presently
engaged in a “substantial gainful activity”; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment that
significantly limits the claimant’s physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities; (3)
whether the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals a presumptively disabling impairment
listed in the regulations (if so, the claimant is disabled without regard to age, education, and work
experience); (4) whether the claimant has the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform his
or her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform the past work, the burden shifts to
the Commissioner to prove that there are other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can
perform. See Cox, 160 F.3d at 1206; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f). The fact finder only considers
the plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience in light of his or her RFC if the final stage of this
analysis is reached. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2003).
In her appeal brief, Plaintiff claims the ALJ’s disability determination is not supported by
substantial evidence in the record. ECF No. 12. Specifically, Plaintiff claims the following: (1) the
ALJ erred in evaluating her severe impairments; (2) the ALJ erred in evaluating her RFC; (3) the
ALJ erred by failing to fully and fairly develop the record; and (4) the ALJ erred in applying the
Grids. Id. Because the Court finds the ALJ again erred in considering her trigeminal neuralgia as
a severe impairment, this case must be reversed.
A claimant suffers from a severe impairment if that impairment is more than slight and if that
impairment affects the claimant’s ability to do his or her basic work activities. See Householder v.
Bowen, 861 F.2d 191, 192 n.1 (8th Cir. 1988). The Supreme Court has also held that a claimant does
not suffer from a severe impairment where the claimant only suffers from “slight abnormalities that
do not significantly limit any ‘basic work activity.’” See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 155 (1987)
(O’Connor, S., concurring) (emphasis added); see also Brown v. Bowen, 827 F.2d 311, 311-12 (8th
Cir. 1987) (adopting Justice O’Connor’s language from Bowen v. Yuckert). See also Kirby v. Astrue,
500 F.3d 705, 707-09 (8th Cir. 2007).
Furthermore, the standard for determining whether a claimant suffers from a severe
impairment is a low standard. See Nicola v. Astrue, 480 F.3d 885, 887 (8th Cir. 2007) (reversing the
decision of the ALJ and holding that a diagnosis of borderline intellectual functioning should have
been considered severe because that diagnosis was supported by sufficient medical evidence). If the
ALJ errs by finding a severe impairment is not severe, the ALJ’s disability determination must be
reversed and remanded. See Nicola, 480 F.3d at 887.
In this case, Plaintiff alleged being disabled due to trigeminal neuralgia, which causes severe
facial pain. (Tr. 36). Plaintiff has been repeatedly diagnosed with this impairment. (Tr. 282). In
fact, on April 26, 2010, Plaintiff’s doctor noted her facial pain was “10/10 right now” and Plaintiff
was not sleeping due to her facial pain. (Tr. 282). It appears the Parties do not dispute the fact
Plaintiff suffers from trigeminal neuralgia and that trigeminal neuralgia causes Plaintiff severe facial
pain. ECF Nos. 12, 14.
Instead of finding that impairment was a separate severe impairment, however, the ALJ
grouped her trigeminal neuralgia with her peripheral neuropathy. (Tr. 12-14, Finding 3). This
decision to group those two impairments together also caused the ALJ throughout his opinion to
improperly group Plaintiff’s trigeminal neuralgia with her peripheral neuropathy. For example, in
his opinion, the ALJ found Plaintiff’s “facial pain was much less painful when taking Neurontin
(exhibit 1F).” (Tr. 17). Upon review of the records in Exhibit 1F, however, this is not what
Plaintiff’s doctors found. Instead, these records reflect that “Neurontin 1800 mg has helped with her
legs, but hasn’t helped at all with her facial pain.” (Tr. 282) (emphasis added).
Further, this is the second time this case has been appealed to this Court. See Hale v. SSA,
2:12-cv-02302 (ECF No. 20). In both the first administrative decision and the second administrative
decision, the ALJ did not properly consider Plaintiff’s trigeminal neuralgia. Plaintiff filed her
disability applications over six years ago on March 17, 2010. Plaintiff alleged an onset date of
March 31, 2008, which is over eight years ago. (Tr. 10). Based upon the Court’s review of the
medical records in this case, the Court finds no further administrative development is necessary, and
this case can be reversed and rendered. See Andler v. Chater, 100 F.3d 1389, 1394 (8th Cir. 1996)
(holding that “[i]f the record presented to the ALJ contains substantial evidence supporting a finding
of disability, a reviewing court may reverse and remand the case to the district court for entry of an
order granting benefits to the claimant”). Such a remedy is especially appropriate where “further
hearings would merely delay benefits.” Id.
Based on the foregoing, the undersigned finds that the decision of the ALJ, denying benefits
to Plaintiff, is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Further, as outlined above, the
record contains substantial evidence supporting a finding of disability. Thus, this Court orders
Plaintiff’s case be reversed and rendered with a direction to the SSA to award benefits. The SSA
should be directed to calculate Plaintiff’s past-due benefits from her application date of March 17,
2010. Such an onset date is consistent with Plaintiff’s medical records, which are almost all dated
after March 17, 2010. (Tr. 279-367, 600-722). A judgment incorporating these findings will be
entered pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 52 and 58.
ENTERED this 25th day of October 2016.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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