Blackwell v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on January 3, 2013. (cap)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
MARY L. BLACKWELL
Civil No. 4:12-cv-04004
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Mary L. Blackwell (“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 application for a
period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II 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 postjudgment proceedings. ECF No. 5.1 Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues this memorandum
opinion and orders the entry of a final judgment in this matter.
Plaintiff protectively filed her DIB application on July 14, 2010. (Tr. 13, 102-103). In her
application, Plaintiff alleges being disabled due to high blood pressure, Hashimoto’s disease, stress
and anxiety, lower back pain, and heart palpitations. (Tr. 117). Plaintiff alleges an onset date of
February 22, 2010.
(Tr. 13, 102).
This application was denied initially and again upon
reconsideration. (Tr. 54-55). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her
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.”
application, and this hearing request was granted. (Tr. 65-78). Plaintiff’s administrative hearing was
held on July 26, 2011 in Texarkana, Arkansas. (Tr. 25-53). Plaintiff was present and was
represented by Greg Giles. Id. Only Plaintiff testified at this hearing. Id. During the administrative
hearing in this matter, Plaintiff testified she was fifty-seven (57) years old, which is defined as a
“person of advanced age” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(e) (DIB). (Tr. 28). Plaintiff also testified that
she had graduated from high school and knew how to read and write in English. (Tr. 28).
On September 23, 2011, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s
application for DIB. (Tr. 10-24). In this decision, the ALJ determined Plaintiff met the insured
status requirements of the Act through March 31, 2014. (Tr. 15, Finding 1). The ALJ determined
Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since February 22, 2010, her
alleged onset date. (Tr. 15, Finding 2). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe
impairments: multinodular goiter and hypertension. (Tr. 15-17, Finding 3). The ALJ determined
Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or medically equal the requirements of any of the Listings of
Impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Regulations No. 4 (“Listings”). (Tr. 17, Finding 4).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her RFC.
(Tr. 17-23, Finding 5). First, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found her
claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined 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 the full range of sedentary
work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a), meaning the claimant can occasionally
lift/carry 10 pounds, frequently lift/carry less than 10 pounds, stand for about 2 hours
in an 8-hour workday, sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, and has unlimited
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 23, Finding 6). In light
of her RFC, the ALJ found Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform her PRW as a telephone
company line assigner. (Tr. 23, Finding 6). Notably, the ALJ found Plaintiff’s RFC did not preclude
her from performing this PRW. Id. Based upon this finding, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not
been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from February 22, 2010 through the date of his
decision or through September 23, 2011. (Tr. 23-24, Finding 7).
Thereafter, on October 26, 2011, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council’s review of the
ALJ’s unfavorable decision. (Tr. 9). On December 1, 2011, the Appeals Council declined to review
this unfavorable decision. (Tr. 6-8). On January 17, 2012, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF
No. 1. The Parties consented to the jurisdiction of this Court on January 23, 2012. ECF No. 5. Both
Parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF Nos. 8-9. 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)
(2010); 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).
Plaintiff raises the following three arguments for reversal: (1) the ALJ erred in failing to
consider the combined effects of her impairments; (2) the ALJ erred in failing to hear testimony from
a vocational expert; and (3) the ALJ did not give proper consideration to her chronic pain and the
impact it has on her. ECF No. 8. In response, Defendant argues the ALJ properly considered the
combined effects of Plaintiff’s impairments, the ALJ properly determined Plaintiff’s impairments
did not meet or equal the requirements of a Listing at Step Three, substantial evidence supports the
ALJ’s RFC determination, and the ALJ properly determined at Step Four that Plaintiff could return
to her PRW. ECF No. 9. Because the Court finds the ALJ erred by finding her anxiety was a nonsevere impairment, the Court will only address this argument for reversal.2
A claimant suffers from a severe impairment if that impairment is more than slight and if that
impairment affects the claimant’s ability to do his or her basic work activities. See Householder v.
Bowen, 861 F.2d 191, 192 n.1 (8th Cir. 1988). The Supreme Court has also held that a claimant does
not suffer from a severe impairment where the claimant only suffers from “slight abnormalities that
do not significantly limit any ‘basic work activity.’” See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 155 (1987)
(O’Connor, S., concurring) (emphasis added); see also Brown v. Bowen, 827 F.2d 311, 311-12 (8th
Cir. 1987) (adopting Justice O’Connor’s language from Bowen v. Yuckert).
Furthermore, the standard for determining whether a claimant suffers from a severe
Although Plaintiff did not include an entire section related to this issue, Plaintiff raised the issue that her
anxiety was a severe impairment throughout her briefing. ECF No. 8.
impairment is a low or de minimis standard. See Nicola v. Astrue, 480 F.3d 885, 887 (8th Cir. 2007)
(reversing the decision of the ALJ and holding that a diagnosis of borderline intellectual functioning
should have been considered severe because that diagnosis was supported by sufficient medical
evidence). If the ALJ errs by finding a severe impairment is not severe, the ALJ’s disability
determination must be reversed and remanded. See Nicola, 480 F.3d at 887.
In the present action, Plaintiff alleges she suffers from severe anxiety that impacts her in her
ability to work. (Tr. 48-49). The ALJ recognized this allegation but found Plaintiff had not
demonstrated this impairment was severe. (Tr. 15-17, Finding 3). In this determination, the ALJ
heavily relied upon the findings of non-examining, non-treating physicians (Dr. Brown and Dr.
Daugherty) who determined this impairment was not severe: “The undersigned gives great weight
to the opinions of Dr. Brown and Dr. Daugherty, finding that their opinions are consistent with the
objective medical evidence, well-supported by the objective medical evidence, and not contradicted
by any other opinions in the file.” (Tr. 16-17).
In making this determination, however, the ALJ entirely disregarded the findings of
Plaintiff’s treating physician, Dr. Paul Pappas, M.D. On July 29, 2009, Dr. Pappas diagnosed
Plaintiff with anxiety. (Tr. 204-205). Dr. Pappas treated Plaintiff for anxiety in 2009 and 2010. (Tr.
191-271). Thereafter, on July 22, 2010, Dr. Pappas referred Plaintiff to a cardiologist, Dr. William
Haynie, Jr., M.D., due to a her problems from an increased heart rate. (Tr. 288-290). During that
consultation, Dr. Haynie stated he believed Plaintiff’s anxiety was responsible for her problems with
an increased heart rate. Id. Such evidence–including the fact Plaintiff received treatment for her
anxiety from Dr. Pappas–indicates Plaintiff’s anxiety is “more than slight” and would impact her in
her ability to do basic work activities. Accordingly, standing alone, these findings from Dr. Pappas
and Dr. Haynie provide sufficient evidence demonstrating Plaintiff’s anxiety satisfies the low or de
minimis standard for establishing a severe impairment. Accordingly, because the ALJ improperly
determined Plaintiff’s anxiety was not supported by his medical records and was not severe, this case
must be reversed and remanded. See Nicola, 480 F.3d at 887.
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 3rd day of January 2013.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. 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?