Lane v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable James R. Marschewski on February 13, 2014. (tg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
GLORIA L. LANE
Civil No. 12-3099
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,1 Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Gloria L. Lane , brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review
of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her claim
for a period of disability and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social
Security Act (hereinafter “the Act”); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). 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 applied for SSI on February 18, 2010. (Tr. 12.) Plaintiff alleged an onset date of April
16, 1983. (Tr. 12.) Plaintiff alleged learning disability, history of brain tumor, headaches, poor peripheral
vision, back pain, and short term memory loss. (Tr. 141.) Plaintiff’s applications were denied initially
and on reconsideration. Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on March 17, 2011.
(Tr. 35.) Plaintiff was present to testify and was represented by counsel. The ALJ also heard testimony
from Vocational Expert (“VE”) Sarah Moore. (Tr. 35.)
At the time of the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was 28 years old, and possessed a high school
diploma, special education track. (Tr. 142.) The Plaintiff had no past relevant work experience (“PRW”).
Carolyn W. Colvin became the Social Security Commissioner on February 14, 2013. Pursuant to Rule
25(d)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Carolyn W. Colvin has been substituted for Commissioner
Michael J. Astrue as the defendant in this suit.
On April 13, 2011, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff suffered the following severe impairments:
“cognitive disorder, chronic depression, cervical disk protrusion, headaches, low vision, and learning
disability.” (Tr. 14.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff maintained the residual functional capacity to perform
light work, “except that she cannot do work requiring excellent vision, but she can avoid hazards in the
work place and can distinguish between shape and color of small objects, such as screws, nuts, and bolts.
The claimant can do work where interpersonal contact is incidental to the work performed, the
complexity of tasks is learned and performed by rote with few variables and little judgment involved,
and the supervision is simple, direct, and concrete.” (Tr. 16.) With the assistance of the VE, the ALJ
determined that the Plaintiff could perform such representative occupations as housekeeper, small
product assembler, and machine tender. (Tr. 21.)
Plaintiff requested a review by the Appeals Council on April 21, 2011. (Tr. 7.) The Appeals
Council denied the appeal on June 15, 2102. (Tr. 1.)
This Court's role is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by
substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 614, 617 (8th Cir. 2007).
Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind would find it
adequate to support the Commissioner’s decision. Id. “Our review extends beyond examining the record
to find substantial evidence in support of the ALJ’s decision; we also consider evidence in the record
that fairly detracts from that decision.” Id. As long as there is substantial evidence in the record to
support the Commissioner’s decision, the court may not reverse the decision simply because substantial
evidence exists in the record to support a contrary outcome, or because the court would have decided the
case differently. Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). If the court finds it possible
“to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence, and one of those positions represents the
Secretary’s findings, the court must affirm the decision of the Secretary.” Cox, 495 F.3d at 617 (internal
quotation and alteration omitted).
It is well-established that a claimant for Social Security disability benefits has the burden of
proving his disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one year and
that prevents him from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d
1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); see 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 his disability, not simply
his impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months. Titus v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 590, 594 (8th
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 his 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 his age, education, and experience.
See 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(a)- (f)(2003). Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider
the plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience in light of his or 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 (2003).
Plaintiff raises two issues on appeal: 1) the ALJ erred in evaluating the Plaintiff’s credibility;
and 2) the ALJ’s Overall RFC is not supported by medical evidence. (Pl.’s Br. 12, 15.) Because this
Court finds that the ALJ failed to fully develop the record concerning the Plaintiff’s brain MRI evidence,
issue 1 will not be addressed.
The ALJ has a duty to fully and fairly develop the record. See Frankl v. Shalala, 47 F.3d 935,
938 (8th Cir. 1995)(ALJ must fully and fairly develop the record so that a just determination of disability
may be made). This duty exists "even if ... the claimant is represented by counsel." Boyd v. Sullivan, 960
F.2d 733, 736 (8th Cir.1992) (quoting Warner v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 428, 431 (8th Cir.1983)). Once the
ALJ is made aware of a crucial issue that might change the outcome of a case, the ALJ must conduct
further inquiry to fully develop the record. Snead v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d 834, 838 (8th Cir. 2004.); see
e.g. Vossen v. Astrue, 612 F.3d 1011, 1016 (8th Cir. 2010) (ALJ’s failure to recontact Commissioner’s
consultative physician to authenticate his report was reversible error when that report supported
Plaintiff’s claim); (Lorence v. Astrue , 691 F. Supp. 1008, 1027 (D. Minn. 2010)(failure to analyze
important objective evidence in a claimant’s file is reversible error).
This Court is troubled by the ALJ’s failure to develop the record concerning the results of
Plaintiff’s brain MRI performed at Baxter Regional Medical Center on December 31, 2010. (Tr. 374.)
The MRI was ordered by Plaintiff’s treating physician Dr. Lonnie Robinson and interpreted by Dr. Kyle
McAlister. (Tr. 374.) Dr. McAlister’s impression of the scan was of a
“[m]arkedly abnormal study with elliptical fluid collection along the temporal lobe, as well as
elliptical fluid collection along the anterior frontal aspect. This compresses the left frontal region to some
degree...She is having headaches and there is enlargement of the left ventricle...The most concerning
findings are these elliptical fluid collections along the frontal aspect on the left side, as this may be
actually trapped fluid that is increasing in size and causing some compression on the brain.”
(Tr. 374-75.) A handwritten notation by Dr. Brad Thomas on January 14, 2011 instructs “Neurosurgery
eval ASAP.” (Tr. 374-75.)
This MRI is objective medical evidence that could, at least based on the comments of the
interpreting physician, support Plaintiff’s claim. However, it was not considered by the ALJ. The MRI
was performed well after the consultative mental exam performed by Dr. Nichols on April 26, 2010. (Tr.
276.) It was also well after the Psychiatric Review Technique completed on May 11, 2010, and the
subsequent Requests for Medical Advice in July and August 2010. (Tr. 282.) Therefore the MRI results
could not have been included in these assessments. Despite Plaintiff’s allegation of headaches, there is
no Physical RFC in the record. Therefore the MRI results were not evaluated in regard to Plaintiff’s
physical function in the workplace. The ALJ did not reference or discuss the MRI in his opinion,
therefore he failed to analyze objective evidence that could be crucial to Plaintiff’s claim. Once the ALJ
was made aware of objective medical evidence that could support Plaintiff’s claim, he had a duty to fully
and fairly develop the record concerning it. He did not.
On remand, the ALJ is directed to order a consultative examination for Plaintiff with a
neurologist. This physical exam must include a Physical RFC Assessment. The ALJ must then include
the limitations, if any, assessed in this RFC in hypotheticals to the VE.
Accordingly, we conclude that The ALJ’s decision is not supported by substantial evidence and
should be reversed and remanded to The Commissioner for further consideration pursuant to sentence
four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
DATED this 13th day of February 2014.
HON. JAMES R. MARSCHEWSKI
CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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