Roe v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

Filing 14

MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on October 31, 2013. (src)

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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS FAYETTEVILLE DIVISION EDITH M. ROE PLAINTIFF v. CIVIL NO. 12-5186 CAROLYN W. COLVIN,1 Commissioner Social Security Administration DEFENDANT MEMORANDUM OPINION Plaintiff, Edith M. Roe, 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). I. Procedural Background: Plaintiff protectively filed her current applications for DIB and SSI on January 15, 2010, alleging an inability to work since September 15, 2009, due to a bipolar disorder. (Tr. 127, 166). An administrative hearing was held on July 21, 2011, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 33-65). 1 Carolyn W. Colvin, has been appointed to serve as acting Commissioner of Social Security, and is substituted as Defendant, pursuant to Rule 25(d)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. AO72A (Rev. 8/82) By written decision dated August 22, 2011, the ALJ found that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr. 18). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, low back pain, depression, an anxiety disorder, and a personality 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. 19). 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 limited ability to read, write and use numbers, consistent with an 8th Grade education. She is able to lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She can sit up to two hours per day in an 8 hour workday and can stand and walk up to 6 hours per day in an 8 hour workday. Due to the diagnosis of personality disorder and anxiety disorder, she is able to perform work where interpersonal contact is incidental to the work performed; complexity of the task is learned and performed by rote, with few variables and little judgment. She is limited to unskilled work. She requires direct and concrete supervision. She can perform work where interpersonal contact is incidental to work performed and where complexity of the task is performed by rote, using little or simple judgment, or where the judgment exercised is judgment is (sic) direct and concrete - she should perform only unskilled work. She takes medication for relief of symptomatology, but the medication usage would not preclude her from remaining reasonably alert and performing required duties in a work setting. (Tr. 20). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a housekeeper. (Tr. 26). The ALJ further found Plaintiff could perform other work as a bench assembler, a poultry processer, and a clerical mailer. (Tr. 27). Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which denied that request on June 20, 2012. (Tr. 1-4). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this action. (Doc. 1). This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 5). Both -2- AO72A (Rev. 8/82) parties have filed appeal briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 11, 13). 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. II. Applicable Law: 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 -3- AO72A (Rev. 8/82) 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. III. Discussion: Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in concluding that the Plaintiff was not disabled because: 1) the ALJ erred in failing to consider all of Plaintiff’s impairments in combination; 2) the ALJ erred in his analysis and credibility findings with regard to Plaintiff’s subjective complaints of pain; 3) the ALJ erred in determining Plaintiff maintained the RFC to perform less than a full range of light work; 4) the ALJ erred in determining Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a housekeeper; and 5) the ALJ failed to fully and fairly develop the record. A. Combination of Impairments: Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to consider all of the claimant’s impairments -4- AO72A (Rev. 8/82) in combination. The ALJ stated that in determining Plaintiff’s RFC, he considered “all of the claimant’s impairments, including impairments that are not severe.” (Tr. 17). 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. 19). Such language demonstrates the ALJ considered the combined effect of Plaintiff’s impairments. Hajek v. Shalala, 30 F.3d 89, 92 (8th Cir. 1994). B. 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, it is clear that the ALJ properly considered and evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, including the Polaski factors. A review of the record revealed that on April 12, 2010, Plaintiff reported to Dr. Terry L. Efird that her limit in performing activities of daily living was not due to a physical inability but due to a lack of motivation. (Tr. 268). The record further revealed that Plaintiff could take care of her personal needs, could prepare simple meals, and could go shopping with her boyfriend and mother. (Tr. -5- AO72A (Rev. 8/82) 184-191). The record further revealed that Plaintiff was able to go out dancing in March of 2011, and, in April of 2011, Plaintiff reported that she had been spending time taking bubble baths, walking trails, listening to music, and spring cleaning. (Tr.331, 333). The record also revealed that Plaintiff worked four to ten hours a week at McDonald’s. (Tr. 39). The record further revealed that medication helped with her anxiety and mental impairments. (Tr. 361). 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. C. 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 -6- AO72A (Rev. 8/82) limitations and to determine how those limitations affect his RFC.” Id. In the present case, the ALJ considered the medical assessments of examining and nonexamining agency medical consultants, Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, and her medical records when he determined Plaintiff could perform light work with limitations. Plaintiff's capacity to perform this level of work is supported by the fact that Plaintiff's examining physicians placed no restrictions on her activities that would preclude performing the RFC determined. See Hutton v. Apfel, 175 F.3d 651, 655 (8th Cir. 1999) (lack of physician-imposed restrictions militates against a finding of total disability). Based on the record as a whole, the Court finds substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s RFC determination. D. 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 her past relevant work as a housekeeper, or other work as a bench assembler, a poultry processer, and a clerical mailer. Pickney v. Chater, 96 F.3d 294, 296 (8th Cir. 1996)(testimony from vocational expert based on properly phrased hypothetical question constitutes substantial evidence). E. Fully and Fairly Develop the Record: An ALJ is required to develop the record fully and fairly. See Freeman v. Apfel, 208 F.3d -7- AO72A (Rev. 8/82) 687, 692 (8th Cir. 2000) (ALJ must order consultative examination only when it is necessary for an informed decision). After reviewing the administrative record, it is clear that the record before the ALJ contained the evidence required to make a full and informed decision regarding Plaintiff’s capabilities during the relevant time period. See Strongson v. Barnhart, 361 F.3d 1066, 1071-72 (8th Cir.2004) (ALJ must develop record fully and fairly to ensure it includes evidence from treating physician, or at least examining physician, addressing impairments at issue). IV. Conclusion: 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 31st day of October, 2013. /s/ Erin L. Setser HON. ERIN L. SETSER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE -8- AO72A (Rev. 8/82)

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