Dawson v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on December 21, 2011. (cap)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CHRISTY LOU DAWSON
Civil No. 4:10-cv-04178
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Christy Lou Dawson (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to § 205(g) of Title II of the
Social Security Act (“The Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2010), seeking judicial review of a final
decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying her applications
for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), and a period of
disability under Titles II and 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. ECF No. 3.1
Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues this memorandum opinion and orders the entry of a final
judgment in this matter.
Plaintiff filed her disability applications on July 15, 2008. (Tr. 8, 100-107). In her
applications, Plaintiff alleged she was disabled due to neck and back problems from a car accident
and seizures. (Tr. 115). She claimed the following regarding her limitations: “I can’t sit or stand for
very long. I can’t walk for long. I can’t bend over and pickup over 10 lbs. I have pain most of the
The docket numbers for this case are referenced by the designation “ECF No. ____” The transcript pages
for this case are referenced by the designation “Tr.”
time. I wake up and go to sleep with pain. I have sharp pains I my head.” Id. Plaintiff alleged an
onset date of November 16, 2006. (Tr. 8, 115). These applications were denied initially and again
on reconsideration. (Tr. 35-38).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her applications, and this hearing
request was granted. (Tr. 52-71). An administrative hearing was held on July 8, 2009 in Texarkana,
Arkansas. (Tr. 16-34). At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was present and was represented by
Russell Bern. Id. Plaintiff and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Vance Sales testified at this hearing. Id.
On the date of this hearing, Plaintiff forty-four (44) years old, which is defined as a “younger person”
under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c) (2008), and had completed the ninth grade in school and had obtained
her CNA license. (Tr. 21-23).
On September 30, 2009, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision on Plaintiff’s applications.
(Tr. 8-14). In this decision, the ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act
through December 31, 2008. (Tr. 10, Finding 1). The ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in
Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since November 16, 2006, her alleged onset date. (Tr. 10,
Finding 2). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc
disease and seizure disorder. (Tr. 10, Finding 3). The ALJ also determined Plaintiff did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed
impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Regulations No. 4 (“Listings”). (Tr. 10-11, Finding 4).
The ALJ then evaluated Plaintiff’s RFC. (Tr. 11-13, Finding 5). First, the ALJ evaluated
Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found they were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ
found Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform the following:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant
has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR
404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except environmentally is restricted from work around
unprotected heights, moving machinery, and working with automotive equipment.
Id. According to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), “light work” is defined as follows:
Light work. Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with
frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds. Even though the
weight lifted may be very little, a job is in this category when it requires a good deal
of walking or standing, or when it involves sitting most of the time with some pushing
and pulling of arm or leg controls. To be considered capable of performing a full or
wide range of light work, we determine that he or she can also do sedentary work,
unless there are additional limiting factors such as loss of fine dexterity or inability to
sit for long periods of time.
The ALJ then evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”) and determined her PRW included
work as a waitress. (Tr. 13-14, Finding 6). Based upon her RFC, the ALJ determined Plaintiff
retained the capacity to perform her PRW as a waitress. Id. The ALJ then determined Plaintiff had
not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, from November 16, 2006 through the date of his
decision or through September 30, 2009. (Tr. 14, Finding 7).
On November 12, 2009, Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s
unfavorable decision. (Tr. 97-99). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.968. On November 9, 2010, the Appeals
Council declined to review this disability determination. (Tr. 1-3). On December 7, 2010, Plaintiff
filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. Both Parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF Nos. 6-7. This case
is now ready for decision.
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, 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).
In her appeal brief, Plaintiff raises the following arguments for reversal: (A) substantial
evidence does not support the ALJ’s RFC determination; (B) substantial evidence does not support
the ALJ’s PRW determination; and (C) substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s disability
determination. ECF No. 6 at 1-5. In response, Defendant argues that substantial evidence supports
the ALJ’s findings, including his RFC finding, PRW finding, and disability finding. ECF No. 7 at
6-16. Upon review, even though it appears Plaintiff raises three arguments, the only issue briefed is
whether the ALJ’s RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence in the record.
Accordingly, this Court will only address Plaintiff’s first claim. See Vandenboom v. Barnhart, 421
F.3d 745, 750 (8th Cir. 2005) (rejecting “out of hand” appellant’s conclusory assertion regarding the
ALJ’s disability determination where appellant provided no analysis of relevant law or facts).
Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred in his RFC determination. ECF No. 6 at 2-5. Primarily,
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in considering her back and neck pain. Id. Plaintiff references several
of her medical records which are dated after her alleged onset date and which she claims establish she
suffers from disabling back pain. Id. These records are as follows: Tr. 205-206, Tr. 221, Tr. 223, Tr.
229, Tr. 236, Tr. 276, Tr. 284, Tr. 288, Tr. 308, and Tr. 319.
Upon review, these records do establish Plaintiff suffers from some level of neck and back
pain, but there is no indication this pain precludes Plaintiff from perform a wide range of light work.
On November 6, 2006, she was found to have a “normal” cervical spine. (Tr. 223). On February 14,
2007, Plaintiff reported leg and knee pain, but there is no indication how severe the pain was. The
report from July 27, 2007 states Plaintiff suffers from “lower back and neck pain, more
musculoskeletal” and has “a history of back problems, but really nothing serious.” (Tr. 206).
Interestingly, this report states Plaintiff injured her back while “pulling on some feed.” Id. An MRI
of her lumbar spine that was done on September 20, 2007 found only “mild disk and moderate facet
disease without resulting central canal or foraminal stenosis at any level.” (Tr. 221, 284).
On January 17, 2008, Plaintiff reported hip, back, and leg pain which resulted from falling “in
a hole.” (Tr. 229). On September 11, 2008, Plaintiff again presented with back and neck pain, but
the severity of the pain is unclear. (Tr. 276). On November 11, 2008, Plaintiff was found to have a
“small left paracentral disc protrusion at L5-S1" but, otherwise, the MRI of the lumbar spine was
found to be “normal.” (Tr. 288). On October 7, 2008, Plaintiff presented with back and chest pain
after falling off a four-wheeler. (Tr. 308). On December 8, 2009, Plaintiff again presented with back
pain, but there is no indication as to the severity of that pain. Based upon these records, this Court
finds that substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s determination that Plaintiff retains the RFC to
perform a wide range of light work.
Further, in part of her briefing, it appears Plaintiff also questions whether the ALJ’s Polaski
determination was sufficient. ECF No. 6 at 4. In assessing the credibility of a claimant, the ALJ is
required to examine and to 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. The 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 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.
Social Security Regulations 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929 require the analysis of two
additional factors: (1) “treatment, other than medication, you receive or have received for relief of your pain or other
symptoms” and (2) “any measures you use or have used to relieve your pain or symptoms (e.g., lying flat on your
back, standing for 15 to 20 minutes every hour, sleeping on a board, etc.).” However, under Polaski and its progeny,
the Eighth Circuit 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.
Sullivan, 928 F.2d 255, 259 (8th Cir. 1991).
In the present action, the ALJ fully complied with the requirements of Polaski. After listing
the factors and discussing them, the ALJ noted several inconsistences. Importantly, the ALJ found
the following: “[T]he claimant’s treatment records reflect that she has injured or aggravated her back
impairment on multiple occasions since her alleged onset date by engaging in activities she has stated
she has been unable to engage in.” (Tr. 13). Such a finding is supported by the record. Plaintiff’s
alleged onset date is November 16, 2006. (Tr. 8). Subsequent to her alleged onset date, on July 27,
2007, Plaintiff reportedly injured her back while “pulling on some feed.” (Tr. 206). On October 7,
2008, Plaintiff reportedly injured her back after falling off a four-wheeler. (Tr. 308). Such activity
is clearly inconsistent with her alleged level of disability. Accordingly, this Court finds the ALJ’s
credibility determination is also supported by substantial evidence in the record.
Based on the foregoing, the undersigned finds that the decision of the ALJ, denying benefits
to Plaintiff, is supported by substantial evidence and AFFIRMS the decision of the SSA. A judgment
incorporating these findings will be entered pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 52 and 58.
ENTERED this 21st day of December, 2011.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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