Matlock v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

Filing 12

MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on March 12, 2014. (mll)

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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS TEXARKANA DIVISION CAROLYN MATLOCK vs. PLAINTIFF Civil No. 4:13-cv-04045 CAROLYN W. COLVIN Commissioner, Social Security Administration DEFENDANT MEMORANDUM OPINION Carolyn Matlock (“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 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. 7.1 Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues this memorandum opinion and orders the entry of a final judgment in this matter. 1. Background: Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB and SSI on March 25, 2011. (Tr. 12). Plaintiff alleged she was disabled due to blood clots in left leg and lungs, thyroid tumor and depression. (Tr. 117). Plaintiff alleged an onset date of December 23, 2009. (Tr. 121). These applications were denied initially and again upon reconsideration. 1 (Tr. 12, 52-57, 63-66). 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.” 1 Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her applications and this hearing request was granted. (Tr. 79-80). Plaintiff’s administrative hearing was held on April 2, 2012. (Tr. 27-47). Plaintiff was present and was represented by, Stanley Brummel, at this hearing. Id. Plaintiff, Medical Expert Dr. Yondell Moore, and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Russell Bowden testified at this hearing. Id. At the time of this hearing, Plaintiff was forty-eight (48) years old, which is defined as a “younger person” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c), had an eleventh grade education and obtained a GED. (Tr. 31, 33). On April 23, 2012, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s application for DIB and SSI. (Tr. 12-23). In this decision, the ALJ determined Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2014. (Tr. 14, Finding 1). The ALJ also determined Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since December 23, 2009. (Tr. 14, Finding 2). The ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairment of deep venous thrombosis of the left lower extremity. (Tr. 14, Finding 3). The ALJ then determined Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or medically equal the requirements of any of the Listing of Impairments in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Regulations No. 4 (“Listings”). (Tr. 15, Finding 4). In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her RFC. (Tr. 16-22). First, the ALJ indicated he evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and found her claimed limitations were not entirely credible. Id. Second, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the RFC to lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand and walk for two hours out of an 8-hour workday at 30-minute intervals, and sit for six hours of an 8-hour workday at two-hour intervals, limited by occasional climbing ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, 2 kneeling, crouching and crawling; no climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds; and should avoid exposure to hazards. (Tr. 16, Finding 5). The ALJ then evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 22, Finding 6). The ALJ found Plaintiff unable to perform her PRW as a line worker and laundry worker. Id. The ALJ however determined there was other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 22-23, Finding 10). The VE testified at the administrative hearing regarding this issue. (Tr. 44-46). Based upon that testimony, the ALJ determined Plaintiff retained the ability to perform other work such as an eyeglass frame packager with 800 such jobs in Southwest Arkansas/Northeast Texas and 8,000 such jobs in the nation, lens inserter with 600 such jobs in Southwest Arkansas/Northeast Texas and 6,000 such jobs in the nation, and dowel inspector with 350 such jobs in Southwest Arkansas/Northeast Texas and 3,500 such jobs in the nation. (Tr. 23). Given this, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not been under a disability as defined in the Act from December 23, 2009 through the date of his decision. (Tr. 23, Finding 11). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s unfavorable decision. (Tr. 1). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.968. The Appeals Council declined to review this unfavorable decision. (Tr. 1-3). On May 6, 2013, Plaintiff filed the present appeal. ECF No. 1. The Parties consented to the jurisdiction of this Court on May 13, 2013. ECF No. 7. Both Parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF Nos. 10,11. This case is now ready for decision. 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 3 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) 4 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: In his appeal brief, Plaintiff claims the ALJ’s disability determination is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. ECF No. 10, Pg. 11-20. Specifically, Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred: (1) in the credibility determination of Plaintiff, (2) in failing to give proper treatment to the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating physician, (3) in failing to address Plaintiff’s claim of depression, and (4) in failing to consider Plaintiff’s obesity. Id. In response, the Defendant argues the ALJ did not err in any of his findings. ECF No. 11. A. Credibility Determination In assessing the credibility of a claimant, the ALJ is required to examine and to apply the five factors from Polaski v. Heckler 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 2 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. 5 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. Sullivan, 928 F.2d 255, 259 (8th Cir. 1991). In the present action, the ALJ did not perform a proper Polaski analysis. While the ALJ indicated the factors from 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529 and 20 C.F.R. § 416.929 had been considered (Tr. 18-19), a review of the ALJ’s opinion shows that instead of evaluating these factors and noting inconsistencies between Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and the evidence in the record, the ALJ 6 merely reviewed the medical records and recognized the proper legal standard for assessing credibility. In his opinion, the ALJ only made the following perfunctory statement regarding Plaintiff’s subjective complaints: After careful consideration of the evidence, I find that the claimant’s medically determinable impairments cannot reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms to the degree alleged by the claimant. The claimant’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms have been determined to diminish the capacity for basic work activities only to the extent which they can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical and other evidence. (Tr. 21-22). The ALJ made no specific findings regarding the inconsistencies between Plaintiff’s claimed subjective complaints and the record evidence. The ALJ must make a specific credibility determination, articulate the reasons for discrediting the Plaintiff’s testimony, and address any inconsistencies between the testimony and the record. The ALJ failed to perform this analysis. This lack of analysis is insufficient under Polaski, and this case should be reversed and remanded for further consideration consistent with Polaski. Upon remand, the ALJ may still find Plaintiff not disabled, however a proper and complete analysis pursuant to Polaski should be performed. B. ALJ’s Treatment of Treating Physician Opinions Social Security Regulations and case law state that a treating physician's opinion will be granted “controlling weight,” provided it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] record.” See SSR 96-2p; Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012-13 (8th Cir. 2000)(citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)). An ALJ is required to give good reasons for the particular weight given to a treating physician’s evaluation. See Prosch, 201 F.3d at1013 (citing 20 C.F.R § 404.1527(d)(2), and SSR 96-2p). An ALJ may disregard the opinion of a treating physician only where other medical 7 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. Id. at 1013 (quoting Rogers v. Chater, 118 F.3d 600, 602 (8th Cir. 1997), and Cruze v. Chater, 85 F.3d 1320, 1324-25 (8th Cir. 1996)). Plaintiff’s treating physician, Dr. Charles Marrow, began treating Plaintiff on April 4, 2011. (Tr. 266). He was seen and treated by Dr. Marrow throughout 2011 and 2012. (Tr. 261-273, 282309, 325-336). Dr. Marrow treated Plaintiff for depression, deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, fibroid tumor, and ascites. Id. On November 8, 2011, Dr. Morrow prepared a treating source statement. (Tr. 313). Dr. Marrow indicated Plaintiff was unable to perform any work related physical functions due to her weakened condition as a result of blood clots. Id. Dr. Marrow also stated Plaintiff’s pain significantly impaired her daily functioning, would miss more than four days of work a month due to her impairments, and would be unable to work a forty (40) work week on a substantial basis. Id. The ALJ stated he gave no weight to the opinions of Dr. Morrow. (Tr. 17). The ALJ’s only analysis was that Dr. Morrow’s opinions were not supported by other medical evidence and were based on Plaintiff’s subjective complaints. The ALJ has the responsibility to determine which findings are inconsistent and which opinions should be given greater weight than other opinions. See Brown v. Astrue, 611 F.3d 941, 951-52. However, when an ALJ determines that a treating physician’s opinion should be discounted, “he should give good reasons for doing so.” Id. (internal quotation and citation omitted). In this matter, the ALJ’s complete lack of analysis and review certainly does not amount to “good reasons” for discounting Dr. Morrow’s findings. See Brown, 611 F.3d at 951-52. The ALJ has completely failed to discuss and analyze the opinions of Dr. Morrow other than to say they are inconsistent with the medical record. 8 Substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s decision of Plaintiff being not disabled because the ALJ failed to properly analyze the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating physician, Dr. Charles Marrow. Because the ALJ did not properly review the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating physician, this case should be reversed and remanded for proper review and analysis of these opinions. 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 12th day of March 2014. /s/ Barry A. Bryant HON. BARRY A. BRYANT U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE 9

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