Mason v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on March 11, 2014. (src)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
DAWN LOUISE HARRISON MASON
CIVIL NO. 13-5010
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,1 Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, Dawn Louise Harrison Mason, 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 November 1, 2010,
alleging an inability to work since January 1, 2008, due to seizures, post traumatic stress
disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, sciatic nerve pain, back problems, a suicide
attempt, and diverticulitis. (Tr. 133, 137, 197). An administrative video hearing was held on
July 17, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (Tr. 31-56).
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.
By written decision dated September 14, 2012, the ALJ found that during the relevant
time period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr.
13). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: epilepsy,
depression with anxiety, 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. 13). The ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the
claimant is able to understand, remember and carry out simple, routine, repetitive
tasks, respond to usual work situations and ordinary work changes but requires
supervision that is simple, direct and concrete. She can occasionally interact with
supervisors and coworkers, but have no contact with the general public. She
must avoid work around hazards including heavy moving machinery and
unprotected heights. She cannot drive as a part of work.
(Tr. 15). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work
as a commercial housekeeper, an electronics assembler, and an inspector. (Tr. 23).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
after reviewing additional evidence submitted by Plaintiff, denied that request on November 16,
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. 9). Both parties have filed appeal
briefs, and the case is now ready for decision. (Docs. 12, 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.
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.
When the Appeals Council has considered material new evidence and nonetheless
declined review, the ALJ's decision becomes the final action of the Commissioner. The Court
then has no jurisdiction to review the Appeals Council's action because it is a nonfinal agency
action. See Browning v. Sullivan, 958 F.2d 817, 822 (8th Cir.1992). At this point, the Court’s
task is only to decide whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the
record as a whole, including the new evidence made part of the record by the Appeals Council
that was not before the ALJ. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has
noted, "this [is] a peculiar task for a reviewing court." Riley v. Shalala, 18 F.3d 619, 622 (8th
Cir.1994). However, once it is clear that the Appeals Council considered the new evidence, then
the Court must factor in the evidence and determine whether the ALJ's decision is still supported
by substantial evidence. This requires the Court to speculate on how the ALJ would have
weighed the newly submitted evidence had it been available at the initial hearing. Flynn v.
Chater, 107 F.3d 617, 621 (8th Cir.1997). Thus, the Court has endeavored to perform this
function with respect to the newly submitted evidence.
The new evidence submitted to the Appeals Council reflects Plaintiff arrived at the Mercy
Hospital Northwest Arkansas emergency room by EMS transport on September 30, 2012, after
experiencing two grand mal seizures. (Tr. 1231). The treatment notes stated that possible causes
of Plaintiff’s seizures did not include a medication or dosage change, missed seizure medication,
recent illness or a change in alcohol usage. (Tr. 1232). This medical evidence appears to
indicate that Plaintiff continued to experience seizure activity even when compliant with her
prescribed seizure medication. Had the ALJ had this medical evidence before him when making
his decision on this case, the outcome may very well have been different. Accordingly, the Court
believes that remand is necessary to allow the ALJ to consider this new and material evidence.
On remand, the ALJ is directed to address interrogatories to either an examining or nonexamining physician, preferably Dr. Perez Plaintiff’s treating neurologist, asking that physician
to review Plaintiff's medical records; to complete a RFC assessment regarding Plaintiff's
capabilities during the time period in question; and to give the objective basis for his or her
opinion so that an informed decision can be made regarding Plaintiff's ability to perform basic
work activities on a sustained basis. The ALJ may also order a consultative neurological exam,
in which, the consultative examiner should be asked to review the medical evidence of record,
perform a physical examination and appropriate testing needed to properly diagnosis Plaintiff's
condition, and complete a medical assessment of Plaintiff's ability to perform work related
activities. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1517, 416.917.
With this evidence, the ALJ should then re-evaluate Plaintiff's RFC and specifically list
in a hypothetical to a vocational expert any limitations that are indicated in the RFC assessment
and supported by the evidence.
The undersigned acknowledges that the ALJ=s decision may be the same after proper
analysis. Nonetheless, proper analysis must occur. Groeper v. Sullivan, 932 F.2d 1234, 1239
(8th Cir. 1991).
Accordingly, 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).
DATED this 11th day of March, 2014.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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