Hollingsworth v. Social Security Administration Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Honorable Erin L. Setser on April 30, 2014. (tg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS
CIVIL NO. 13-5035
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner
Social Security Administration
Plaintiff, William Hollingsworth, 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 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 his current applications for DIB and SSI on February 26, 2010,
alleging an inability to work since January 1, 2008, due to back and knee problems, depression,
irritable bowel syndrome, bone spurs, and arthritis. (Tr.110, 117, 150). An administrative video
hearing was held on October 17, 2011, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified.
By written decision dated December 23, 2011, the ALJ found that during the relevant
time period, Plaintiff had an impairment or combination of impairments that were severe. (Tr.
12). Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: rheumatoid
arthritis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 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 (RFC) to:
occasionally lift and/or carry 20 pounds; frequently lift and/or carry 10 pounds;
stand and/or walk at least 6 hours out of an 8 hour work day; sit at least 6 hours
out of an 8 hour work day; all with normal breaks; avoid concentrated exposure
to such things as flumes (sic), odors, dust, gases, and poor ventilation; and no
more than frequent use [of] the hands for such repetitive tasks as key boarding
(Light work is defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)).
(Tr. 13). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform work
as a small product assembler and a bakery worker. (Tr. 17).
Plaintiff then requested a review of the hearing decision by the Appeals Council, which
denied that request on December 21, 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. 6).
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)(c). A Plaintiff must show that his disability, not simply his 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 his 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 his 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 his 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 fairly present the
record when discussing Plaintiff’s impairments and subjective complaints; and 2) the ALJ erred
in determining Plaintiff’s RFC.
Subjective Complaints and Credibility Analysis:
We first address the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's subjective complaints. 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 his pain; (3) precipitating and aggravating factors; (4) dosage,
effectiveness, and side effects of his 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
United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit observed, “Our touchstone is that [a
claimant's] credibility is primarily a matter for the ALJ to decide.” Edwards v. Barnhart, 314
F.3d 964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003).
After reviewing the administrative record, it is clear that the ALJ properly considered and
evaluated Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, including the Polaski factors. The record revealed
that during the relevant time period Plaintiff was able to take care of his personal needs, cut
wood a little at a time, mow with breaks, do some household repairs with breaks, drive a car,
pay bills and count change, spend time with his family, watch television and use a computer.
The medical evidence revealed that Plaintiff has COPD. When discussing Plaintiff’s
respiratory impairment, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff did not seek regular and consistent treatment.
The ALJ also pointed out that despite the repeated recommendations to stop smoking, Plaintiff
continued to smoke, from one to three packages of cigarettes a day, throughout the relevant time
period. See Kisling v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1255, 1257 (8th Cir.1997) (noting that a failure to follow
prescribed treatment may be grounds for denying an application for benefits); Mouser v. Astrue,
545 F.3d 634, 638 (8th Cir. 2008)(where claimant’s smoking had a direct impact on his
impairments, the ALJ appropriately considered claimant’s failure to stop smoking in making his
Plaintiff also indicated that he experienced chronic and continued back and joint pain.
A review of the record revealed that Plaintiff did seek treatment for joint and back pain and that
Plaintiff had an elevated rheumatoid factor. However, the most recent medical record indicated
that Plaintiff was experiencing improvement with his new medication regimen.
The Court would also note that while Plaintiff alleged an inability to seek treatment due
to a lack of finances, the record is void of any indication that Plaintiff had been denied treatment
due to the lack of funds. Murphy v. Sullivan, 953 F.3d 383, 386-87 (8th Cir. 1992) (holding that
lack of evidence that plaintiff sought low-cost medical treatment from her doctor, clinics, or
hospitals does not support plaintiff’s contention of financial hardship). As noted above, the record
revealed that Plaintiff was able to come up with the funds to support his smoking habit
throughout the relevant time period.
Therefore, although it is clear that Plaintiff suffers with some degree of pain, he has not
established that he 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.
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,
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 and nonexamining agency medical consultants, Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, and his medical records
when he determined Plaintiff could perform light work with limitations. 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.
Plaintiff's capacity to perform light work with limitations is also supported by the fact that the
medical evidence does not indicate that Plaintiff's examining physicians placed restrictions on
his 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). Accordingly, the Court finds there is substantial evidence of record to
support the ALJ’s RFC 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 him from performing work as a small product assembler
and a bakery worker. Pickney v. Chater, 96 F.3d 294, 296 (8th Cir. 1996)(testimony from
vocational expert based on properly phrased hypothetical question constitutes substantial
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 April, 2014.
/s/ Erin L. Setser
HON. ERIN L. SETSER
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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