Williams v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on September 25, 2017. (hnc)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
FORT SMITH DIVISION
TAMMIE M. WILLIAMS
Civil No. 2:16-cv-02141
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Tammie Williams (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to § 205(g) of Title II of the Social
Security Act (“The Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006), seeking judicial review of a final decision of
the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying her application for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II 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’s application for DIB was filed on October 17, 2012. (Tr. 69, 248-251). Plaintiff
alleged he was disabled due to brain surgery and back problems. (Tr. 298). Plaintiff alleged an onset
date of June 6, 2012. (Tr. 69). This application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration.
(Tr. 69). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on his application and this hearing
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.”
request was granted. (Tr. 182).
Plaintiff’s administrative hearing was held on February 26, 2014. (Tr. 84-145). Plaintiff was
present and was represented by counsel, Roxanne D. Blake, at this hearing. Id. Plaintiff, her friend
Pamela Lunney, and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Sarah Moore testified at this hearing. Id. At the time
of this hearing, Plaintiff was forty-six (46) years old and had a high school education. (Tr. 90).
On January 30, 2015, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s application
for DIB. (Tr. 69-78). In this decision, the ALJ determined Plaintiff met the insured status
requirements of the Act through December 31, 2014. (Tr. 71, Finding 1). The ALJ also determined
Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since June 6, 2012, her alleged
onset date. (Tr. 71, Finding 2).
The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairment of degenerative disc disease of the
cervical and lumbar spine, obesity, headaches, Chiari I malformation status post corrective surgery,
insomnia, hypertension, specific learning disorder, major depressive disorder, and personality
disorder with dependent traits.
(Tr. 71, Finding 3).
The ALJ then determined Plaintiff’s
impairments did not meet or medically equal the requirements of any of the Listing of Impairments
in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Regulations No. 4 (“Listings”). (Tr. 71, Finding 4).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her RFC.
(Tr. 72-76). First, the ALJ indicated he evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found her
claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained
the RFC for sedentary work activity with no more than occasional climbing ramps and stairs; no
climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolding; no more than occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling,
crouching, and crawling; no concentrated exposure to hazards, including driving as part of work; and
work requiring no more than simple, routine, repetitive tasks with incidental interpersonal contact
and simple, direct, and concrete supervision. (Tr. 72-73, Finding 5).
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's Past Relevant Work ("PRW"). (Tr. 76, Finding 6). The ALJ
found Plaintiff was unable to perform her PRW. Id. The ALJ, however, also determined there was
other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 77,
Finding 10). The ALJ based this determination upon the testimony of the VE. Id. Specifically, the
VE testified that given all Plaintiff's vocational factors, a hypothetical individual would be able to
perform the requirements of a representative occupation such as assembler with 215 such jobs in
Arkansas and 217,000 such jobs in the nation, machine tender with 165 such jobs in Arkansas and
14,100 such jobs in the nation, and inspector with 50 such jobs in Arkansas and 3,900 such jobs in
the nation. Id. Based upon this finding, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not been under a disability
as defined by the Act from June 6, 2012, through the date of the decision. (Tr. 77, Finding 11).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s decision. (Tr. 62). See
20 C.F.R. § 404.968. The Appeals Council declined to review this unfavorable decision. (Tr. 1-7).
On June 20, 2016, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. The Parties consented to the
jurisdiction of this Court on June 20, 2016. ECF No. 5. Both Parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF
Nos. 13, 14. This case is now ready for decision.
2. Applicable Law:
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)
(2006); 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).
Plaintiff brings the present appeal claiming the ALJ erred: (A) by failing to find Plaintiff met
a Listing, and (B) in failing to properly consider Plaintiff’s subjective complaints. ECF No. 13, Pgs.
2-6. In response, the Defendant argues the ALJ did not err in any of his findings. ECF No. 14.
The ALJ must determine whether Plaintiff has a severe impairment that significantly limits
the physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. A medically determinable impairment
or combination of impairments is severe if it significantly limits an individual’s physical or mental
ability to do basic work activities. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521 and 416.921.
The ALJ found Plaintiff did suffer from impairments considered to be severe within the
meaning of the Social Security regulations. These impairments included degenerative disc disease
of the cervical and lumbar spine, obesity, headaches, Chiari I malformation status post corrective
surgery, insomnia, hypertension, specific learning disorder, major depressive disorder, and
personality disorder with dependent traits. (Tr. 71, Finding 3). However, there was no substantial
evidence in the record showing Plaintiff’s condition was severe enough to meet or equal that of a
listed impairment as set forth in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app.1.
Plaintiff has the burden of establishing that her impairment(s) meet or equal an impairment set out
in the Listing of Impairments. See Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530-31 (1990). Plaintiff has
not met this burden.
Plaintiff argues she meets Listing 12.04 for Affective Disorders. ECF No. 11, Pg. 2-3. To
be disabled under these Listings, the requirements of both subsection A and B of the Listings in
question must be met. 20 C.F.R. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, §§ 12.04. In this matter, the ALJ correctly
determined Plaintiff did not meet the four elements of subsection B (the “B” criteria) of any listed
mental impairment. (Tr. 71-72). The “B” criteria require at least two of the following:
1. Marked restriction of activities of daily living; or
2. Marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; or
3. Marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace; or
4. Repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration.
See 20 C.F.R. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, §§ 12.04(B).
In this matter, the ALJ properly determined Plaintiff had mild limitations to her daily
activities, and moderate limitations to her social functioning and ability to maintain concentration,
persistence, and pace. (Tr. 72). Substantial evidence also supports the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff
experienced no repeated episodes of deterioration. Id.
The ALJ also properly found Plaintiff failed to establish the presence of the “C” criteria of
Listing 12.04. (Tr. 72). The “C” criteria under Listing 12.04 require the following:
C. Medically documented history of a chronic affective disorder of at least 2 years’
duration that has caused more than a minimal limitation of ability to do basic work
activities, with symptoms or signs currently attenuated by medication or psychosocial
support, and one of the following:
1. Repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration; or
2. A residual disease process that has resulted in such marginal adjustment that even
a minimal increase in mental demands or change in the environment would be
predicted to cause the individual to decompensate; or
3. Current history of 1 or more years’ inability to function outside a highly supportive
living arrangement, with an indication of continued need for such an arrangement.
See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, § 12.04(C).
The ALJ properly found there was no medical evidence in the record showing Plaintiff had
repeated episodes of decompensation; a residual disease process that has resulted in such marginal
adjustment that even a minimal increase in mental demands or change in the environment would be
predicted to cause the individual to decompensate; or a current history of one or more years’ inability
to function outside a highly supportive living arrangement, with an indication of continued need for
such an arrangement. (Tr. 72).
I find substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination that Plaintiff did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments equal to one listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app.1.
B. ALJ’s Credibility Determination
Plaintiff also claims the ALJ erred in his credibility determination. ECF No. 13, Pgs. 3-6.
In response, Defendant argues the ALJ properly evaluated and discredited Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints pursuant to the directives of Polaski. ECF No. 14.
In assessing the credibility of a claimant, the ALJ is required to examine and to apply the
five factors from Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320 (8th Cir. 1984) or from 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529
and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929.2 See Shultz v. Astrue, 479 F.3d 979, 983 (2007). The factors to consider
Social Security Regulations 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929 require the analysis of two
additional factors: (1) “treatment, other than medication, you receive or have received for relief of your pain or other
symptoms” and (2) “any measures you use or have used to relieve your pain or symptoms (e.g., lying flat on your
back, standing for 15 to 20 minutes every hour, sleeping on a board, etc.).” However, under Polaski and its progeny,
the Eighth Circuit has not yet required the analysis of these additional factors. See Shultz v. Astrue, 479 F.3d 979,
983 (2007). Thus, this Court will not require the analysis of these additional factors in this case.
are as follows: (1) the claimant’s daily activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of the
pain; (3) the precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) the dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of
medication; and (5) the functional restrictions. See Polaski, 739 at 1322.
The factors must be analyzed and considered in light of the claimant’s subjective complaints
of pain. See id. The ALJ is not required to methodically discuss each factor as long as the ALJ
acknowledges and examines these factors prior to discounting the claimant’s subjective complaints.
See Lowe v. Apfel, 226 F.3d 969, 971-72 (8th Cir. 2000). As long as the ALJ properly applies these
five factors and gives several valid reasons for finding the Plaintiff’s subjective complaints are not
entirely credible, the ALJ’s credibility determination is entitled to deference. See id.; Cox v.
Barnhart, 471 F.3d 902, 907 (8th Cir. 2006). The ALJ, however, cannot discount Plaintiff’s
subjective complaints “solely because the objective medical evidence does not fully support them
[the subjective complaints].” Polaski, 739 F.2d at 1322.
When discounting a claimant’s complaint of pain, the ALJ must make a specific credibility
determination, articulating the reasons for discrediting the testimony, addressing any
inconsistencies, and discussing the Polaski factors. See Baker v. Apfel, 159 F.3d 1140, 1144 (8th
Cir. 1998). The inability to work without some pain or discomfort is not a sufficient reason to find
a Plaintiff disabled within the strict definition of the Act. The issue is not the existence of pain, but
whether the pain a Plaintiff experiences precludes the performance of substantial gainful activity.
See Thomas v. Sullivan, 928 F.2d 255, 259 (8th Cir. 1991).
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in assessing her credibility as it related to the limiting effects
of her impairments and did not fully consider her subjective complaints. The Defendant argues the
ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints of pain in compliance with Polaski.
In the present action, this Court finds the ALJ properly addressed and discounted Plaintiff’s
subjective complaints. In his opinion, the ALJ addressed the factors from Polaski, 20 C.F.R. §
404.1529, and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929, and stated inconsistencies between Plaintiff’s testimony and the
record. (Tr. 73-76). Specifically, the ALJ noted the following: (1) Absence of objective medical
findings to support Plaintiff’s alleged disabling pain, (2) Plaintiff’s described activities of daily living
are inconsistent with allegation of total disability, (3) Medical treatment resulted in improvement in
condition, (4) Medications improved symptoms, and (5) No physician has placed a level of limitation
on Plaintiff’s activities comparable to those described by Plaintiff. Id.
These findings are valid reasons supporting the ALJ’s credibility determination, and this
Court finds the ALJ’s credibility determination is supported by substantial evidence and should be
affirmed. See Lowe, 226 F.3d at 971-72. Accordingly, the ALJ did not err in discounting Plaintiff
complaints of pain.
Based on the foregoing, the undersigned finds that the decision of the ALJ, denying benefits
to Plaintiff, is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed. A judgment incorporating
these findings will be entered pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 52 and 58.
ENTERED this 25th day of September 2017.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U. S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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