Thompson v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on September 17, 2013. (lw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
JANIE C.M. THOMPSON
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,1
Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Janie C.M. Thompson, 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) and supplemental security income (SSI) under the provisions of Titles II and XVI 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 applications for DIB and SSI on May 28, 2010, alleging
an inability to work since October 29, 2008, due to clogged arteries, stents, heart problem, high
blood pressure, and diabetes. (Tr. 139-140, 146-149, 190, 194). An administrative hearing was
held on March 9, 2011, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and Plaintiff, her daughter, and
a friend testified. (Tr. 37-77).
Carolyn W. Colvin, has been appointed to serve as acting Commissioner of Social Security, and is substituted as
Defendant, pursuant to Rule 25(d)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
By written decision dated September 7, 2011, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe - peripheral
vascular disease status post stenting, diabetes mellitus, obesity, and osteoarthritis of the hips and
lumbar spine. (Tr. 16). 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. 16). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)
except the claimant can sit for 6 hours total and stand and/or walk for 2
hours total in an eight-hour workday; the claimant can only occasionally
climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and the claimant must
avoid even moderate exposure to hazards.
(Tr. 17). With the help of the vocational expert (VE), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could
perform her past relevant work as a wire worker. (Tr. 21).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied the request on December 21, 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. 5).
Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 8, 10).
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)(D). 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 had engaged in substantial
gainful activity since filing her claim; (2) whether the claimant had a severe physical and/or
mental impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment(s) met or equaled
an impairment in the listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevented the claimant from doing
past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant was able to perform other work in the national
economy given her age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. §416.920. 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 (RFC). See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138,
1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §416.920.
Plaintiff raises the following issues on appeal: 1) The ALJ failed to follow the “Treating
Physician’s” Rule; and 2) The ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 8).
Weight to be given Treating Physician’s Opinion:
“A treating source's opinion is to be given controlling weight where it is supported by
acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and where it is not inconsistent with
other substantial evidence in the record.” Shontos v. Barnhart, 328 F.3d 418, 426 (8th Cir.2003),
paraphrasing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). When a treating source's opinion is not controlling,
it is weighed by the same factors as any other medical opinion: the examining relationship, the
treatment relationship, supporting explanations, consistency, specialization, and other factors.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d).
In this case, Plaintiff’s treating physician, Dr. Robert C. Ahrens, M.D., completed a
Medical Source Statement on November 29, 2010. (Tr. 468). Dr. Ahren opined, inter alia, that
Plaintiff was not capable of handling a job in a competitive work situation, and that she would
be absent “several” days per month as a result of her impairments or treatment. (Tr. 468). In his
decision, the ALJ addressed Dr. Ahrens’ opinion as follows:
As for the opinion evidence, the opinions regarding the claimant’s
residual functional capacity provided by Robert C. Ahrens, M.D., are
afforded no weight as they are not supported by the objective medical
evidence of record or even Dr. Ahrens’ own treatment notes. (Exhibit
10F). The State agency medical consultants’ physical assessments are
afforded little weight because evidence received at the hearing level
shows that the claimant is more limited than determined by the State
agency consultants. (Exhibits 6F & 8F). The opinion provided by Robert
E. Casali is afforded significant weight as it is based upon objective
medical evidence. (Exhibit 13F). Finally, the opinion of Shannon H.
Brownfield is afforded some, but not substantial, weight, as Dr.
Brownfield did not have the benefit of a longitudinal treatment history
with the claimant from which to formulate the opinion. (Exhibit 12F).
(Tr. 21). As noted by Defendant, other than Plaintiff’s visit to the Ahrens Clinic in August of
2006, the medical evidence of record provided adequate evidence for the ALJ to properly
evaluate Dr. Ahrens’ opinion, in light of the fact that Dr. Ahrens only saw Plaintiff on a couple
of occasions and did not perform clinical examinations. (Tr. 21, 470-471).
In addition, although Dr. Shannon H. Brownfield opined that Plaintiff would have severe
to moderate limitations with prolonged standing and walking, and moderate limitations with
prolonged sitting/stooping, bending, and lifting (Tr. 478), the ALJ’s RFC took this into
consideration in his RFC, since he required Plaintiff to sit for 6 hours total and stand and/or walk
for 2 hours total in an eight-hour workday, rather than standing or walking, off and on, for a total
of approximately 6 hours of an 8-hour workday, as normally required in positions involving light
work. See SSR 83-10.
Based upon the foregoing, as well as for those reasons given in Defendant’s well-stated
brief, the Court finds there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s findings as to the weight
given to Dr. Ahrens’ opinion.
Substantial Evidence to Support the ALJ’s decision:
In support of this argument, Plaintiff simply delineates general principles relating to
substantial evidence, and then stated that “a decision such as this one that ignores clear evidence
that this lady is not nearly as capable as the ALJ believes and only creates out of thin air reasons
for ignoring the assessment’s of a physician whose conclusions are favorable to the claimant is
not supported by substantial evidence.” (Doc. 8 at p. 9).
RFC is the most a person can do despite that person’s limitations.
§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
description 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
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). “The ALJ is [also] required to set forth specifically a claimant’s limitations and to
determine how those limitations affect his RFC.” Id.
In this case, the ALJ clearly considered all of the medical records, observations of treating
physicians and others, as well as Plaintiff’s own description of her limitations. In fact, the ALJ
noted that Plaintiff worked after the alleged disability onset date on a part-time basis for Care
Free Living as a personal care taker, and quit because she was not getting enough hours, and
worked after the onset date at Tyson’s chicken plant for three weeks. (Tr. 15). The ALJ carefully
considered all of the Plaintiff’s medical records regarding her peripheral vascular disease, her
surgeries, and her daily activities. (Tr. 17-19). The ALJ also addressed Plaintiff’s credibility,
noting some of the inconsistencies in her reports regarding her ability to walk, stand, and sit. (Tr.
Based upon the foregoing, as well as for those reasons given in Defendant’s well-stated
brief, the Court finds there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s decision.
Accordingly, having carefully reviewed the record, the Court finds substantial evidence
supporting the ALJ’s decision denying the Plaintiff benefits, and thus the decision is hereby
affirmed. The undersigned further finds that Plaintiff’s Complaint should be, and is hereby,
dismissed with prejudice.
IT IS SO ORDERED this 17th day of September, 2013.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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