Davis v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on December 23, 2013. (rw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
TERESA J. DAVIS
CIVIL NO. 12-3111
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,1 Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Teresa J. Davis, 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 December 28,
2009, alleging an inability to work since January 7, 2008, due to neck pain, left arm and shoulder
pain, low back pain, depression, stress, headaches, anxiety and emotional problems. (Tr. 123,
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.
127, 146). An administrative video hearing was held on January 12, 2011, at which Plaintiff
appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 32-56).
By written decision dated June 21, 2011, 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: cervical/lumbar
degenerative disc disease, and a depressive 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.15). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional
capacity (RFC) to perform light work with limitations. (Tr. 17). Specifically the ALJ found
Plaintiff maintained the RFC to:
lift and carry no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting and carrying
of up to 10 pounds. She can perform activities that require a good deal of
walking or standing, but cannot perform frequent bending. The claimant also has
manipulative limitations and cannot perform frequent overhead reaching.
Mentally, she is limited to unskilled work, which is work where interpersonal
contact is incidental to work performed, the complexity of tasks is learned and
performed by rote, involves few variables, requires little independent judgment,
and the supervision required is simple, direct and concrete. In addition, due to
moderate difficulties with social interactions, she cannot deal with the general
(Tr. 18). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform her
past relevant work as a housekeeper, as well as other work as a factory assembler. (Tr. 25).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on May 10, 2012. (Tr. 5-8). On August 1, 2012, the Appeals Council
granted Plaintiff’s request for an extension of time to file a civil action. (Tr. 1). 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. 9, 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)(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, 916.520.
Plaintiff argues the following issues on appeal: 1) the ALJ erred in determining Plaintiff’s
RFC; and 2) the ALJ’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence.
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 the present case, the ALJ considered the medical assessments of examining and nonexamining agency medical consultants, Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, and her medical records
when he determined Plaintiff could perform light work with limitations. The Court notes that
in determining Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ discussed the medical opinions of examining and nonexamining medical professionals, including the opinions of Drs. James A. Simpson, Terry L.
Efird, Dennis O. Davidson, and Ted Honghiran,2 and set forth the reasons for the weight given
to the opinions. Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1065 (8th Cir. 2012) (“It is the ALJ’s
function to resolve conflicts among the opinions of various treating and examining
physicians”)(citations omitted); Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010 at 1012 (the ALJ may reject the
conclusions of any medical expert, whether hired by the claimant or the government, if they are
inconsistent with the record as a whole); Davidson v. Astrue 501 F.3d 987, 990-91 (8th Cir. 2007)
The Court notes that while Dr. Honghiran’s letter is dated March 16, 2010, he actually examined Plaintiff on
March 16, 2011. (Tr. 324-331).
(finding ALJ correctly discounted a physician’s assessment report when his treatment notes
contradicted the report). Based on the record as a whole, the Court finds substantial evidence
to support the ALJ’s RFC determination 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, 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 Plaintiff could take care of her personal needs, help care for her pets, perform
household chores with breaks, prepare simple meals, shop, pay bills, and visit with friends and
The Court would also note that while Plaintiff alleged an inability to seek treatment due
to a lack of finances, the record is void of any indication that Plaintiff had been denied treatment
due to the lack of funds. Murphy v. Sullivan, 953 F.3d 383, 386-87 (8th Cir. 1992) (holding that
lack of evidence that plaintiff sought low-cost medical treatment from her doctor, clinics, or
hospitals does not support plaintiff’s contention of financial hardship).
Therefore, although it is clear that Plaintiff suffers with some degree of pain, she has not
established that she is unable to engage in any gainful activity. See Craig v. Apfel, 212 F.3d 433,
436 (8th Cir. 2000) (holding that mere fact that working may cause pain or discomfort does not
mandate a finding of disability). Accordingly, the Court concludes that substantial evidence
supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff’s subjective complaints were not totally credible.
Based on the record as a whole, the Court finds there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s
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 her past relevant work as a
housekeeper, as well as other work as a factory assembler. 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 23rd day of December, 2013.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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