Horton v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on May 30, 2013. (adw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CIVIL NO. 12-5051
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE1, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Amanda D. Horton, 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 her current applications for DIB and SSI on July 7, 2009,
alleging an inability to work since October 5, 2005,2 due to left upper extremity problems and
Carolyn Colvin became the Acting Social Security Commissioner on February 14, 2013. Pursuant to Rule
25(d)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Carolyn Colvin has been substituted for Commissioner Michael
J. Astrue as the Defendant in this suit.
At the August 5, 2010 administrative hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to February 2, 2006. (Tr.
pain; right finger damage; headaches; sleep problems; anxiety; memory problems; and fatigue.
(Tr. 104,142). An administrative hearing was held on August 5, 2010, at which Plaintiff
appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 23-46).
By written decision dated November 2, 2010, the ALJ found that during the relevant time
period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 11).
Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: left upper extremity
injuries; a depressive disorder, NOS; and a generalized anxiety disorder. 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 light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except
claimant can sit for 6 hours and stand/walk for 6 hours; cannot climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds; is limited to occupations where interpersonal contact is
incidental to the work performed; complexity of tasks is learned and performed
by note (sic), with few variables and little judgement required; supervision
required is simple, direct, and concrete; ; (sic) and claimant’s non-dominant
arm/hand can be used as an assistive device only.
(Tr. 14). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work
as a house sitter, a toll collector, and a parking lot attendant. (Tr. 19, 229-232).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on February 16, 2012. (Tr. 1-3). 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. 8,9).
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 her 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. §§ 404.1520, 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. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
Plaintiff argues the following issues on appeal: 1) the ALJ failed to consider all of
Plaintiff’s medically determinable conditions or the combined effect of all of Plaintiff’s
conditions; 2) the ALJ erred in determining Plaintiff’s RFC; and 3) the ALJ erred when
analyzing Plaintiff’s subjective complaints.
Combination of Impairments:
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to consider all of the claimant’s impairments
The ALJ stated that in determining Plaintiff’s RFC, he considered “all of the claimant’s
impairments, including impairments that are not severe.” (Tr. 11). The ALJ further found that
the Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically
equaled one of the listed impairments. (Tr. 12). Such language demonstrates the ALJ considered
the combined effect of Plaintiff’s impairments. Hajek v. Shalala, 30 F.3d 89, 92 (8th Cir. 1994).
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
her 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.
In the present case, the ALJ considered the medical assessments of examining agency
medical consultants, Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, and her medical records when he
determined Plaintiff could perform light work with limitations. The Court notes that in
determining Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ specifically discussed the relevant medical records, and set
forth the reasons for the weight given to the medical opinions. Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d
1057, 1065 (8th Cir. 2012) (“It is the ALJ’s function to resolve conflicts among the opinions of
various treating and examining physicians”)(citations omitted). The Court finds, based upon the
record as a whole and the well-stated reasons outlined in the Defendant’s brief, that Plaintiff’s
argument is without merit. Accordingly, the Court finds there is substantial evidence of record
to support the ALJ’s RFC findings.
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.
After reviewing the administrative record, and the Defendant’s well-stated reasons set
forth in her brief, it is clear that the ALJ properly considered and evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective
complaints, including the Polaski factors. As pointed out by the ALJ, the evidence revealed that
Plaintiff could drive; do household chores with some limitations due to her upper left extremity;
help take care of her child, born in October of 2009; shop; prepare simple meals; watch
television with her boyfriend; and work on and off part-time as a bartender in a smaller venue
through June of 2010. This level of activity belies Plaintiff’s complaints of pain and limitation
and the Eighth Circuit has consistently held that the ability to perform such activities contradicts
a Plaintiff’s subjective allegations of disabling pain. See Hutton v. Apfel, 175 F.3d 651, 654-655
(8th Cir. 1999) (holding ALJ’s rejection of claimant’s application was supported by substantial
evidence where daily activities– making breakfast, washing dishes and clothes, visiting friends,
watching television and driving-were inconsistent with claim of total disability).
Therefore, although it is clear that Plaintiff suffers with some degree of pain, she has not
established that she is unable to engage in any gainful activity. See Craig v. Apfel, 212 F.3d 433,
436 (8th Cir. 2000) (holding that mere fact that working may cause pain or discomfort does not
mandate a finding of disability). Accordingly, the Court concludes that substantial evidence
supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff’s subjective complaints were not totally credible.
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 during the relevant time period Plaintiff's impairments did not preclude her from performing
work as a house sitter, a toll collector, and a parking lot attendant. 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 30th day of May, 2013.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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