James v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on January 19, 2017. (mll)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
Civil No. 4:15-cv-04118
CAROLYN W. COLVIN
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
Dawn James (“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
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), 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.
Plaintiff protectively filed her disability applications on November 22, 2011 (DIB) and
December 6, 2011 (SSI). (Tr. 11). In these applications, Plaintiff alleges being disabled due to
Hepatitis C; Raynaud syndrome; manic depression; acid reflux; “hands get cold easily and turn blue,
white, black”; and past suicide attempts. (Tr. 232). Plaintiff alleges an onset date of June 17, 2011.
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.”
(Tr. 11). Plaintiff’s application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 74-77).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing on her applications, and this hearing
request was granted. (Tr. 26-73, 97). Plaintiff’s administrative hearing was held on June 5, 2013
in Russellville, Arkansas. (Tr. 26-73). At this hearing, Plaintiff was present and was represented
by John Miller. Id. Plaintiff and Vocational Expert (“VE”) John Massey testified at this hearing.
Id. At this hearing, Plaintiff testified she was forty-nine (49) years old. (Tr. 30). This age qualifies
as a “younger person” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c) and 20 C.F.R. § 416.963(c). (Tr. 30). As for
her education, Plaintiff also testified she had completed high school. Id.
On June 27, 2014, after the administrative hearing, the ALJ entered an unfavorable decision
denying Plaintiff’s disability applications. (Tr. 8-20). In this decision, the ALJ found Plaintiff met
the insured status requirements of the Act through March 31, 2016. (Tr. 13, Finding 1). The ALJ
found Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since June 17, 2011, her
alleged onset date. (Tr. 13, Finding 2). The ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe
impairments: chronic rheumatic disease, Raynaud’s disease, hepatitis C and history of right anterior
cruciate ligament (ACL) repair. (Tr. 13-16, Finding 3). The ALJ also determined, however, that
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. 16, Finding 4).
In this decision, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints and determined her
Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). (Tr. 16-20, 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 capacity to perform the following:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the
claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined
in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except she must avoid all exposure to extreme
cold, and she is unable to perform any jobs which involve handling or preparing food
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s Past Relevant Work (“PRW”). (Tr. 20, Finding 6). The VE
testified at the administrative hearing regarding this issue. Id. Based upon that testimony, the ALJ
found Plaintiff’s PRW included work as an administrative clerk and data entry clerk. Id. The ALJ
also found that Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform this PRW. Id. Accordingly, because
Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform her PRW, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not been under
a disability, as defined in the Act, from June 17, 2011 through the date of his decision or through
June 27, 2014. (Tr. 20, Finding 7).
Thereafter, Plaintiff requested the review of the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council
denied Plaintiff’s request for review. (Tr. 1-3). On December 31, 2015, Plaintiff filed her Complaint
in this matter. ECF No. 1. The Parties consented to the jurisdiction of this Court on January 5,
2016. ECF No. 7. Both Parties have filed appeal briefs. ECF Nos. 9, 12. This case is now ready
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 two arguments for reversal: (A) the ALJ erred by finding
her mental impairments were non-severe; and (B) the ALJ erred in assessing her RFC. ECF No. 9
at 1-10. Because the Court finds the ALJ erred in assessing her RFC and in determining the extent
of the limitations in her hands, the Court will only address Plaintiff’s second argument for reversal.
Because a claimant’s RFC is a medical question, an ALJ’s assessment of it must be supported
by some medical evidence of the claimant’s ability to function in the workplace. See Lauer v. Apfel,
245 F.3d 700, 704 (8th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted). In the present action, the ALJ did not find
Plaintiff had any limitations with the use of her hands. (Tr. 16-20, Finding 5). Plaintiff, however,
has supplied medical records demonstrating she is limited in using her hands because she suffers
from Raynaud’s phenomenon.
Notably, on January 30, 2014, rheumatologist Dr. Donald G. Leonard, M.D., F.A.C.R.
examined Plaintiff and found she had “pain on motion of both hands and wrists, reduced fist grasp
of the dominant right hand, about ½ of normal, compared to normal left.” (Tr. 459) (emphasis
added). Furthermore, the ALJ’s own consultative examiner made even more restrictive findings
regarding Plaintiff’s grip strength. On July 10, 2013, Dr. Clifford Lamar Evans, M.D. recognized
Plaintiff could not pick up a coin because she “can’t feel the coin” and found Plaintiff’s grip strength
was only 10% of normal in the both her right and left hands. (Tr. 452) (emphasis added).
In his opinion, the ALJ summarized but did not discuss why he discounted these findings.
Instead, the ALJ found only Plaintiff’s testimony supported her claims of limited hand use. (Tr. 19).
The ALJ did not reference the medical evidence supporting these claims. Then, the ALJ then
discounted those subjective complaints:
The undersigned notes that the claimant has described daily activities which are very
restricted. She testified that due to Raynaud’s, she can lift nothing heavier than a can
of vegetables, that she cannot tie her shoes or button her pants and that she cannot
help with the household chores, except she can wash the table because the water is
warm. However, several factors weigh against considering these allegations to be
strong evidence in favor of finding the claimant disabled. . . .
(Tr. 19). The ALJ provided several reasons for discounting these subjective complaints. Id. All of
them were essentially based upon the fact that her subjective complaints were not consistent with
her medical records. Id.
However, in making this assessment, the ALJ entirely ignored the grip and hand restrictions
recognized by two doctors, Dr. Leonard and Dr. Evans. The ALJ also referenced no medical support
for his finding that Plaintiff was not limited in using her hands. Thus, the Court cannot find there
is “some medical evidence” supporting the ALJ’s RFC determination on this issue. Thus, this case
must be reversed and remanded.
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 19th day of January 2017.
/s/ Barry A. Bryant
HON. BARRY A. BRYANT
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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