Pierce v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on January 7, 2013. (adw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
LILA KAY PIERCE
CIVIL NO. 11-5143
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Lila Kay Pierce, 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 claim for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits under the
provisions of Title 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 her current application for SSI on November 20, 2008, alleging
an inability to work since July 1, 2005, due to diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, gout, vision
problems, asthma, congestive heart failure, hyperglycemia, cardiomegaly, and a personality
disorder. (Tr. 120-123, 140, 198). An administrative hearing was held on February 2, 2010, at
which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 32-64).
By written decision dated April 16, 2010, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 20).
Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus;
hypertension; asthma; degenerative joint/disc disease; gout; vision loss; and a personality
disorder and/or anxiety/stress. However, after reviewing all of the evidence presented, the ALJ
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. 20). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. The claimant can sit
for six hours and can stand/walk for six hours. She can frequently climb, balance,
crouch, kneel, stoop and crawl. She can frequently work overhead and handle
and finger bilaterally. She must avoid concentrated exposure to dust, fumes,
gases, odors and poor ventilation. She cannot do work requiring excellent vision,
but she can see well enough to avoid normal hazards in the work place and to
distinguish between the shape and color of small objects such as nuts, screws and
bolts. She can do work where interpersonal contact is incidental to the work
performed and where the complexity of tasks is learned and performed by rote
with few variables and little judgment required. Supervision required is simple,
direct, and concrete.
(Tr. 22). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work
as a power screwdriver operator, a conveyor line bakery worker, and an unskilled machine
tender. (Tr. 26).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
after considering additional evidence denied that request on April 14, 2011. (Tr. 1-4).
Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. (Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant
to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 12). Both parties have filed appeal briefs and Plaintiff filed
a Reply, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 18, 19, 20).
The Court has reviewed the entire transcript. The complete set of facts and arguments
are presented in the parties’ briefs, and are repeated here only to the extent necessary.
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)(c). 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 has engaged in substantial
gainful activity since filing her claim; (2) whether the claimant has a severe physical and/or
mental impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment(s) meet or equal
an impairment in the listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevent the claimant from doing past
relevant work; and, (5) whether the claimant is 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. See McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42
(8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.
Plaintiff argues the following issues in this appeal: 1) the ALJ erred in not finding
Plaintiff’s cardiomegaly to be a severe impairment; 2) that the ALJ improperly determined
Plaintiff’s RFC; and 3) that Plaintiff cannot perform the jobs identified at step five.
At Step Two of the sequential analysis, the ALJ is required to determine whether a
claimant's impairments are severe. See 20 C .F.R. § 404.1520(c). To be severe, an impairment
only needs to have more than a minimal impact on a claimant's ability to perform work-related
activities. See Social Security Ruling 96-3p. The Step Two requirement is only a threshold test
so the claimant's burden is minimal and does not require a showing that the impairment is
disabling in nature. See Brown v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 153-54 (1987). The claimant,
however, has the burden of proof of showing she suffers from a medically-severe impairment
at Step Two. See Mittlestedt v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir.2000).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly found Plaintiff’s alleged cardiomegaly1 to be a
non-severe impairment. While the medical evidence dated prior to the alleged onset date
appeared to indicate Plaintiff was diagnosed with cardiomegaly; the Court notes that after
reviewing chest x-rays in January of 2009, Dr. Randy Conover, a medical consultant, noted that
no cardiomegaly was present. (Tr. 268). The Court finds substantial evidence to support the
ALJ’s determination not to include cardiomegaly as a severe impairment.
The ALJ’s RFC Determination:
RFC is the most a person can do despite that person’s limitations. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(1). It is assessed using all relevant evidence in the record. Id. This includes medical
records, observations of treating physicians and others, and the claimant’s own descriptions of
his limitations. Guilliams v. Barnhart, 393 F.3d 798, 801 (8th Cir. 2005); Eichelberger v.
Barnhart, 390 F.3d 584, 591 (8th Cir. 2004). Limitations resulting from symptoms such as pain
are also factored into the assessment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). The United States Court of
Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has held that a “claimant’s residual functional capacity is a
medical question.” Lauer v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 700, 704 (8th Cir. 2001). Therefore, an ALJ’s
determination concerning a claimant’s RFC must be supported by medical evidence that
addresses the claimant’s ability to function in the workplace. Lewis v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 642,
Cardiomegaly is defined as an abnormal enlargement of the heart. See Dorland's Illustrated Medication,
Dictionary at 299, 31st Edition (2007).
646 (8th Cir. 2003). “[T]he ALJ is [also] required to set forth specifically a claimant’s
limitations and to determine how those limitations affect his RFC.” Id.
In determining that Plaintiff maintained the RFC to perform unskilled light work with
limitations, the ALJ considered the medical assessments of the non-examining agency medical
consultants; the consultative examiners assessments; Plaintiff’s subjective complaints; and her
medical records. The Court finds, based upon the well-stated reasons outlined in the Defendant’s
brief, that Plaintiff’s argument is without merit, and there was sufficient evidence for the ALJ
to make an informed decision. Therefore, the Court finds there is substantial evidence of record
to support the ALJ’s RFC findings for the relevant time period.
Subjective Complaints and Credibility Analysis:
The ALJ was required to consider all the evidence relating to Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints including evidence presented by third parties that relates to: (1) Plaintiff’s daily
activities; (2) the duration, frequency, and intensity of her pain; (3) precipitating and aggravating
factors; (4) dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of her medication; and (5) functional
restrictions. See Polaski v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1320, 1322 (8th Cir. 1984). While an ALJ may not
discount a claimant’s subjective complaints solely because the medical evidence fails to support
them, an ALJ may discount those complaints where inconsistencies appear in the record as a
whole. Id. As the Eighth Circuit has observed, “Our touchstone is that [a claimant’s] credibility
is primarily a matter for the ALJ to decide.” Edwards, 314 F.3d at 966.
Based on the record as a whole, the Court finds that the ALJ properly considered and
evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, including the Polaski factors; and that there is
substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s credibility findings.
Hypothetical Question to the Vocational Expert:
After thoroughly reviewing the hearing transcript along with the entire evidence of
record, the Court finds that the hypothetical the ALJ posed to the vocational expert fully set forth
the impairments which the ALJ accepted as true and which were supported by the record as a
whole. Goff v. Barnhart, 421 F.3d 785, 794 (8th Cir. 2005). Accordingly, the Court finds that the
vocational expert's opinion constitutes substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's conclusion that
Plaintiff's impairments did not preclude her from performing work as a power screwdriver
operator, a conveyor line bakery worker, and an unskilled machine tender. Pickney v. Chater,
96 F.3d 294, 296 (8th Cir. 1996)(testimony from vocational expert based on properly phrased
hypothetical question constitutes substantial evidence).
Accordingly, having carefully reviewed the record, the undersigned finds substantial
evidence supporting the ALJ's decision denying the Plaintiff benefits, and thus the decision
should be affirmed. The undersigned further finds that the Plaintiff’s Complaint should be
dismissed with prejudice.
DATED this 7th day of January, 2013.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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