Daniels v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on March 21, 2012. (tg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Jeanne Daniels, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking
judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(Commissioner) denying her claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits
(DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under the provisions of Titles II and XVI
of the Social Security Act (Act). In this judicial review, the Court must determine whether there
is substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the Commissioner’s decision. See
42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Plaintiff protectively filed for DIB and SSI on November 5, 2005, alleging disability due
to various impairments since May 12, 2005. (Tr. 38). Plaintiff alleged an inability to work due
to chronic hepatitis C, sclerosis and spurring, bulging disc with thoracic and lumbar pain, mixed
anxiety with depressed disorder, PTSD, chronic pain, vertigo with difficulty concentrating,
degenerative joint disorder, pain and nerve damage in both shoulders, and chronic bronchitis.
(Tr. 149, 207). For DIB purposes, Plaintiff maintained insured status through June 30, 2008.
(Tr. 149). On December 27, 2007, the ALJ rendered a decision finding Plaintiff was not
disabled. (Tr. 44). On June 20, 2008, the Appeals Council issued an order remanding this
matter to the ALJ for resolution of certain issues. (Tr. 16-17).
Subsequent to the Appeals Council remand, administrative hearings were held before the
ALJ on December 17, 2008 (Tr. 1059-1100) and August 7, 2009 (Tr. 1044-1058), at which,
Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified.
By written decision dated September 10, 2009, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had an
impairment or combination of impairments that were severe - hearing loss, degenerative joint
disease, degenerative disc disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, hepatitis C, adjustment disorder, and
polysubstance dependence. (Tr. 25). However, after reviewing all of the evidence presented,
she determined that Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or equal the level of severity of any
impairment listed in the Listing of Impairments found in Appendix I, Subpart P, Regulation No.
4. (Tr. 25). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
Perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)
except she cannot reach overhead. She cannot do any sustained driving.
She cannot perform any telephone work activities. She cannot perform
any rapid, repetitive flexing of the wrists. She cannot climb scaffolds,
ladders, or ropes. She cannot work around unprotected heights,
dangerous equipment, or machines. She can occasionally climb ramps
and stairs and stoop, bend, crouch, crawl, kneel, and balance. From a
mental standpoint, she is able to perform non-complex routine repetitive
work where superficial contact is incidental to work performed with the
public and co-workers, complexity of tasks is learned and performed by
rote with few variables and little judgment, and supervision is specific,
direct, and concrete.
(Tr. 26). With the help of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ determined Plaintiff was unable
to perform any past relevant work, but would be able to perform other work, such as a hand
packager and plastics worker. (Tr. 31).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on September 10, 2010. (Tr. 11-13, 1041-1043). The Appeals Council made
the additional evidence of Dr. Kendrick’s notes dated February 12, 2010 to August 5, 2010, part
of the record, and considered this evidence in denying review. (Tr. 14). Subsequently, Plaintiff
filed this action. (Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the
parties. (Doc. 5). Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision.
(Docs. 9, 10).
This Court’s role is to determine whether the Commissioner’s findings are supported by
substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F. 3d 576, 583 (8th Cir.
2002). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but it is enough that a reasonable mind
would find it adequate to support the Commissioner’s decision. The ALJ’s decision must be
affirmed if the record contains substantial evidence to support it. Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.
3d 964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003). 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. Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). In
other words, 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. 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 her disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one
year and that prevents her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. Pearsall v.
Massanari, 274 F. 3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); see also 42 U.S.C. §§423(d)(1)(A),
1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act defines “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)(D). A Plaintiff must show that her disability, not simply her impairment, has lasted for
at least twelve consecutive months.
The Commissioner’s regulations require him to apply a five-step sequential evaluation
process to each claim for disability benefits: (1) whether the claimant had engaged in substantial
gainful activity since filing her claim; (2) whether the claimant had a severe physical and/or
mental impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment(s) met or equaled
an impairment in the listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevented the claimant from doing
past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant was able to perform other work in the national
economy given her age, education, and experience. See 20 C.F.R. §416.920. Only if the final
stage is reached does the fact finder consider the Plaintiff’s age, education, and work experience
in light of her residual functional capacity (RFC). See McCoy v. Schneider, 683 F.2d 1138,
1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §416.920.
The Court has concerns about the ALJ’s assessment of Plaintiff’s subjective complaints.
Specifically, in discussing Plaintiff’s daily activities, the ALJ stated that Plaintiff was the
caregiver for her fiancé in the two years prior to his recent death. Plaintiff testified that before
hospice came to their home to take care of her fiancé, he was nevertheless able to do basically
everything for himself. (Tr. 1080). The ALJ also stated that Plaintiff was able to drive and shop
for groceries and go to appointments. However, Plaintiff denied having a driver’s license, and
testified that she was afraid to drive, and that her hands would fall asleep when she drove. (Tr.
551, 1090, 1137). In addition, the ALJ stated that Plaintiff was able to “shop for groceries.”
(Tr. 25). However, Plaintiff testified that she had been living on a gallon of milk and a carton
of eggs and three minute noodles. (Tr. 1087). The Court believes the ALJ did not accurately
represent Plaintiff’s daily activities. The Court therefore finds this matter should be remanded
in order for the ALJ to re-evaluate the Plaintiff’s daily activities and subjective complaints.
The Court is also concerned about the fact that although the ALJ stated that Plaintiff
could not perform any rapid, repetitive flexing of the wrists in her RFC assessment, she did not
include such a limitation in her hypothetical question to the VE. Therefore, the hypothetical
question the ALJ proposed to the VE did not fully set forth the impairments which the ALJ
accepted as true and which were supported by the record as a whole. See Goff v. Barnhart, 421
F.3d 785, 794 (8th Cir. 2005). Accordingly, the Court cannot say that there is substantial
evidence to support the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff could do other work. The Court finds that
this matter should be remanded in order for the ALJ to present a hypothetical question to the VE
which encompasses all of the limitations given by the ALJ in her RFC assessment.
Based upon the foregoing, the Court concludes that the ALJ’s decision is not supported
by substantial evidence, and therefore, the denial of benefits to the Plaintiff should be reversed
and this matter should be remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration pursuant to
sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
IT IS SO ORDERED this 21st day of March, 2012.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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