Stephens v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

Filing 13

MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Wiedemann on June 13, 2017. (rg)

Download PDF
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS HARRISON DIVISION NICHOLAS C. STEPHENS PLAINTIFF v. CIVIL NO. 16-3033 NANCY A. BERRYHILL, 1 Commissioner Social Security Administration DEFENDANT MEMORANDUM OPINION Plaintiff, Nicholas C. Stephens, 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 his claim for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under the provisions of Title 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). I. Procedural Background: Plaintiff protectively filed his current application for SSI on April 4, 2013, alleging an inability to work due to Bipolar I disorder, mixed, severe; generalized anxiety disorder, and a panic disorder with agoraphobia. (Doc. 10, pp. 56, 138). An administrative hearing was held on July 23, 2014, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Doc. 10, pp. 28-54). By written decision dated October 17, 2014, the ALJ found that during the relevant time period Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Doc. 1 Nancy A. Berryhill, 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. 1 10, p. 16). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: deaf in the right ear, bipolar disorder, and generalized anxiety 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. (Doc. 10, p. 16). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to: perform medium work defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c) except the claimant can perform jobs with simple tasks and simple instructions but only incidental contact with the public. (Doc. 10, p. 18). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a stocker. (Doc. 10, p. 23). Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which denied that request on January 28, 2016. (Doc. 10, p. 5). 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. 10, 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. II. Applicable Law: 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 2 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 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 also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(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). A Plaintiff must show that his disability, not simply his 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 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. § 416.920. Only if 3 the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience in light of his residual functional capacity. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982), abrogated on other grounds by Higgins v. Apfel, 222 F.3d 504, 505 (8th Cir. 2000); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. III. Discussion: Plaintiff argues the following issues on appeal: 1) the ALJ erred in determining Plaintiff’s RFC; and 2) the ALJ erred by failing to find Plaintiff met Listing 12.06. A. Listing of Impairments: Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to determine that Plaintiff’s impairments met Listing 12.06 of Listing of Impairments pursuant to 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The burden of proof is on the Plaintiff to establish that his impairments meet or equal a listing. See Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530-31, 110 S.Ct. 885, 107 L.Ed.2d 967 (1990). To meet a listing, an impairment must meet all of the listing's specified criteria. Id. at 530, 110 S.Ct. 885 (“An impairment that manifests only some of these criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify.”); Johnson v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 1067, 1070 (8th Cir. 2004). “Medical equivalence must be based on medical findings.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.926(b) (2003); Sullivan, 493 U.S. at 531 (“a claimant ... must present medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the one most similar listed impairment”). In this case, the ALJ found that the severity of Plaintiff’s mental impairments did not singly or in combination meet or equal the criteria of Listings 12.04 and 12.06. After reviewing the entire evidence of record, the Court finds there is sufficient evidence to support the ALJ’s determination that Plaintiff’s impairments did not medically equal a Listing. 4 B. Subjective Complaints and Symptom Evaluation: We now address the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's subjective complaints. 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 his pain; (3) precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of his 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 time period in question, Plaintiff was able to take care of his personal needs, to prepare simple meals, to do some basic household chores, and to spend the day reading, watching television, using the computer, and playing video games. While Plaintiff reported increased anxiety and panic attacks when around strangers or in large crowds, the record revealed that Plaintiff was able to go and visit a few friends; to go bowling with friends, noting the consumption of alcohol; and to go to a concert in Oklahoma. The record further revealed that Plaintiff and his grandmother had an argument because he was coming home at all hours of the night after being out drinking or smoking pot with friends. At one 5 point during the time period in question Plaintiff reported that he had been out with two girls that were both pregnant and he did not think he was the father of either child. With regard to the letters of both family and friends, and the testimony of Plaintiff’s uncle, the ALJ properly considered this evidence but found it 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, he has not established that he 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. C. ALJ’s RFC Determination and Medical Opinions: 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 his 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. 6 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 medium 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, as well as “other source” medical opinions, 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). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to give substantial weight to the medical source statement completed by Ms. Lockie L. Jones, LCSW, opining that Plaintiff was unable to meet competitive standards or had no useful ability to function in several areas of functioning. An ALJ may consider the opinion of an other medical source “to show the severity of [a claimant's] impairment(s) and how it affects [a claimant's] ability to function.” Social Security Ruling, SSR 06-03p, 2006 WL 2329939, at *2 (Aug. 9, 2006); also Nowling v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 1110, 1123 (8th Cir. 2016) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.913). In so doing, the ALJ may consider, among other things, the length of the treatment relationship, whether the opinion is consistent with other evidence, the evidence underlying the opinion, and the quality of the opinion's explanation. Social Security Ruling, SSR 06-03p, 2006 WL 2329939, at *4–5 (Aug. 9, 2006). Generally, “[i]n determining what weight to give ‘other medical evidence,’ the ALJ has more discretion and is permitted to consider any inconsistencies found within the record.” Chesser v. Berryhill, No. 16-2191, 2017 WL 2485213, at *4 (8th Cir. 2017)(citations 7 omitted). In the present case, the ALJ specifically addressed Ms. Jones opinion and was not fully persuaded by it because he found the opinion was inconsistent with both Ms. Jones own therapy notes and Plaintiff’s reports of daily activities and social interaction. After reviewing the entire transcript, the Court finds substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s RFC determination for the time periods in question. D. Past Relevant Work: Plaintiff has the initial burden of proving that he suffers from a medically determinable impairment which precludes the performance of past work. Kirby v. Sullivan, 923 F.2d 1323, 1326 (8th Cir. 1991). Only after the claimant establishes that a disability precludes the performance of past relevant work will the burden shift to the Commissioner to prove that the claimant can perform other work. Pickner v. Sullivan, 985 F.2d 401, 403 (8th Cir. 1993). According to the Commissioner's interpretation of past relevant work, a claimant will not be found to be disabled if he retains the RFC to perform: 1. The actual functional demands and job duties of a particular past relevant job; or 2. The functional demands and job duties of the occupation as generally required by employers throughout the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e); S.S.R. 82-61 (1982); Martin v. Sullivan, 901 F.2d 650, 653 (8th Cir. 1990)(expressly approving the two part test from S.S.R. 82-61). The Court notes in this case the ALJ relied upon the testimony of a vocational expert, who after listening to the ALJ’s proposed hypothetical question which included the limitations addressed in the RFC determination discussed above, testified that the hypothetical individual would be able to perform Plaintiff’s past relevant work. See Gilbert v. Apfel, 175 F.3d 602, 8 604 (8th Cir. 1999) ("The testimony of a vocational expert is relevant at steps four and five of the Commissioner's sequential analysis, when the question becomes whether a claimant with a severe impairment has the residual functional capacity to do past relevant work or other work") (citations omitted). Accordingly, the Court finds substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a stocker during the time period in question. IV. Conclusion: 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 13th day of June 2017. /s/ Erin L. Wiedemann HON. ERIN L. WIEDEMANN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE 9

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?