Surber v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on March 25, 2009. (cap)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS TEXARKANA DIVISION
LINNIE SUE (LEWIS) SURBER vs. Civil No. 4:08-cv-04001
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE Commissioner, Social Security Administration
MEMORANDUM OPINION Linnie Sue (Lewis) Surber ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to § 205(g) of Title II of the Social Security Act ("The Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("SSA") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Act. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge to conduct any and all proceedings in this case, including conducting the trial, ordering the entry of a final judgment, and conducting all post-judgment proceedings. (Doc. No. 2).1 Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues this memorandum opinion and orders the entry of a final judgment in this matter. 1. Background: Plaintiff filed her application for SSI on August 17, 2005. (Tr. 47). Plaintiff alleged she was disabled due to back and neck problems, breathing problems, and smoking disease. (Tr. 88). Plaintiff alleged an onset date of August 1, 1995. (Tr. 47). This application was initially denied on October 5, 2005 and was denied again on reconsideration on February 2, 2006. (Tr. 37-42).
1 The docket numbers for this case are referenced by the designation "Doc. No." The transcript pages for this c a se are referenced by the designation "Tr."
On February 13, 2006, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her application. (Tr. 24-25). The hearing was held on March 1, 2007 in Texarkana, Arkansas. (Tr. 175-198). Plaintiff was present and was represented by counsel, Charles Barnett, at this hearing. See id. Plaintiff and witnesses Charlotte Tucker and Brenda Server also testified at this hearing. See id. On the date of this hearing, Plaintiff was forty-one (41) years old, which is defined as "younger person" under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c) (2008), and had a high school diploma. (Tr. 178). On October 2, 2007, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff's request for SSI. (Tr. 11-17). In this decision, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity ("SGA") since August 17, 2005. (Tr. 13, Finding 1). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairments of history of low back pain and left upper extremity pain. (Tr. 13, Finding 2). The ALJ also determined the Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments contained in the Listing of Impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Regulations No. 4 ("Listings"). (Tr. 13, Finding 3). In this decision, the ALJ also indicated he evaluated Plaintiff's subjective complaints and determined her Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"). (Tr. 13-16, Finding 4). The ALJ indicated he evaluated these subjective complaints and allegedly disabling symptoms pursuant to the requirements and factors of 20 C.F.R. § 416.929. (Tr. 14). The ALJ also reviewed all the medical evidence and hearing testimony and determined Plaintiff's RFC. (Tr. 13-15, Finding 4). Specifically, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC for the full range of light work. (Tr. 13, Finding 4). The ALJ then determined Plaintiff had no Past Relevant Work ("PRW") but was able to perform work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 16, Findings 5,9). Based on the Medica-Vocational Guidelines, the ALJ found Plaintiff "not disabled" based upon Plaintiff's 2
age, education, and previous work experience. (Tr. 17). The ALJ went on to find Plaintiff was not under a disability from her alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (Tr. 17, Finding 10). On October 9, 2007, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ's unfavorable decision. (Tr. 6-7). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.984(b)(2). On December 7, 2007, the Appeals Council declined to review this determination. (Tr. 3-5). On January 4, 2008, Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to this Court. (Doc. No. 1). Both parties have filed appeal briefs. (Doc. Nos. 5,6). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of this Court on January 14, 2008. (Doc. No. 2). 2. Applicable Law: In reviewing this case, this Court is required to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006); Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence, but it is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's decision. See Johnson v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1145, 1147 (8th Cir. 2001). 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. See Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). 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. See 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 or her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that lasted at least one year and that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. See Cox v. Apfel, 3
160 F.3d 1203, 1206 (8th Cir. 1998); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act defines a "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 his or her disability, not simply his or her impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To determine whether the adult claimant suffers from a disability, the Commissioner uses the familiar five-step sequential evaluation. He determines: (1) whether the claimant is presently engaged in a "substantial gainful activity"; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities; (3) whether the claimant has an impairment that meets or equals a presumptively disabling impairment listed in the regulations (if so, the claimant is disabled without regard to age, education, and work experience); (4) whether the claimant has the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform his or her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform the past work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that there are other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform. See Cox, 160 F.3d at 1206; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f). The fact finder only considers the plaintiff's age, education, and work experience in light of his or her RFC if the final stage of this analysis is reached. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2003). 3. Discussion: Plaintiff brings the present appeal claiming the following: (A) the ALJ erred in his evaluation of Plaintiff's subjective complaints; (B) the ALJ erred in his RFC determination; and (C) Substantial evidence does not support a finding that Plaintiff can perform work in significant numbers in the national economy. In response, Defendant argues: (A) the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's 4
subjective complaints; (B) the ALJ RFC's determination is supported by substantial evidence; and (C) Substantial evidence supports Plaintiff can perform work in significant numbers in the national economy. Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred by failing to give consideration to all of Plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain. In response, Defendant claims the ALJ properly analyzed Plaintiff's subjective complaints pursuant to the Polaski factors and discounted them for legally-sufficient reasons. In assessing the credibility of a claimant, the ALJ is required to examine and apply the five factors from Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320 (8th Cir. 1984) or from 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929.2 See Shultz v. Astrue, 479 F.3d 979, 983 (2007). The factors to consider are as follows: (1) the claimant's daily activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of the pain; (3) the precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) the dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of medication; and (5) the functional restrictions. See Polaski, 739 at 1322. These factors must be analyzed and considered in light of the claimant's subjective complaints of pain. See id. The ALJ is not required to methodically discuss each factor as long as the ALJ acknowledges and examines these factors prior to discounting the claimant's subjective complaints. See Lowe v. Apfel, 226 F.3d 969, 971-72 (8th Cir. 2000). As long as the ALJ properly applies these five factors and gives several valid reasons for finding that the Plaintiff's subjective complaints are not entirely credible, the ALJ's credibility determination is entitled to deference. See id.; Cox v. Barnhart, 471 F.3d 902, 907 (8th Cir. 2006). The ALJ, however, cannot discount Plaintiff's subjective complaints "solely because the
2 Social Security Regulations 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929 require the analysis of two a d dition a l factors: (1) "treatment, other than medication, you receive or have received for relief of your pain or other symp toms" and (2) "any measures you use or have used to relieve your pain or symptoms (e.g., lying flat on your back, s ta n d in g for 15 to 20 minutes every hour, sleeping on a board, etc.)." However, under Polaski and its progeny, the Eighth C irc u it has not yet required the analysis of these additional factors. See Shultz v. Astrue, 479 F.3d 979, 983 (2007). Thus, this Court will not require the analysis of these additional factors in this case.
objective medical evidence does not fully support them [the subjective complaints]." Polaski, 739 F.2d at 1322. When discounting a claimant's complaint of pain, the ALJ must make a specific credibility determination, articulating the reasons for discrediting the testimony, addressing any inconsistencies, and discussing the Polaski factors. See Baker v. Apfel, 159 F.3d 1140, 1144 (8th Cir. 1998). The inability to work without some pain or discomfort is not a sufficient reason to find a Plaintiff disabled within the strict definition of the Act. The issue is not the existence of pain, but whether the pain a Plaintiff experiences precludes the performance of substantial gainful activity. See Thomas v. Sullivan, 928 F.2d 255, 259 (8th Cir. 1991). The ALJ's decision in the present action is not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, the ALJ failed to analyze and evaluate the Plaintiff's subjective complaints pursuant to Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320 (8th Cir. 1984). See Cline v. Sullivan, 939 F.2d 560, 569 (8th Cir. 1991). The ALJ found that Plaintiff's daily activities were inconsistent with Plaintiff's alleged limitations and therefore not credible. (Tr. 15). This was the extent of the ALJ's Polaski analysis, and is not sufficient to comply with the requirements of Polaski or 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929, which require consideration and analysis of all of the foregoing factors. The Defendant argues in his brief some points in support of the argument that the ALJ performed a proper Polaski analysis. (Doc. No. 6, Pgs. 6-11). These included: (A) Plaintiff had no evidence of significance of receiving medical treatment for back and left upper extremity pain, (B) Plaintiff testified she had emphysema, but no medical records supported this, (C) Plaintiff had a poor work history, and (D) Plaintiff was not under any medication for her alleged breathing impairment, However, these points were not discussed by the ALJ. It is the ALJ's duty to provide full analysis of at least some of these factors and state the inconsistencies in the opinion. See Ford v. Astrue, 518 6
F 3d 979, 982-83 (8th Cir. 2008) (requiring the ALJ to detail the reasons for discrediting a claimant's subjective complaints and set forth the inconsistencies he or she found). It is not sufficient for the Defendant to comb through the record and provide support for the ALJ's decision after the fact. Because the ALJ did not properly examine the five Polaski factors or the factors set out in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929, this case should be reversed and remanded for a full Polaski analysis. Upon remand, the ALJ may still find Plaintiff not disabled, however a proper and complete analysis pursuant to Polaski must be performed.3 4. Conclusion: Based on the foregoing, the undersigned finds that the decision of the ALJ, denying benefits to Plaintiff, is not supported by substantial evidence and should be reversed and remanded. A judgment incorporating these findings will be entered pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 52 and 58. ENTERED this 25th day of March, 2009.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant HON. BARRY A. BRYANT U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Based on these findings, I do not find it necessary to reach to other points of error raised by the Plaintiff in t h i s appeal.
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