Clark v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on October 14, 2014. (rg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
MELISSA R. CLARK
CIVIL NO. 13-3082
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Melissa R. Clark, 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 February 18,
2011, alleging an inability to work since July 22, 2006, due to an anxiety disorder, a panic
disorder, depression, and agoraphobia. (Tr. 133, 140, 175). For DIB purposes, Plaintiff
maintained insured status through June 30, 2011. (Tr. 10, 146). An administrative video hearing
was held on July 3, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 23-67).
By written decision dated August 23, 2012, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 12).
Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: anxiety disorder,
NOS; and depressive disorder, NOS. 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. 12). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following
nonexertional limitations: work is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks,
involving only simple, work-related decisions, with few, if any, workplace
changes, and no more than incidental contact with co-workers, supervisors, and
the general public.
(Tr. 14). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work
as a dishwasher, and a grocery stocker. (Tr. 17-18).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on August 29, 2013. (Tr. 1-4). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action.
(Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 8).
Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 16, 18).
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 failing to develop the
record by ordering a consultative physical examination; and 2) the ALJ’s decision denying
benefits was not supported by substantial evidence.
In order to have insured status under the Act, an individual is required to have twenty
quarters of coverage in each forty-quarter period ending with the first quarter of disability. 42
U.S.C. § 416(i)(3)(B). Plaintiff last met this requirement on June 30, 2011. Regarding
Plaintiff’s application for DIB, the overreaching issue in this case is the question of whether
Plaintiff was disabled during the relevant time period of July 22, 2006, her alleged onset date
of disability, through June 30, 2011, the last date she was in insured status under Title II of the
In order for Plaintiff to qualify for DIB she must prove that, on or before the expiration
of her insured status she was unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically
determinable physical or mental impairment which is expected to last for at least twelve months
or result in death. Basinger v. Heckler, 725 F.2d 1166, 1168 (8th Cir. 1984). Records and
medical opinions from outside the insured period can only be used in “helping to elucidate a
medical condition during the time for which benefits might be rewarded.” Cox v. Barnhart, 471
F.3d 902, 907 (8th Cir.2006) (holding that the parties must focus their attention on claimant's
condition at the time she last met insured status requirements).
Fully and Fairly Develop the Record:
Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to develop the record by declining to send Plaintiff
for a consultative general physical examination. The Court disagrees. The ALJ has a basic
obligation to develop the medical record, but the Plaintiff bears the burden of proving she is
disabled and is responsible for producing evidence to support her claim. See Stormo v. Barnhart,
377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir.2004). In this case, Plaintiff did not to allege a disabling physical
impairment, and the record failed to reveal that Plaintiff sought consistent treat for a physical
impairment. Thus, a consultative general physical examination was not required. See Haley v.
Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 749–50 (8th Cir.2001) (it is permissible for ALJ to issue decision
without obtaining added medical evidence, so long as other evidence provides sufficient basis
for ALJ's decision). Furthermore, 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
revealed that during the relevant time period Plaintiff was able to take care of her mother from
2006, until she passed in 2009; to take care of her grandmother for a period of time in 2010; to
help her uncle feed his cattle and her aunt clean her home; to help clean her cousin’s home; to
perform regular household chores; and to spend time at the lake with her boyfriend. (Tr. 38, 44,
The Court would 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). The record further
revealed that Plaintiff was able to come up with the funds to support her smoking habit during
the relevant time period.
Therefore, although it is clear that Plaintiff suffers with some degree of limitation, she
has not established that she is unable to engage in any gainful activity. Accordingly, the Court
concludes that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints were not totally 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.
After reviewing the entire record, the Court finds there was sufficient evidence for the
ALJ to make an informed decision. The Court notes that in determining Plaintiff could perform
work at all exertional levels but that she had some non-exertional limitations, the ALJ
specifically discussed the relevant medical records and Plaintiff’s subjective complaints.
Plaintiff's capacity to perform this level of work is also supported by the fact that the medical
evidence does not indicate that Plaintiff's examining physicians placed restrictions on her
activities that would preclude performing the RFC determined. See Hutton v. Apfel, 175 F.3d
651, 655 (8th Cir. 1999) (lack of physician-imposed restrictions militates against a finding of
total disability). Based on the record as a whole, the Court finds substantial evidence to support
the ALJ’s RFC determination for the relevant time period.
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 dishwasher, and a
grocery stocker. 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 14th day of October, 2014.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
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