Sparks v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on April 23, 2014. (tg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CIVIL NO. 13-3026
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Debra Sparks, 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 January 27, 2011,
and February 25, 2011, respectively, alleging an inability to work since October 15, 2008,1 due
to major depression, a chronic pain disorder, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, a mild cardiac
prominence, and a lung problem. (Tr. 186, 192, 228). An administrative video hearing was held
on January 27, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 68-102).
Plaintiff, through her counsel, amended her alleged onset date to January 1, 2011. (Tr. 8, 73).
By written decision dated March 15, 2012, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 10).
Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis of the
knees, obesity, status post fracture of the ankle status post open reduction with internal fixation,
and depression. 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. 11). 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) except
the claimant can perform work involving simple tasks with simple instructions.
(Tr. 13). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work
as a peanut sorter, an ordinance checker, and an addressing clerk. (Tr. 19).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on December 26, 2012. (Tr. 1-3). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action.
(Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 7).
Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 11, 12).
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 on appeal: 1) the ALJ erred in determining Plaintiff’s
severe impairments; 2) the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff did not meet Listing 12.05(C);
3) the ALJ erred in determining Plaintiff’s RFC; and 4) the ALJ’s decision is not supported by
At Step Two of the sequential analysis, the ALJ is required to determine whether a
claimant's impairments are severe. See 20 C .F.R. § 404.1520(c). To be severe, an impairment
only needs to have more than a minimal impact on a claimant's ability to perform work-related
activities. See Social Security Ruling 96-3p. The Step Two requirement is only a threshold test
so the claimant's burden is minimal and does not require a showing that the impairment is
disabling in nature. See Brown v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 153-54 (1987). The claimant,
however, has the burden of proof of showing she suffers from a medically-severe impairment
at Step Two. See Mittlestedt v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir.2000).
The ALJ clearly considered all of Plaintiff’s impairments, including the impairments that
were found to be non-severe. See Swartz v. Barnhart, 188 F. App'x 361, 368 (6th Cir.2006)
(where ALJ finds at least one “severe” impairment and proceeds to assess claimant's RFC based
on all alleged impairments, any error in failing to identify particular impairment as “severe” at
step two is harmless); Elmore v. Astrue, 2012 WL 1085487 *12 (E.D. Mo. March 5, 2012); see
also 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(2) (in assessing RFC, ALJ must consider “all of [a claimant's]
medically determinable impairments ..., including ... impairments that are not ‘severe’ ”); §
416.923 (ALJ must “consider the combined effect of all [the claimant's] impairments without
regard to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of sufficient
severity”). The Court finds the ALJ did not commit reversible error in setting forth Plaintiff’s
Listing Impairment 12.05C:
Under Listing 12.05C, a claimant suffers from the required severity of mental retardation
if she shows a valid verbal, performance, or full scale IQ of 60 through 70, with an onset prior
to age 22, and a physical or other mental impairment imposing an additional and significant
work-related limitation of function. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.05C; McNamara
v. Astrue, 590 F.3d 607, 611 (8th Cir. 2010). When trying to establish that the Listing 12.05C
requirements have been met, the claimant must also meet the requirements in the introductory
paragraph of Listing 12.05. Maresh v. Barnhart, 438 F.3d 897, 899 (8th Cir. 2006). Those
requirements clearly include demonstrating that the claimant suffered “deficits in adaptive
functioning” and that those deficits “initially manifest during the developmental period [before
age 22].” 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.05; Cheatum v. Astrue, 388 Fed. Appx. 574,
576 (8th Cir. 2010)(citations omitted).
The Court finds, based upon the well-stated reasons outlined in the Defendant’s brief,
that Plaintiff’s argument is without merit, and that 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 finding that Plaintiff did not meet Listing 12.05C.
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.
After reviewing the entire record, the Court finds that Plaintiff’s argument is without
merit, and there was sufficient evidence for the ALJ to make an informed decision. The Court
notes that in determining Plaintiff could perform sedentary work with limitations, the ALJ
specifically discussed the relevant medical records and Plaintiff’s subjective complaints. The
ALJ also discussed the medical opinions of examining and non-examining medical professionals,
including the opinions of Drs. Rex Ross, Steven Allen Shry, Nancy A. Bunting, and Vann Arthur
Smith, 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). The ALJ also took
Plaintiff’s obesity into account when determining that she could perform sedentary work with
limitations. Heino v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 873, 881-882 (8th Cir. 2009) (when an ALJ references
the claimant's obesity during the claim evaluation process, such review may be sufficient to avoid
reversal). Based on the record as a whole, the Court finds substantial evidence to support the
ALJ’s RFC determination for the relevant time period.
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).
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 United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit observed, “Our
touchstone is that [a claimant's] credibility is primarily a matter for the ALJ to decide.” Edwards
v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003).
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
reveals that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff reported that she was able to help with
household chores; take care of her personal needs; prepare simple meals; shop for food; and
watch television and use a computer. (Tr. 255, 287, 427). The record revealed that Plaintiff
reported that she went camping and used the internet to research job opportunities in May of
2011. (Tr. 477, 480). Plaintiff also denied pain during a psychiatric progress appointments in
May and June of 2011. (Tr. 478, 481).
With regard to the testimony of Plaintiff's sister and friend, the ALJ properly considered
the testimony of Plaintiff’s sister and the statement of Plaintiff friend, but found both
unpersuasive. This determination was within the ALJ's province. See Siemers v. Shalala, 47
F.3d 299, 302 (8th Cir. 1995); Ownbey v. Shalala, 5 F.3d 342, 345 (8th Cir. 1993).
Therefore, although it is clear that Plaintiff suffers with some degree of limitation, she
has not established that she was unable to engage in any gainful activity during the relevant time
Accordingly, the Court concludes that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s
conclusion that Plaintiff’s subjective complaints were not totally credible.
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 peanut sorter, an
ordinance checker, and an addressing 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).
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 April, 2014.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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