Cohick v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on September 17, 2012. (lw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CIVIL NO. 11-3101
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Virginia C. Cohick, 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 her claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits
(DIB) under the provisions of Title II 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 her current application for DIB on December 2, 2009, alleging
an inability to work since February 1, 2004, due to nerve damage, arthritis, a torn Achilles
tendon, and migraines. (Tr. 90-92, 114). For DIB purposes, Plaintiff maintained insured status
through September 30, 2008. (Tr. 9). An administrative hearing was held on September 15,
2010, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 21-40).
By written decision dated December 3, 2010, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 11).
Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis,
restless leg syndrome, and migraine headaches. 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. 12). The ALJ found that through the date last insured Plaintiff retained
the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a). She could
occasionally lift/carry ten pounds and frequently less. She could sit for six hours
and stand/walk for two hours. She should avoid hazards and concentrated
exposure to temperature extremes, fumes, odors, gases and poor ventilation. She
can never climb ropes or ladders. She can occasionally climb stairs and ramps,
balance, crawl, kneel, crouch, and stoop.
(Tr. 12). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff could perform work as a patcher, a call out operator, and a charge account clerk.
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on August 31, 2011. (Tr. 1-4). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action.
(Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 3).
Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 6,7).
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 her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one
year and that prevents her 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 her disability, not simply her impairment, has lasted for
at least twelve consecutive months.
The Commissioner’s regulations require him 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 her 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 her age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Only if the final
stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience
in light of her residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42
(8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in concluding that the Plaintiff was not disabled
because (1) substantial evidence of record does not support the ALJ’s RFC determination; and
(2) the hypothetical question proposed to the vocational expert failed to include all of Plaintiff’s
limitations. Defendant argues substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination.
In order to have insured status under the Act, an individual is required to have twenty
quarters of coverage in each forty-quarter period ending with the first quarter of disability. 42
U.S.C. § 416(i)(3)(B). Plaintiff last met this requirement on September 30, 2008. Regarding
Plaintiff’s application for DIB, the overreaching issue in this case is the question of whether
Plaintiff was disabled during the relevant time period of February 1, 2004, her alleged onset date
of disability, through September 30, 2008, the last date she was in insured status under Title II
of the Act.
In order for Plaintiff to qualify for DIB she must prove that, on or before the expiration
of her insured status she was unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically
determinable physical or mental impairment which is expected to last for at least twelve months
or result in death. Basinger v. Heckler, 725 F.2d 1166, 1168 (8th Cir. 1984). Records and
medical opinions from outside the insured period can only be used in “helping to elucidate a
medical condition during the time for which benefits might be rewarded.” Cox v. Barnhart, 471
F.3d 902, 907 (8th Cir.2006) (holding that the parties must focus their attention on claimant's
condition at the time she last met insured status requirements).
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). It is assessed using all relevant evidence in the record. Id. This includes medical
records, observations of treating physicians and others, and the claimant’s own descriptions of
her limitations. Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005); Eichelberger v.
Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004). 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). “[T]he ALJ is [also] required to set forth specifically a claimant’s
limitations and to determine how those limitations affect his RFC.” Id.
In determining that Plaintiff maintained the RFC to perform sedentary work with
limitations, the ALJ considered the medical assessments of the non-examining agency medical
consultants; Plaintiff’s subjective complaints; and her medical records. The Court finds, based
upon the well-stated reasons outlined in the Defendant’s brief, that Plaintiff’s argument is
without merit, and there was sufficient evidence for the ALJ to make an informed decision.
Therefore, the Court finds there is substantial evidence of record to support the ALJ’s RFC
findings for the relevant time period.
Hypothetical Question to the Vocational Expert:
After thoroughly reviewing the hearing transcript along with the entire evidence of
record, the Court finds that the hypothetical the ALJ posed to the vocational expert fully set forth
the impairments which the ALJ accepted as true and which were supported by the record as a
whole. Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 794 (8th Cir. 2005). Accordingly, the Court finds that
the vocational expert's opinion constitutes substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's conclusion
that during the relevant time period Plaintiff's impairments did not preclude her from performing
work as a patcher, a call out operator, and a charge account clerk. Pickney v. Chater, 96 F.3d
294, 296 (8th Cir. 1996)(testimony from vocational expert based on properly phrased
hypothetical question constitutes substantial evidence).
Subjective Complaints and Credibility Analysis:
The ALJ was required to consider all the evidence relating to Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints including evidence presented by third parties that relates to: (1) Plaintiff’s daily
activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of her pain; (3) precipitating and aggravating
factors; (4) dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of her medication; and (5) functional
restrictions. See Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir. 1984). While an ALJ may not
discount a claimant’s subjective complaints solely because the medical evidence fails to support
them, an ALJ may discount those complaints where inconsistencies appear in the record as a
whole. Id. As the Eighth Circuit has observed, “Our touchstone is that [a claimant’s] credibility
is primarily a matter for the ALJ to decide.” Edwards, 314 F.3d at 966.
After reviewing the administrative record, and the Defendant’s well-stated reasons set
forth in his brief, it is clear that the ALJ properly considered and evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints, including the Polaski factors. The Court would note that the record revealed that
during the time period in question, Plaintiff was able to throw tires into a truck for three hours
in November of 2007 (229-233). It is also noteworthy, that in August of 2008, when Plaintiff
sought emergency room treatment for a headache and left-sided weakness, Dr. Dan B. Bell
indicted that some of Plaintiff’s symptoms appeared to be “a bit contrived.” (Tr. 241).
Furthermore, in March of 2009, well after the relevant time period, Plaintiff sought treatment for
a rash after spending time outdoors clearing limbs and trees after an ice storm. (Tr. 300).
Based on the record as a whole, the Court finds there is substantial evidence to support
the ALJ’s credibility findings.
Accordingly, having carefully reviewed the record, the undersigned finds substantial
evidence supporting the ALJ's decision denying the Plaintiff benefits, and thus the decision
should be affirmed. The undersigned further finds that the Plaintiff’s Complaint should be
dismissed with prejudice.
DATED this 17th day of September, 2012.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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