Helms v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION, Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on November 8, 2011. (sh)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
MELVIN M. HELMS
Civil No. 3:10-cv-03100
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Melvin M. Helms (“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 his 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 his disability applications on March 2, 2009. (Tr. 9, 135-145). In
his applications, Plaintiff alleged he was disabled due to a past heart attack, sudden cardiac death
syndrome, and a bad lower back. (Tr. 186). Plaintiff alleged an onset date of February 13, 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.”
9). These applications were denied initially and again on reconsideration. (Tr. 77-80).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on his applications. (Tr. 96-100).
This hearing request was granted. (Tr. 108-130). An administrative hearing was held on May 25,
2010 in Harrison, Arkansas. (Tr. 35-76). Plaintiff was present and represented by counsel, Rick
Spencer, at this hearing. Id. Plaintiff, Vocational Expert (“VE”) David O’Neil, and three witnesses
for Plaintiff testified at this hearing. Id. On the date of this hearing, Plaintiff was forty-two (42) years
old, which is defined as a “younger person” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c) (2008), and had obtained
a GED. (Tr. 42-43).
On July 12, 2010, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision on Plaintiff’s applications. (Tr.
9-19). In this decision, the ALJ determined Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act
through June 30, 2012. (Tr. 11, Finding 1). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had engaged in Substantial
Gainful Activity (“SGA”) during the following periods: May, 2008 to February, 2009. (Tr. 11,
Finding 2). Despite his past work, the ALJ still determined there had been a continuous 12-month
period during which the claimant did not engage in SGA. (Tr. 11, Finding 3). Thus, the ALJ focused
the remainder of his findings on the period when Plaintiff was not engaging in SGA. Id.
The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: myocardial infarction,
mood disorder, lumbar spine diskectomy, hypertension, and fibromyalgia. (Tr. 12, Finding 4). The
ALJ also determined those impairments, singularly or in combination, did not meet or medically equal
the requirements one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined his RFC.
(Tr. 13-17, Finding 6). First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective allegations of disabling pain
and found they were not entirely credible. Id. Second, based upon this finding, the ALJ determined
Plaintiff retained the following RFC:
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) where interpersonal contact is incidental to the work
performed; where the complexity of tasks is learned and performed by rote, with few
variables; where little judgment required; and where required supervision is simple,
direct, and concrete. He can occasionally lift/carry 10 pounds, and frequently less.
He can sit for 6 hours an can stand/walk for 2 hours. He can occasionally climb,
balance, crawl, kneel, stoop, and crawl. However, he must avoid hazards, including
unprotected heights and moving machines.
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 17, Finding 7). The ALJ
found Plaintiff’s PRW included work as a staff member at a recycling center and as a warehouse
manager. Id. The ALJ found Plaintiff’s RFC precluded him from performing this PRW. Id. The
ALJ also found, however, that a hypothetical person with Plaintiff’s limitations would be able to
perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 17-18, Finding 11).
Specifically, the ALJ determined such a hypothetical person could perform other work such as a
Button and Notion Worker (i.e., Buckle Wire Inserter) with 800,000 such jobs in the national
economy and 1,200 such jobs in Arkansas; Fabric Worker (i.e., Cuff Folder) with 500,000 such jobs
in the national economy and 800 such jobs in Arkansas; and Electronics Component Worker (i.e.,
Bond Semiconductor) with 300,000 such jobs in the national economy and 900 such jobs in Arkansas.
(Tr. 18). Based upon this finding, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability,
as defined in the Act, from February 13, 2008 through July 12, 2010, the date of the ALJ’s decision.
(Tr. 18, Finding 12).
On July 26, 2010, Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s unfavorable
decision. (Tr. 4). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.968. The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ’s
disability determination. (Tr. 1-3). On November 5, 2010, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF
No. 1. The Parties consented to the jurisdiction of this Court on February 16, 2011. ECF No. 5. Both
Parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF Nos. 8-9. 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)
(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 his appeal brief, Plaintiff raises the following three arguments for reversal: (A) the ALJ
erred in his RFC determination; (B) the ALJ erred in evaluating his subjective complaints; and (C)
the ALJ erred in evaluating whether his impairments met the requirements of the Listings. ECF No.
8 at 1-21. In response, Defendant argues the ALJ’s RFC determination is supported by substantial
evidence in the record. ECF No. 9 at 1-17. Defendant also argues Plaintiff failed to carry his burden
of proving his impairments met or equaled the requirements a Listing, and the ALJ’s disability
determination is properly based upon the VE’s responses to the ALJ’s hypothetical questions. Id.
Because the ALJ’s RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence in the record, this
Court will only address Plaintiff’s first argument for reversal.
Plaintiff claims the ALJ’s RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence in the
record. ECF No. 8 at 11-13. Specifically, Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred by failing to fully consider
the findings of his treating physicians and by failing to request their opinions as to whether he could
even perform sedentary work. Id. Upon review of his medical records and the transcript, this Court
cannot determine whether Plaintiff’s impairments cause him to be unable to perform even sedentary
work. Accordingly, the ALJ’s RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence in the
record, and this case must be reversed and remanded.
Plaintiff’s medical records demonstrate he was hospitalized from February 7-8, 2011 after a
heart attack. (Tr. 311-337). On February 12, 2008, Dr. Scott Beau ordered a chest radiograph which
revealed no acute cardiopulmonary findings. (Tr. 287). The following day, Dr. Beau implanted a
cardioverter defibrillator system, which is similar to a pacemaker. (Tr. 279). Follow-up appointments
with cardiologist Dr. Otis Warr in March and May of 2008 and May of 2009 showed continued
normal functioning of the device. (Tr. 366-369).
However, on March 24, 2009, Plaintiff was examined by rheumatologist Dr. Ronald Rubio
due to problems with chest and back pain continuing since his February of 2008 defibrillator
implantation. (Tr. 338-340). He was directed to return in two weeks for a review of his tests and to
discuss any further recommendations. Id. On April 6, 2009, two weeks later, Plaintiff reported
suffering from chronic sternal pain. (Tr. 341). Dr. Rubio’s impression was chronic sternal pain and
chest wall pain as well as possible Fibromyalgia. Id. Thereafter, on June 17, 2009, Plaintiff had
another collapse and loss of consciousness related to his heart condition. (Tr. 397-401). Plaintiff
complained of severe chest pain, and he was given the preliminary diagnoses of hypertensive
cardiovascular disease (uncontrolled). (Tr. 399).
In his hearing decision, the ALJ based his findings regarding Plaintiff’s physical limitations
almost entirely upon the opinions of a non-examining, non-treating physician. (Tr. 16). The ALJ
gave this assessment “significant weight.” Id. Indeed, in his RFC determination, the ALJ did not
discuss or analyze the findings of Plaintiff’s treating physicians or the fact that Plaintiff had been
diagnosed with hypertensive cardiovascular disease (uncontrolled) and Fibromyalgia. (Tr. 14-17).
The ALJ only made a passive reference to Plaintiff’s heart attack: “He suffered a significant cardiac
episode in February of 2008 subsequent to which he underwent cardiac catheterization and placement
of a defibrillator.” (Tr. 14). The ALJ also did not discuss Plaintiff’s cardiac episode which occurred
after the defibrillator was implanted.
Then, instead of summarizing Plaintiff’s medical records and reviewing the findings from
Plaintiff’s physicians as outlined above, the ALJ merely listed the physicians who had examined him:
The claimant has been treated by Dr. Maxwell G. Cheney; Dr. Scott L. Beau; Dr. Jane
Kuzas; Dr. Allen Charles Jackson; Dr. Margo Lockyer; Dr. Timothy C. Paden; Dr.
Shelley Warr; Dr. Otis Warr; Dr. Elizabeth S. Cheek; Dr. Ronald Rubio; Dr. Melissa
Quevillon; and Dr. John P. Black; among others, at Baxter Regional Medical Center;
North Arkansas Rheumatology, PLLC; Cardiovascular Associates of North Central
Arkansas; Arkansas Heart Hospital; and Mountain Home Medical Group.
Because the ALJ did not at least summarize and consider the findings from each of these
physicians, and instead relied upon the opinions of a non-examining and non-treating physician, his
RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Cox v. Barnhart, 345
F.3d 606, 610 (8th Cir. 2003) (holding “[w]e have stated many times that the results of a one-time
medical evaluation do not constitute substantial evidence on which the ALJ can permissibly base his
opinion.”). Accordingly, Plaintiff’s 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 must be reversed and remanded. A judgment
incorporating these findings will be entered pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 52 and 58.
ENTERED this 7th day of November, 2011.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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