Brown v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on July 3, 2013. (lw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CIVIL NO. 12-3038
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,1 Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Christine Brown, 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) benefits 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 current applications for DIB and SSI on April 13, 2009,
alleging an inability to work since May 1, 2007, due to a Bipolar Disorder, diabetes, and sleep
apnea. (Tr. 137, 173). An administrative hearing was held on June 24, 2010, at which Plaintiff
appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 34-90).
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 November 22, 2010, the ALJ found that during the relevant
time period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr.
15). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia,
insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, hypertension, obesity, obstructive sleep apnea, and bipolar
disorder. 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. 20). The ALJ
found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a). She
is able to lift and carry objects weighing 10 pounds. She is able to occasionally
climb ramps and stairs. She is not able to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding.
She is able to occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. She must
avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, moving machinery, and
unprotected heights, and she can perform no driving as part of work. She is able
to perform work where interpersonal contact is incidental to work performed,
complexity of tasks is learned and performed by rote, with few variables and little
judgement, and supervision required for simple, direct, and concrete.
(Tr. 21). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work
as a machine tender, an assembly worker, and a group inspector. (Tr. 27).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
after reviewing additional evidence submitted denied that request on February 13, 2012. (Tr. 16). 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. 8,9).
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 her 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, 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. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138,
1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
Plaintiff argues the following issues in this appeal: 1) the ALJ erred in determining
Plaintiff’s RFC; and 2) the ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff not credible.
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 unskilled 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.
The Court notes that after the ALJ issued his decision, Plaintiff submitted additional
medical evidence to the Appeals Council regarding her impairments. The Court considered this
evidence but still finds substantial evidence on the record as a whole supporting the ALJ's
decision. Therefore, the Court finds there is substantial evidence of record to support the ALJ’s
RFC findings for the relevant time period.
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 her brief, it is clear that the ALJ properly considered and evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints, including the Polaski factors. A review of the record revealed that during the
relevant time period Plaintiff was able to baby-sit for two young children for four and five hours
a day, four to five days a week; to do household chores; to help take care of her daughter; to
prepare meals; to drive and shop for groceries; and to visit her parents every day. The record
further revealed that Plaintiff was able to play video games, and that she reported her exercise
as “chasing kids.”
Based on the record as a whole, the Court finds there is substantial evidence to support
the ALJ’s credibility findings.
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 Plaintiff's impairments did not preclude her from performing work as a machine tender, an
assembly worker, and a group inspector. Pickney v. Chater, 96 F.3d 294, 296 (8th Cir.
1996)(testimony from vocational expert based on properly phrased hypothetical question
constitutes substantial evidence).
Fully and Fairly Develop the Record:
While an ALJ is required to develop the record fully and fairly, see Freeman v. Apfel,
208 F.3d 687, 692 (8th Cir.2000) (ALJ must order consultative examination only when it is
necessary for an informed decision), the record before the ALJ contained the evidence required
to make a full and informed decision regarding Plaintiff’s capabilities during the relevant time
period. See Strongson v. Barnhart, 361 F.3d 1066, 1071-72 (8th Cir.2004) (ALJ must develop
record fully and fairly to ensure it includes evidence from treating physician, or at least
examining physician, addressing impairments at issue).
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 3rd day of July, 2013.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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