Schluterman v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on July 7, 2017. (mjm)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
FORT SMITH DIVISION
KATHERINE L. SCHLUTERMAN
Civil No. 2:16-cv-02190
NANCY A. BERRYHILL
Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Katherine L. Schluterman (“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 application
for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and a period of disability 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 protectively filed her disability application on February 12, 2014. (Tr. 11). In her
application, Plaintiff alleges being disabled due to depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder,
bulging disc in her back, arthritis in her left shoulder, bilateral arthritis in her wrists, and bilateral
arthritis in her hips (left worse than right), and obesity. (Tr. 188). Plaintiff alleges an onset date of
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.”
October 5, 2012. (Tr. 11). This application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration.
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her denied application. (Tr. 99100). The ALJ granted that request and held an administrative hearing on June 17, 2015 in Fort
Smith, Arkansas. (Tr. 25-57). At this hearing, Plaintiff was present and was represented by Fred
Caddell. Id. Plaintiff and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Deborah Steele testified at this hearing. Id.
At this hearing, Plaintiff testified she was forty-nine (49) years old, which is defined as a “younger
person” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c) (2008) (DIB). (Tr. 30). As for her level of education,
Plaintiff testified she completed the twelfth grade in high school. Id.
After this hearing, on July 16, 2015, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying
Plaintiff’s disability application. (Tr. 8-20). In this decision, the ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured
status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2018. (Tr. 13, Finding 1). The ALJ
determined Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since October 5, 2012,
her alleged onset date. (Tr. 13, Finding 2). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe
impairments: hypertension; osteoarthritis of the left hip, shoulders, and wrists; chronic lower back
pain; spondylolisthesis at L5-S1; and obesity. (Tr. 13-15, Finding 3). Despite being severe, the ALJ
determined these 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. 13-15,
The ALJ then considered Plaintiff’s Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). (Tr. 15-18,
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 RFC
to perform the following:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the
claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20
CFR 404.1567(b), which consists of lifting and carrying up to 20 pounds occasionally
and 10 pounds frequently. She is limited to work which involves simple tasks and
simple instructions. She should have only incidental contact with the general public.
The ALJ then evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”) and found Plaintiff was
unable to perform her PRW. (Tr. 18-19, Finding 6). The ALJ also considered whether Plaintiff
retained the capacity to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy.
(Tr. 19-20, Finding 10). The VE testified at the administrative hearing regarding this issue. Id.
Based upon that testimony, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform
occupations such as the following: (1) air purifier servicer (light) with 1,150 such jobs in the region
and 139,760 such jobs in the nation; (2) housekeeper or cleaner (light) with 3,270 such jobs in the
region and 391,650 such jobs in the nation; and (3) apparel stock checker (light) with 150 such jobs
in the region and 14,500 such jobs in the nation. (Tr. 19-20, Finding 10). Because Plaintiff retained
the capacity to perform this other work, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not been under a disability,
as defined by the Act, from October 5, 2012 (alleged onset date) through July 16, 2015 (ALJ’s
decision date). (Tr. 20, Finding 11).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a review by the Appeals Council. (Tr. 5). On July 1, 2016,
the Appeals Council denied this request. (Tr. 1-3). On August 4, 2016, Plaintiff filed the present
appeal with the Court. ECF No. 1. The Parties consented to the jurisdiction of this Court on August
5, 2016. ECF No. 5. Both Parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF Nos. 13, 16. This case is now ripe
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).
In her appeal brief, Plaintiff raises two arguments for reversal: (1) the ALJ erred in assessing
her credibility; and (2) the ALJ erred in assessing her RFC. ECF No. 13 at 1-20. Upon review, the
Court agrees with Plaintiff’s first argument and finds the ALJ improperly evaluated her subjective
complaints. Accordingly, the Court will only address this argument for reversal.
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 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 that 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
Social Security Regulations 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929 r equire 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.
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).
In the present action, the ALJ did not comply with the requirements of Polaski. Instead of
complying with Polaski and considering the Polaski factors, the ALJ only focused on Plaintiff’s
medical records. (Tr. 15-18). Indeed, although the ALJ recited he had evaluated Plaintiff’s
subjective allegations in accordance with Polaski, the ALJ truly only discounted Plaintiff’s
subjective complaints because they were not supported by her medical records:
Based on the entire record, including the testimony of the claimant, the undersigned
concludes that the evidence fails to support the claimant’s assertions of total
disability. Despite the evidence demonstrating that the claimant has suffered from
a medically determinable “severe” impairment, the evidence also establishes that the
claimant retains the capacity to function adequately to perform many basic activities
associated with work. In sum, the above residual functional capacity assessment is
supported by the objective medical evidence contained in the record. Treatment
notes in the record do not sustain the claimant’s allegations of disabling pain and
limitations. The claimant does experience some levels of pain and limitations but
only to the extent described in the residual functional capacity above.
(Tr. 18) (emphasis added).
Indeed, although the ALJ also referenced Plaintiff’s daily activities, those activities only
included being able “to perform personal care, do laundry and dishes, perform household chores a
little at a time, drive a car, go out alone, shop in stores, handle her finances, attend her daughter’s
ballgames, get along well with others, and perform hobbies such as reading and watching television.”
(Tr.18). These activities are certainly not extensive.
Furthermore, in her function report, Plaintiff also stated she needed someone to accompany
her when she goes out (Tr. 183), only shops every “2-3 months” for “10-15 minutes” (Tr. 182), and
can drive but not on the interstate (Tr. 180). These activities are simply not sufficient to discount
Plaintiff’s subjective complaints. Notably, based upon the Court’s review of the ALJ’s opinion and
as recognized above, it appears her subjective complaints were entirely discounted because they were
not consistent with her medical records.
The Court finds the ALJ’s decision to discount Plaintiff’s subjective complaints without a
sufficient basis was improper under Polaski. See Polaski, 739 F.2d at 1322 (holding a claimant’s
subjective complaints cannot be discounted “solely because the objective medical evidence does not
fully support them [the subjective complaints]”). Accordingly, because the ALJ provided no valid
reasons for discounting Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, this case must be reversed and remanded.
Based on the foregoing, the undersigned finds that the decision of the ALJ, denying benefits
to Plaintiff, is not supported by substantial evidence and should be reversed and remanded.3 A
judgment incorporating these findings will be entered pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure
52 and 58.
ENTERED this 7th day of June 2017.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U. S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
This remand is ordered solely for the purpose of permitting the ALJ the opportunity to comply
with the requirements of Polaski. No part of this remand should be interpreted as an instruction that
disability benefits be awarded. Upon remand, the ALJ should further evaluate the evidence and make a
disability determination, subject to this Court’s later review.
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