Cousins v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on November 26, 2012. (tg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
BOBBY RAY COUSINS
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Bobby Ray Cousins, 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 his claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits
(DIB) under the provisions of Title II 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 filed his current application for DIB on November 13, 2009, alleging an inability
to work since April 1, 2001, due to “Paranoia.” (Tr. 95-101, 119, 124). An administrative
hearing was held on March 29, 2011, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr.
By written decision dated May 24, 2011, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe - affective
disorders, personality disorders, dysthymia, depression, and mood disorders. (Tr. 12). 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. 12). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained
the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with a
nonexertional limitation to unskilled work, or routine quasi-skilled or
lower level semi-skilled work (SVP 3), neither of which requires more
than incidental and superficial interaction with supervisors and coworkers, and does not require more than minimal and incidental rather
than intense and continual interaction with the general public.
(Tr. 13). With the help of the vocational expert (VE), the ALJ determined that during the
relevant time period, Plaintiff would be able to perform his past relevant work as a forklift
operator. (Tr. 16).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on November 1, 2011. (Tr. 1-3). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action.
(Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 8).
Both parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 11, 12).
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 his disability by establishing a physical or mental disability that has lasted at least one
year and that prevents him 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 his disability, not simply his 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 his 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 his 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 his residual functional capacity (RFC). See McCoy v. Schneider, 683 F.2d 1138,
1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §416.920.
Plaintiff raises the following argument on appeal: That the ALJ committed reversible
error when he ignored or chose to disregard the full medical reports of examining psychiatrists
without explanation. (Doc. 11). More specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ based his
findings on the forms completed by the State’s reviewing psychologists while disregarding the
opinions of both the independent and State psychologists who actually examined Plaintiff.
In this case, on January 21, 2010, Dr. Gene Chambers, Ph.D., conducted a Mental
Diagnostic Evaluation and Evaluation of Adaptive Functioning. (Tr. 155-158). Dr. Chambers
reported that Plaintiff indicated he had never received any treatment for any of his mental
symptoms, and would not take medicine because he did not trust doctors. (Tr. 155). Dr.
Chambers also reported that Plaintiff indicated that he would not take an antidepressant, antianxiety medication or sleep medication. (Tr. 155). Dr. Chambers diagnosed Plaintiff as follows:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Paranoid Personality Disorder
Occupational problems, problems related to the social
GAF - 50-60
(Tr. 157). Dr. Chambers also indicated that Plaintiff had no difficulty bathing or dressing
himself; was capable of driving to places with which he was not familiar; did his own shopping
and managed his own money; had a few friends; did not have anyone come and visit him but
would go and visit them; became paranoid easily; and had no difficulties performing household
chores. (Tr. 158). Dr. Chambers noted that Plaintiff’s capacity to: communicate and interact in
a socially adequate manner; cope with typical mental/cognitive demands of basic work-like
tasks; attend and sustain concentration on basic tasks; sustain persistence in completing tasks ;
and complete work-like tasks within an acceptable time frame, had limitations based upon
Plaintiff’s paranoid personality disorder. (Tr. 158).
On February 5, 2010, non-examining consultant Jerry R. Henderson, Ph.D. completed
a Psychiatric Review Technique form and Mental RFC Assessment. (Tr. 160-173, 174-177).
Dr. Henderson found that Plaintiff had a moderate degree of limitation in difficulties in
maintaining social functioning and in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. He also
found Plaintiff had a mild degree of limitation in activities of daily living. (Tr. 170). Dr.
Henderson noted in his Mental RFC Assessment that Plaintiff had no history of psychiatric
treatment and took no psychotropic medications. (Tr. 176). Dr. Henderson concluded that
although Plaintiff’s personality traits would likely cause problems with social interaction, marked
functional limitations were not documented, and he found Plaintiff appeared capable of
performing unskilled work requiring limited contact with others. (Tr. 176).
On December 14, 2010, Plaintiff was seen at Ozark Guidance, by Donald Defreece, LPC.
(Tr. 180-184). Mr. Defreece diagnosed Plaintiff as follows:
Lack of resources
Contrary to Plaintiff’s contention, the ALJ did address Dr. Chambers’ findings. He stated
In terms of perception, attitude, and behavior, or functional “mental”
impairments, Dr. Chambers noted the claimant does his own shopping,
manages his own money, and is capable of driving to places with which
he is not familiar. Considering the limitations attendant to and
defined/described as “paranoid personality,” the claimant reflects
limitations, but the claimant was noted to be “capable of managing funds
without assistance, and to interact, conduct himself, and behave in what
Dr. Chambers reported as “cooperative” for purpose of the examination.
(Tr. 15). The opinion of a consultative examiner is evidence that must be considered, but it is not
entitled to controlling weight. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527. The Eighth Circuit has held that “‘[t]he
opinion of a consulting physician who examines a claimant once or not at all does not generally
constitute substantial evidence.’” Jenkins v. Apfel, 196 F.3d 922, 925 (8th Cir. 1999)(quoting
Kelley v. Callahan, 133 F.3d 583, 589 (8th Cir. 1998).
The ALJ further noted that the Plaintiff’s perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors did not
reflect such impairment of cognition, communication, or behavior as to significantly limit his
ability to perform unskilled work which did not require more than incidental and superficial
interaction with supervisors and co-workers, and did not require more than minimal and
incidental rather than intense and continual interaction with the general public. (Tr. 15).
The ALJ also considered the report from Mr. Defreece at Ozark Guidance Center, as well
as the opinions of non-examining physicians, Dr. Jerry Henderson and Dr. Winston Brown, in
concluding that Plaintiff’s mental limitations did not prevent him from performing a full range
of work with certain nonexertional limitations.
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,
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.
It is clear that the ALJ considered the record as a whole, including Dr. Chambers’ opinion
as well as the opinions of Dr. Henderson and Dr. Brown. This, coupled with the fact that
Plaintiff did not seek medical treatment and was not willing to take medication if prescribed that
may have controlled his symptoms, and the fact that the ALJ’s RFC assessment limited Plaintiff
to unskilled work, thereby minimizing his contact with other people, constitute substantial
evidence to support the ALJ’s RFC findings.
Based upon the foregoing, the Court finds there is substantial evidence to support the
ALJ’s decision. Accordingly, the Court hereby affirms the ALJ’s decision and dismisses
Plaintiff’s case with prejudice.
DATED this 26th day of November, 2012.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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