McDaniel-Stanesic v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Wiedemann on July 18, 2017. (tg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CIVIL NO. 16-3046
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, 1 Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Maria McDaniels-Stanesic, 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 6,
2013, and June 19, 2013, respectively, alleging an inability to work since January 26, 2013,
due to a herniated disc in the neck, neuropathy, depression, fibromyalgia, anxiety, ADHD, and
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.
arthritis. (Doc. 9, pp. 127, 245, 252). An administrative hearing was held on July 15, 2014, at
which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Doc. 9, pp. 74-124).
By written decision dated December 1, 2014, the ALJ found that during the relevant
time period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Doc.
9, p. 60). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; fibromyalgia; demyelinating disease; organic
brain disorder; affective disorder; anxiety disorder; and a personality 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. 9, p. 61). The ALJ found Plaintiff
retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform a range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and
416.967(a). She can lift and carry up to 10 pounds, stand or walk for up to two
hours, and sit for up to six hours of an eight-hour workday. She can occasionally
climb, balance, crawl, kneel, stoop, crouch, and occasionally perform over-head
work bilaterally. Further, she can perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a
setting where interpersonal contact is incidental to work performed.
Furthermore, she can respond to supervision that is simple, direct, and concrete.
(Doc. 9, p. 63). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could
perform work as a document preparation clerk, a printed circuit board inspector, and a
production worker – ampoule sealer. (Doc. 9, p. 68).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
after reviewing additional evidence submitted by Plaintiff denied that request on March 16,
2016. (Doc. 9, pp. 5-9). 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. 2 (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.
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).
The Court notes that Plaintiff’s brief exceeded the page limitation without the consent of this Court. The Court
notes Plaintiff’s counsel has done this in a number of cases. Plaintiff’s counsel is put on notice that the Court is
likely to grant a motion to strike the excess pages of briefs in future cases upon motion by the Defendant.
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 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), abrogated on other grounds by Higgins v.
Apfel, 222 F.3d 504, 505 (8th Cir. 2000); 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520, 416.920.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s RFC determination is not supported by substantial
evidence of record. Defendant argues the record supports the ALJ’s determination.
Subjective Complaints and Symptom Evaluation:
We first 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 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 reported the ability to take care
of her personal needs; to prepare simple meals; to drive both familiar and unfamiliar routes; to
shop; to do household chores; to watch television; to listen to the radio; to attend church with
her boyfriend on Sundays; and to use the internet. (Doc. 9, pp. 300-311, 506).
With regard to Plaintiff’s alleged mental impairments, the record failed to demonstrate
that Plaintiff sought on-going and consistent treatment from a mental health professional
during the relevant time period. See Gowell v. Apfel, 242 F.3d 793, 796 (8th Cir. 2001)
(holding that lack of evidence of ongoing counseling or psychiatric treatment for depression
weighs against plaintiff’s claim of disability).
With respect to Plaintiff’s alleged physical impairments, the record revealed that
Plaintiff was treated conservatively and appeared to experience some relief with the use of
medication. See Black v. Apfel, 143 F.3d 383, 386 (8th Cir.1998); See Robinson v. Sullivan,
956 F.2d 836, 840 (8th Cir. 1992) (course of conservative treatment contradicted claims of
disabling pain). After reviewing the record as a whole, the Court concludes that substantial
evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff’s subjective complaints were not totally
credible for the time period in question.
The 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 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 h[er] RFC.” Id.
When determining RFC, a treating physician's opinion is given more weight than other
sources in a disability proceeding. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). When a treating physician's
opinion is supported by proper medical testing, and is not inconsistent with other substantial
evidence in the record, the ALJ must give the opinion controlling weight. Id. “However, [a]n
ALJ may discount or even disregard the opinion of a treating physician where other medical
assessments are supported by better or more thorough medical evidence, or where a treating
physician renders inconsistent opinions that undermine the credibility of such opinions.”
Wildman v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 959, 964 (8th Cir. 2010) (alteration in original) (internal
quotation omitted). Ultimately, the ALJ must “give good reasons” to explain the weight given
the treating physician's opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2).
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 sedentary work with limitations. The
Court notes that in determining Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ discussed the medical opinions of
treating, examining and non-examining medical professionals, 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 failed to address the questionnaire completed by Dr.
Ronald F. Bruton opining that Plaintiff could perform less than sedentary work. (Doc. 10, pp.
12, 14; Doc. 9, pp. 560-563). A review of the ALJ’s decision revealed that the ALJ gave “no
significant weight” to Dr. Bruton’s opinion. (Doc. 9, p. 66). After review, the Court finds that
the ALJ did not err in discounting the opinion of Dr. Bruton. The ALJ declined to give
controlling weight to Dr. Bruton’s opinion for good and well-supported reasons. See Goff v.
Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 790–91 (8th Cir. 2005) (“[A]n appropriate finding of inconsistency
with other evidence alone is sufficient to discount [the treating physician's] opinion.”). Based
on the record as a whole, the Court finds substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s RFC
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
document preparation clerk, a printed circuit board inspector, and a production worker –
ampoule sealer. Pickney v. Chater, 96 F.3d 294, 296 (8th Cir. 1996) (testimony from
vocational expert based on properly phrased hypothetical question constitutes substantial
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 18th day of July 2017.
/s/ Erin L. Wiedemann
HON. ERIN L. WIEDEMANN
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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