Johnson v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Mark E. Ford on June 15, 2015. (tg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
Civil No. 14-3045
CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Julie Johnson, 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
claims for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), and supplemental security
income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (hereinafter “the Act”), 42
U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 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 filed her applications for DIB and SSI on June 23, 2011, and June 28, 2011,
respectively, alleging an onset date of May 31, 2010, due to diabetes, neuropathy, carpal tunnel
syndrome, De Quervain syndrome1, neck problems, leg cramps, heart conditions, high blood
pressure, and high cholesterol. Tr. 15, 115-127, 180, 196-199. The Commissioner denied
Plaintiff’s applications initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 12, 51-54, 66-70. An Administrative
De Quervain’s syndrome or tenosynovitis is a painful condition affecting the tendons on the thumb side of the
wrist. See Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis,
accessed June 12, 2015).
Law Judge (“ALJ”) held an administrative hearing on December 19, 2012. Tr. 25-50. The Plaintiff
was present and represented by counsel.
At the time of the hearing, the Plaintiff was 47 years old and possessed an eleventh grade
education. Tr. 18, 29, 33. She had past relevant work (“PRW”) experience as a fast food cook
and waitress. Tr. 18, 31-32, 188-195.
On March 25, 2013, the ALJ found Plaintiff’s diabetes mellitus (under good control with
medical treatment) was severe, but did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments
in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4. Tr. 14-15. After partially discrediting Plaintiff’s
subjective complaints, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform a full range of light work. Tr. 15. With the assistance of a vocational expert,
the ALJ then found Plaintiff could perform work as a short order cook. Tr. 19.
The Appeals Council denied review on March 4, 2014. Tr. 1-4. Subsequently, Plaintiff
filed this action. ECF No. 1. This case is before the undersigned by consent of the parties. ECF
No. 6. Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. ECF Nos. 10,
This court’s role is to determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner’s
findings. 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. We must affirm the ALJ’s decision 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, we must affirm the decision of the ALJ. Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065,
1068 (8th Cir. 2000).
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(a)- (f)(2003). The fact
finder consider the plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience in light of his or her residual
functional capacity only when the final stage is reached. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138,
1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C .F.R. § § 404.1520, 416.920 (2003).
Of particular concern to the undersigned is the ALJ’s step two determination that the
Plaintiff’s only severe impairment is her diabetes. A “severe impairment is defined as one which
‘significantly limits [the Claimant’s] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.’”
Pelkey v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 575, 577 (8th Cir. 2006) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)). The
impairment must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities that can be
shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 20 C.F.R. §
In the present case, the record makes clear the Plaintiff suffers from diabetes, neuropathy,
hypertension, high cholesterol, and generalized anxiety disorder. She repeatedly sought treatment
in the emergency room, physicians’ offices, and hospital for each of these impairments. Doctors
prescribed a variety of medications in an attempt to control her impairments, including Byetta,
Lantus, Cymbalta, Tramadol, Hydrocodone, Diovan, HCTZ, Glucotrol XL, Lyrica, Lisinopril, and
Flexeril. While there have been times when her symptoms improved or at least responded well to
treatment, the overall record makes clear that the Plaintiff’s conditions are not fully controlled.
Thus, we do not find substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s determination that diabetes is her
only severe impairment.
It appears that anxiety was a significant component to her disability. Records are replete
with references to anxiety and anxiety-inducted symptoms, as well as prescriptions for Xanax and
Cymbalta. A non-examining consultant determined she would have moderate limitations in her
ability to do the following: carry out detailed instructions, maintain attention and concentration
for extended periods, sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision, complete a normal
workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms, perform at
a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods, accept instructions
and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, respond appropriately to changes in work
setting, and set realistic goals or make plans independently of others. Tr. 458-475. However, the
ALJ failed to incorporate any such limitations into his RFC determination.2 In fact, he assessed
no mental limitations whatsoever. Accordingly, the undersigned finds remand necessary to allow
the ALJ to reconsider the severity of the Plaintiff’s anxiety.
We also take issue with the ALJ’s determination that the Plaintiff’s diabetes was controlled
via medication. Although the record does reveal periods when her condition appeared to be well
controlled, the record also documents unexplained periods of uncontrolled glucose readings that
required both emergency room treatment and hospitalization.
Moreover, contrary to the
government’s argument, we can find no evidence to suggest that the Plaintiff was not compliant
with her diet or medication. The records referenced in the Commissioner’s Appeal Brief are
merely notations that diet and exercise were advised. Given the absence of statements questioning
the Plaintiff’s compliance, we refuse to read anything more into these statements.
The ALJ’s failure to account for the Plaintiff’s neuropathy further troubles the undersigned.
The government contends there is no evidence to indicate that the Plaintiff’s neuropathy interfered
with her ability to perform work-related tasks. We disagree. In June 2011, an emergency room
doctor noted that the Plaintiff’s neuropathic pain in her legs was worsening. Tr. 438. In September
2011, Dr. Anandaraj Subramanium conducted a general physical examination of the Plaintiff and
noted she was unable to walk on heel and toes or squat and rise from a squatting position. Tr. 478-
While we do note that one-time, consultative examiner, Dr. Nancy Bunting, did not find the Plaintiff to be
particularly credible and suspected illegal drug use. Tr. 449-454. However, we can find no other evidence in the
record to suggest that the Plaintiff was taking drugs aside from those prescribed by her doctors. Tr. 449-454. There
is also no evidence to suggest the Plaintiff was abusing the medications prescribed to her, as the record contains only
one instance where the Plaintiff requested an early refill of her Xanax.
482. Dr. Subramanium opined that the Plaintiff would have moderate limitations associated with
prolonged walking and standing, among other things.
In March 2012, the Plaintiff fell. Tr. 523. Having been diagnosed with neuropathy and
reporting weakness, records indicate the doctor at the Mountain Home Christian Clinic prescribed
a cane. Tr. 523. Then, in August 2012, Plaintiff’s treating doctor, Dr. Bethany Knight, noted she
was walking with a walker. Tr. 510. Moreover, the record makes clear that doctors prescribed
Arthrotec, Hydrocodone, Neurontin, and later Lyrica, in an attempt to combat her neuropathic
symptoms. Yet again, the ALJ failed to account for this in his opinion, concluding the Plaintiff
could perform a full range of light work. However, light work requires the ability to stand and
walk for a total of six hours out of an eight-hour workday. SOCIAL SECURITY RULING 83–10.
Thus, on remand, the ALJ is directed to reconsider the Plaintiff’s neuropathy and any limitations
Plaintiff has also reported that the medications prescribed sedate her. See Polaski v.
Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir.1984) (Factors to be considered include the claimant's daily
activities; the duration, frequency, and intensity of the pain; precipitating and aggravating factors;
dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of medication; and functional restrictions.). A review of
the side effects of many of these medications reveals that sedation or drowsiness is common. See
PHYSICIAN’S DESK REFERENCE, http://www.pdr.net/ (last accessed June 12, 2015). When taken in
combination, it is reasonable to conclude that the level of sedation would likely increase. However,
the ALJ also made no account for this in his RFC assessment. As such, on remand, the ALJ is
directed to consider the side effects of Plaintiff’s medications.
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 15th day of June, 2015.
Mark E. Ford
HONORABLE MARK E. FORD
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?